Antony Valencia still remembers the day he was playing in the basement of the family house and noticed a tennis racket. The curious five-year-old asked his mom if he could play with it. She let him hit the ball against the wall for fun.
By age 10, Antony was ranked No. 5 nationally in tennis in the boys 10 and under category in his home country of Italy.
Through his father's connections, he was introduced and evaluated by tennis legend Nick Bollettieri, who realized Antony's potential for success in the sport, and invited him to train at Bollettieri's prestigious Bradenton, Florida facility. Antony's dad took the advice and moved the family to the United States.
"I didn't speak the language. I didn't know anyone," said Valencia. "But my family moved here for me. Such a big commitment. They left everything to come and move here for me."
Valencia continued to work with Coach Bollettieri until he attended high school at the Thom Howard Academy, a small, private school in St. Petersburg, known for its championship tennis teams. There, Valencia won the Florida state tennis title both his junior and senior years of high school.
He tried the professional circuit in Europe after graduation, but after two years of tough competition and life on the road, he decided to go back to school. He came back to the United States and accepted a full college scholarship to play tennis for the University of Miami and Webber College.
Valencia, now married and a father, has worked for the Aviation Authority in the Systems Recovery division of the maintenance department since 2004. He says he enjoys his work with the Aviation Authority and his role in maintaining the airport's state of the art in-line baggage system. The hours that seem brutally early to some allow him to spend a good portion of his day still involved with the game he loves.
That's when he decided it was time to take the advice of his mentors.
"My dad taught me about hard work – he was always working. And my tennis coach, Dr. Howard, taught me about giving back to the sport," said Valencia.
His days begin when the alarm clock rings at 2:45 a.m. to begin his 4 a.m. shift at the airport. After a full day of work, he picks up his son at school and begins his life on the tennis court. The day does often end until after 10 p.m.
Valencia has been the boys' tennis coach at Gaither High School since 2009. He says that his background has helped him be successful in teaching, because he can relate to the students and give them a real world perspective on competing in the sport.
He is also the head tennis pro at the Plantation community in Tampa. He manages the six courts at the facility and gives clinics and lessons daily.
But Valencia considers his most rewarding coaching job the time spent with his son on the tennis court and traveling throughout the state to compete. Dante Valencia, a fourth- grader at Grady Elementary School, is already ranked No. 4 in Florida in the boys 10 and under category.
"It's great to be able to do what you love and share it with your family. I feel like I've come full circle. I appreciate everyone that helped me along the way – and now I can share that with others," said Valencia.