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Danielle Collins: From college wilderness to Grand Slam semi-finalist

Andrew Hendrie in WTA Tour 23 Jan 2019
  • Danielle Collins' run to the Australian Open semi-finals has been one of the stories of the tournament
  • The American had never previously won a Grand Slam match before this tournament
  • This time last year, she'd never won a tour-level match
Danielle Collins (Photo by SAEED KHAN/AFP/Getty Images)

A little over five years ago, Danielle Collins couldn’t even get a gig on the University of Florida college tennis team. Today, she’s preparing for her first Grand Slam semi-final in a remarkable journey of perseverance.

To quote Robert Frost, 25-year-old American breakout star Danielle Collins took the road less travelled when it comes to forging a path to the top of professional tennis, but her unconventional rise through the ranks is paying the ultimate dividends today as she gets ready for the biggest match of her life against Petra Kvitova in the Australian Open semi-finals on Thursday.

Growing up in St. Petersburg, Florida, without the lavish lifestyle that a lot of junior tennis prodigies are blessed with, Collins began hitting tennis balls at the age of six when her father Wally started taking her to the local courts. Developing an obvious talent, Collins started entering junior tournaments around the United States and swiftly announced herself as one of the most talented junior girls in the country. However, in order to keep moving up the junior rankings (much like the WTA Tour), you need to travel around the world to play in a whole bunch of other tournaments, but Collins was unable to follow her contemporaries as they globe-trotted the world honing their skills and enhancing their reputation.

"We are a lower middle-class family and I just didn't have the money to do that and I was kind of forced to play tournaments that were more within our budget," Collins told ESPN last year.

Restricted to the USA, Collins decided she wanted to utilise her tennis talent by gaining an education at the same time, so she turned her attention to college tennis, where she’d witnessed an unlimited conveyer belt of football and basketball stars forge a path into the professional sporting landscape.

Danielle Collins during her run to the Miami Open semi-finals in 2018 (Photo by Matthew Stockman/Getty Images)
No shortage of schools immediately attempted to recruit her, with Collins eventually deciding to accept an offer from the University of Florida. She was on the tennis team for a year before pulling the plug and transferring to the University of Virginia because she wasn’t getting enough playing time. You could say Collins’ present-day success can be traced back to that decision - she immediately received a call-up to play in all the significant tournaments, and in 2016 - after dealing with some injury issues, including undergoing wrist surgery to remove a floating bone - she graduated as the No. 1 college player in the United States and a two-time NCAA singles champion.

Having carved out a successful college career and, just as importantly, gaining a degree in Media Studies and a master’s degree in business, Collins finally turned her attention to the WTA Tour in her mid-twenties - a few years later than the bulk of the tour, but with an unrivalled passion, determination and relentless spirit to succeed. After breaking into the world’s top 200 in 2017 after winning a pair of ITF titles, Collins took her game to the next level in 2018, when after winning the WTA $125k Series crown in Newport Beach, she earned her first WTA Tour wins at the Premier Mandatory BNP Paribas Open at Indian Wells, taking out former US Open finalist Madison Keys on her way to the fourth round.

However, that run would ultimately be a mere curtain-raiser to her exploits the following week at the Miami Open, where Collins qualified for the main draw and put together a stunning run all the way to the semi-finals, taking out the likes of Venus Williams, CoCo Vandeweghe, Monica Puig and Donna Vekic before going down to reigning French Open winner Jelena Ostapenko. All of a sudden, Collins was ranked inside the top 50 and a direct entrant into the four Grand Slams.

Despite becoming a fully-fledged professional, Collins was still focused on her life outside of tennis, and throughout 2018, she worked on own business, and in the next couple of months, she will debut her own jewellery line: Danielle Collins Jewellery.

While Collins is intelligently ensuring she has a fall-back option for when her tennis career comes to an end, the 25-year-old is right now 100 per cent engaged in her tennis - and why wouldn’t she be. In one of the more extraordinary Grand Slam stories since the turn of the century, Collins has compiled a jaw-dropping run to the Australian Open semi-finals over the last fortnight - having previously never won a single match at Grand Slam level before the tournament.

Indeed, Collins was in big danger of another first round elimination when she came up against Auckland champion Julia Goerges, coming back from a set-and-a-break down as the German served for the match in the second set to ultimately prevail 2-6 7-6(5) 6-4. From there, Collins has gone on a tear, beating Sachia Vickery, Caroline Garcia and World No. 2 Angelique Kerber without dropping a set, crushing the 2016 Australian Open champion in the fourth round for the loss of just two games. Far from content, Collins overcame a sluggish start to steamroll over the top of Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova in Tuesday’s quarter-finals, coming away with a 2-6 7-5 6-1 victory to set up a semi-final showdown with Petra Kvitova.

Danielle Collins celebrates her win in the Australian Open quarter-finals over Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova (Photo by DAVID GRAY/AFP/Getty Images)
Collins credits her unprivileged upbringing and unorthodox route into professional tennis as the catalyst for her sudden success down under.

"I think not being a child prodigy, not being a superstar at a young age certainly humbled me, made me in a way work harder for things.
"I think I was talented and athletic, but maybe not to the level that other players were at, like, 14, 15, 16. I went a different route. I wasn't really sure if I could make it playing professional tennis when I was that age.
"Going to college was really crucial for me and my development. I think it's kind of made me hungrier in some ways, like not having that, 'Oh, I've always been really amazing at tennis'. It wasn't always like that." 

Now, standing between Collins and a place in the Australian Open final is Sydney champion Petra Kvitova, who is enjoying a cinderella story of her own at Melbourne Park after reaching her first Grand Slam semi-final since surviving a horrific home invasion in her residence in Prague at the end of 2016 that could have ended her career.

They played at the start of the year in Brisbane, with Kvitova pulling off a hard-fought three-set victory in the first round.

"I played Kvitova once a couple weeks ago and she's tricky because she's a lefty. I followed a lot of her career. She's an incredible champion, has gone through a lot.
"We had a really great battle a couple weeks ago, one of the best matches I've played. I didn't even win that match. So I'm very familiar with her."

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Danielle Collins: From college wilderness to Grand Slam semi-finalist

A little over five years ago, Danielle Collins couldn’t even get a gig on the University of Florida college tennis team. Today, she’s preparing for her first Grand Slam semi-final in a remarkable journey of perseverance.

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