Long shot Collins to meet Ostapenko

MIAMI, Fla. – The Miami Open women’s event kicked off with Japan’s Naomi Osaka knocking off her all-time favorite player, Serena Williams.

Fast-forward a week, and Williams’s big sister Venus suffered the same fate in the quarterfinals.

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Venus had little left in bowing out to Danielle Collins in a shocker, a 6-2, 6-3 win in which the neophyte broke the Williams serve four times.

March has been Collins’s “Hello, world” month with her efforts at Indian Wells, and now in Miami, a few hours’ drive from her hometown of St. Petersburg, Fla.

“I think all young American girls idolize and look up to Venus and Serena. You know, growing up I watched so many of their matches, and I could really relate to them, just their upbringing. I didn’t have an easy upbringing. I didn’t come from a super-wealthy family, and I wasn’t at the country club every day playing in the little tennis camps with the other little kids. A lot of times I was at public courts playing against adults and asking people to play with me,” Collins said. “I think they kind of went through the same thing, and so that really resonates with me a lot.”

Collins takes it step by step

Collins is one of a rare breed that not only went to college and played tennis – but graduated, with a degree in media studies from the University of Virginia.

She was ranked No. 162 going into the Australian Open in January, where she lost in the final of qualifying after not having played a warmup event.

Collins earned about $65,000 in 2017 in raising her ranking from No. 299. That doesn’t even come close to covering expenses.

But since returning to home soil she has capitalized on the opportunities she has created for herself.

First, Collins won one of the new Oracle Challengers, in Newport Beach, Calif. in late January. She earned $24,000 for the title. But more importantly, she gave herself a big leg up on the chance to earn a wild card into the Indian Wells singles main draw. The best American finisher in the two new events would win it. And in reaching the quarterfinals of the second leg, the week before the main event, she clinched it.

Collins
Collins received her Indian Wells main-draw credential in a ceremony with tournament director Tommy Haas during the Challenger event. She got to the fourth round. (Stephanie Myles/Tennis.Life)

Best-dressed in Miami

Collins took that, and turned it into a fourth-round effort. She defeated Madison Keys along the way, before losing to Carla Suárez Navarro.

In Miami, Collins did it the hard way. With no wild card, she fought her way through the two rounds of qualifying. And then, she fought through a trio of three-setters (against Coco Vandeweghe, Donna Vekic and Monica Puig) to get to Venus.

(On an unrelated note, a player who comes to a big tournament wearing a fresh-looking Lulu Lemon outfit for the first round is thinking big. That company should immediately sign Collins up as an ambassador and pelt her with free gear. She looks like a younger version of the legions of tennis-club ladies for whom Lulu Lemon is the clothing of choice).

Collins
If you can’t be best, be best-dressed. But so far, Collins also has played her best tennis in Miami. (Stephanie Myles/Tennis.Life)

She has gone 18-3, and already has earned more at the Miami Open alone than she had in her entire professional career up to this week. It’s a game-changer.

Williams less than gracious

In the quarterfinals Wednesday night, Collins’s 37-year-old opponent was clearly diminished by several marathon matches coming in. She played her worst match of the Indian Wells – Miami swing. And she wasn’t too gracious afterwards. 

Williams lost to Daria Kasatkina in the Indian Wells semifinal in a hugely entertaining match that went nearly three hours. The young Russian played creative, lights-out tennis. But Williams couldn’t give the 20-year-old a lick of credit. Rather, she attributed the defeat to the number of errors she herself had made.

Venus didn’t have much more to say about Collins, although she did greet her with a gracious smile at the net when it was over.

“It was unlucky for me. I don’t think it was my best night of tennis, but, I mean, there wasn’t a shot she couldn’t make. So that was just, you know, of course one of those days,” Williams said. “I mean, she played very well and aggressively, and she went for every shot and it landed. I mean, there’s going to be some days where they don’t land, but that wasn’t today.”

But that’s just one side of the court. As much as Venus visibly did struggle, Collins was charting new territory.

She was in a pressure-packed situation, at a major event, playing before the biggest gathering of friends and family she had ever enjoyed. And she was on television, and in a stadium filled with people. Not to mention she was playing a legend. And it was windy.

It was the biggest match of her professional career so far. And Collins’ ability to keep her composure, to barely stutter as she went on to a straight-sets victory, was the most impressive part of the win.

And it will serve her well going forward.

Miami result a game-changer

Collins’ ranking will be just outside the top 50 on Monday even if she loses in the semifinals. If she beats Jelena Ostapenko, she would be somewhere around No. 35.

That effort ensures she’ll be straight into all the Grand Slam events, and be close to being straight in to all the other big tournaments of the season. There’s some guaranteed income attached to that – some $200,000 even if she loses in the first round of the majors alone.

And that means, if she’s as smart as she says she is, she will have the means to invest in herself to become an even better player.

It’s a long way from the courts in Roehampton last June, when she lost in straight sets in the first round of Wimbledon qualifying to 21-year-old Rebecca Sramkova of Slovakia, ranked No. 152 to her No. 164.

Bollettieri, the guardian angel

Collins’ college degree and public-parks story will get a lot of play over the next few days and weeks. But with her, as with so many players who get to the pro level, there were breaks.

In her case, it was Nick Bollettieri. The legendary tennis guru saw her ability and gave her an opportunity she couldn’t afford, to train at the IMG Academy at age 15. She parlayed that into a full ride at the University of Virginia.

It was the only move at the time, because Collins was hardly a standout junior. She never came close to the junior Slam level; her career high junior ranking was … No. 430.

Other than one great run at a low-level ITF event, she played little at the national or international level. Her only appearances came via wild cards, such as the two she received for the Eddie Herr, which was hosted at her home academy.

Focus on education

Collins took the college opportunity and time and used it to become a better player, one who could compete at the world level. And unlike most of the players who go the college route, she didn’t spent her summers and school breaks playing ITF tournaments.

Even after she won the NCAAs the first time in 2014 (she won them again in 2016), she didn’t do the expected and turn pro.

“I didn’t really have second thoughts, to be honest, because, you know, it cost over $50,000 a year when you’re out of state to go to University of Virginia, and I was really happy going to college and being on a team and being in the classroom, and I really wanted to get a degree.” she said. “I knew when I was going to go to college I was going to finish it out.”

The fact that Collins had so little junior and pro experience before setting out as a full-time pro a year and a half ago makes her results this year even more astonishing. She still hasn’t even been graced with a mug shot on the ITF website.

Between Feb. 2012 and May 2016 – more than four years – she played just two pro events. Actually, make that two pro matches.

Collins received wild cards into the qualifying in New Haven and the main draw at the US Open in 2014 by virtue of being the NCAA singles champion. She lost to Su-Wei Hsieh in New Haven, and took Simona Halep to three sets in the first round of the US Open.

After that, she didn’t play a pro event for nearly two more years.

Whether the American can take that next step, and compete against the best in the world week after week after week, is what she’ll find out about herself in the coming months. Because she will now have those opportunities.

Early meeting with Ostapenko

Interestingly, when Collins did play girls who are now near the top of the WTA rankings as a junior, she fared well.

Collins first played the Eddie Herr in 2009, shortly before she turned 16. She won three qualifying rounds and then met 15-year-old Daria Gavrilova, currently ranked No. 26.

She lost in a third-set tiebreak.

Two years later, a week short of 18, Collins met a precocious 14-year-old from Latvia in the first round of that same event.

Despite her tender years, Ostapenko’s junior ranking was already high enough that she was straight into the draw, while Collins needed another wild card.

Collins won, 3-6, 6-4, 6-4.

(Photos from the 2011 Eddie Herr courtesy of Colette Lewis/Zoo Tennis)

She doesn’t remember much.

“We were on a clay court. We had a lot of long points. I won the match. So that’s all I can really remember, to be honest,” she said.

The two have not met since.

As Ostapenko was winning the French Open early last June, Collins also was winning a title. Except hers was a $25,000 ITF event in Bethany Beach, Delaware.

They will play late tonight in Miami for the chance to reach the finals of one of the biggest tournaments of the season, outside the Grand Slams.

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