Athlete of the Week: Criss Rodriguez

Cuban-born star tennis player shines in her pursuit of the American Dream

Tennis star Criss Rodriguez, a Santa Monica College sophomore who is studying sports psychology, is ready to lead her team to a doubles championship at the Southern California Regional Playoffs, but she hasn’t forgotten the road that led her there.

"One of my greatest sports memories was when we won the state championship,” said Rodriguez about being the 2011 state doubles champion. “It was a very emotional moment for the team. All the hard work had finally paid off."

Born in Havana, Cuba, Rodriguez is the only child of professional tennis player Roberto Rodriguez and tennis coach Anayansi Velazquez. Her parents met while playing tennis in Cuba, but divorced when Rodriguez was only two years old, leaving her in Cuba with Velazquez, while her father went on to pursue his tennis dreams.

Roberto Rodriguez played for the Cuban National tennis team in the late ’80s, and continued his tournament play in tennis upon his move to California. He eventually became the top-ranked tennis player in California during the years 1998 to 2003. Criss Rodriguez picked up her first racket at the age of four.

As Rodriguez was growing up, Velazquez would bring her along to her tennis-coaching sessions because she had no one to watch her daughter.

"My mother was a big part of the reason of why I love tennis,” said Rodriguez. “I would have never grown to love it, if it wasn't for her."

In 2006, Rodriguez was the youngest person to be selected for the Cuban national team. At the age of 12, she earned a spot to compete in the Federation Cup.

"It was a great experience to be the only one selected from my state in Cuba,” said Rodriguez. “Although I was the youngest one, I didn't get to play. But it was a great honor to represent my country."

One year later, Rodriguez and Velazquez, who had then remarried, capitalized on an opportunity to leave Cuba after having been selected in a visa lottery to move to the United States.

Rodriguez moved to Miami, Fla. with her mother, stepfather and stepbrother.

After only a year, Rodriguez decided to move to California to live with her father.

It was difficult for Rodriguez to readjust after leaving her family in Florida, and having to learn to embrace a new language and culture.

One of the things that really inspired her was a book by Paulo Coelho called “The Alchemist” that her father had given to her when she first moved to California.

"My father gave me this book when I first moved in with him, and I was going through big changes in my life,” said Rodriguez. “It taught me to never to give up on my dreams.”

"One of my favorite quotes from the book is ‘remember that wherever your heart is; there you will find your treasure.’"

Her father became a big influence in her life, filling in as a mentor and coach, and teaching her all the skills she needed to excel as a tennis player.

In 2010, Rodriguez decided to attend SMC, and landed a spot on the women’s tennis team.

Rodriguez was named to the Intercollegiate Tennis Association's All America team for both singles and doubles, and led her team to the California State Championship.

Rodriguez and her partner Krystal Hansard were ranked sixth overall in the state, and finished as the number one doubles team in California in 2011.

Rodriguez is captain of the 2012 team, and the only returning senior from last year's state championship team.

This year, Rodriguez and her partner Juliana Nelkin are ranked fourth in the doubles category of the Western State Conference. Rodriguez is also ranked fifth in the singles division in California.

Even though this year’s team did not make the playoffs, Rodriguez and partner Julia Nelkin qualified for the Southern California Regional Playoffs that are to be held in Palm Desert, Calif. on May 3-5.

If they win, they will advance to the state tournament in San Diego scheduled for May 11-12.