Denise Dy embraces culture, passion and adversity through tennis

Fresno State Women’s Tennis Head Coach Denise Dy during practice on Oct. 19. (Marcos Acosta/ The Collegian)

Denise Dy is paving the way for many Asian American coaches and players in the collegiate field.

Preserving culture is something Dy said she strives for in her team.

“I feel that one of the things that really comes down behind our success is that open-mindedness and in terms of what everybody can do, and basically what our strengths can add into the group,” she said.

Particularly as a Filipino coach and tennis player, Dy has worked to become a role model for other Asian Americans within the industry.

“I think, obviously, having Asian American role models is really tough. It’s almost like we are the first,” she said. “We have to kind of make our own path if for lack of a better word and I think that but at the same time that comes with a good challenge, and I also think that  it gives other people some eyes to kind of understand that.” 

In her own career, Dy is no stranger to being in the spotlight.

In her first stint as Fresno State’s head coach, she led her team to an undefeated 2022 Mountain West (MW) spring season. She was then named MW Coach of the Year.

Despite her early success in her coaching career, her passion for tennis and cultural expectations had clashed when she was a player.

“Both of my parents, especially my mother… [were] very serious with the academic components. Being very serious with school, getting good grades and playing a lot of tennis tournaments caused a lot of disruption with school,” Dy said. “We had to miss a lot of class.”

Denise Dy played for the Huskies in the fall of 2011. (Courtesy of University of Washington Athletics)

Coming from a Filipino family, there often were points where Dy said her family felt it was more important to do school full-time. 

“They’re really serious with school. They didn’t really take sports very seriously. They’re like, ‘It’s not a job.’ I think that was one of the biggest things growing up,” she said.

Dy’s parents immigrated to the U.S. from the Philippines around the late 1970s and early 1980s to San Jose, where she was born and raised. Her passion for tennis began early after her uncle introduced her to the sport when she was 9 years old.

“I loved the strategy aspect of tennis when I was younger [with moving] and being able to be a little bit more active,” she said.

This passion for tennis fueled Dy’s goal to play in a junior grand slam in high school, and at one point, Dy was homeschooled in high school to enable her to pursue her dreams. 

For Dy and her family, one of the biggest challenges was balancing school and tennis while also facing constant expenses to travel for games and equipment.

“There was a lot of pressure on a week-to-week basis to be able to kind of keep doing what I’m doing. Because if it didn’t work, then we would have to enter into Plan B mode,” Dy said. 

But her persistence and dedication paid off. She played in the junior grand slams for the Philippines and represented the country in the Fed Cup. 

She then went on to represent the Philippines at the Southeast Asian (SEA) Games where she won a silver medal in doubles and a bronze in singles in 2009, plus mixed doubles gold medal in 2011 and 2015.

Once she started representing the Philippines at an international level, Dy said it helped her family understand her passion for tennis. 

Dy returned to the U.S. for college, landing in Seattle to play for the University of Washington.

During her time with the Huskies, she was a three-time All-American and was ranked a No. 3 athlete in the country in singles. In doubles, she ranked as high as No. 6.

Now at 33, Dy’s passion to play has transformed into a passion to coach, especially after her own experiences playing collegiate tennis. She started off as an assistant coach for the University of Arizona, the University of Washington and then the University of Iowa.

She finally settled into the head coach position at Fresno State in 2020.

Fresno State Women’s Tennis Head Coach Denise Dy (right) and assistant coach Calvin Song (left). (Courtesy of Fresno State Athletics)

“If you compare [collegiate tennis] to what people do in a professional level, or in the junior level, even in the high school level, it’s really incomparable,” she said. “Just having the individual aspects and then combining that with the team dynamic is just a huge challenge. It’s something where I just have a passion.”

With a team composed of many students from around the world, forming a strong team dynamic is something that requires both motivation and respect, according to Dy.

Cristina Flaquer, a Fresno State senior tennis player from Barcelona, Spain, said the team has become a “big family” under Dy’s guidance.

“We support each other so much because we all are in the same position. We are very far from home and sometimes it is difficult, but with all the support of the team, it is much easier,” Flaquer said. 

Assistant coach Calvin Song said Dy has brought the team significant knowledge about the game both from her own career and time as a coach, and her own emphasis on respecting the culture of those around her brings the players closer together.

“Definitely, there are, I would say, fewer minorities in the coaching world, and I believe… we might be the only, or we might be one of the few, I would say Asian minority coaching staff,” Song said. “But just our values have really helped us bring this team closer together and [be] able to succeed on and off the court.”

Playing tennis and coaching in the U.S. as a minority is something that Dy said is a platform for opportunities.

“That’s the great thing about, not just the Valley, but in the U.S. too, that we can be anything that we want to be,” she said.

Carrying on the legacy of both her Filipino culture and her career through tennis is something that continues to drive Dy, who said that being that person to take the first step into chasing their dreams is something that can help inspire others in college athletics.

“I think at the end of the day, it’s nice, and I think representation is key,” Dy said.
“Whether you’re a woman, you’re a minority or whatever… At the same time it also comes with its challenges, and it comes with challenges when you’re the first one, but there has to be somebody who started.”

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