MELBOURNE, Australia – The world of women’s tennis hasn’t seen anyone quite like American Danielle Collins for a long time.
She’s fiery, this one. Feisty. Full of belief. And those are qualities far too rare on a Tour that too often exposes the lack of same from some very gifted athletes.
That belief didn’t just come this fortnight Down Under. And Collins’s in-your-face way of doing business is doubly effective when she’s on court against an opponent not similarly blessed.
Her insightful dissection of game plan and feelings, expressed with no apparent concern about how much she might be giving away or how it might be received, is another refreshing addition.
(And, of course, it’s escaped no one’s notice that she’s a tall, very attractive blonde with big blue eyes. We mention this not because it makes a whit of difference to her tennis. But it has – and will – make a big difference in the attention she receives and how she can maximize it going forward).
But right now, most of all, Collins is a rookie Australian Open semifinalist.
At 25, this is the first time she has even played the Australian Open, as her professional career began relatively late by WTA standards because of a highly successful stint in college.
Collins didn’t just do well in tennis at the University of Virginia. She also graduated with a degree in media studies.
Win after impressive win
The biggest surprise for Collins during this Australian Open wasn’t so much the 2-6, 7-5, 6-1 win over Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova Tuesday.
That was arguably not even top three.
Collins was down and almost out against Julia Goerges in the first round. The No. 14 seed has been in form after winning the tuneup title in Auckland. But the American pulled off a 2-6, 7-6 (5), 6-4 win in that one.
And then in the third round, the rolled over No. 19 seed Caroline Garcia. That was good. But then she coughed up just two games to former champion and No. 2 seed Angelique Kerber.
On Tuesday, Pavlyuchenkova started quickly.
“Today she didn’t really give me an opportunity in that first set to allow me to really take control. I think she was playing really well. I kind of had to make some adjustments within my game,” Collins said.
“Even though the set was 6-2, it took an hour. I felt like it was very close, regardless of the score. I told myself, ‘Hey, if I can just give a little bit more, 10 per cent or 15 per cent, I have an opportunity. Yeah, I stayed positive through that and kind of weathered the storm,” she added.
The game Collins plays can accurately be described as well-rounded. She’s a good athlete. She hits the ball hard from both sides. She serves well. And she doesn’t shy away from opportunities to come forward. Best of all – and perhaps this was fine-tuned in the college system with coaching close at hand and a format that requires you to adjust or perish – she has awareness.
When he’s all clicking, she’s an opponent to be reckoned with.
“The second set, … I was trying to extend the points, make it more physical. There were some tight situations. So that made it even more challenging. She was playing really great tennis. That had every ounce to do with that. Then in the third set, I knew that she was nervous. I knew that she was physically deteriorating. So I decided that I wanted to play some long points, extend some rallies. And I went after my shots at the right time,” Collins said.
“I think making some technical adjustments with my feet, with my court positioning. I think being a little bit quicker, recognizing the patterns that she was coming up with. She was coming up with some really incredible plays, doing some maybe things differently that my other opponents hadn’t been doing. I was staying tough in the moment and playing some longer points that I hadn’t played in the last couple matches.”
Collins also made the adjustments she needed to with her string tension. She realized he was missing some shots by very little, especially with the new balls. And she made sure she went to fresh (tighter) string jobs more frequently, before she fell behind too much.
In the end, her lack of experience, combined with her self-belief, was the winning formula. For Pavlyuchenkova, just two years older but in her 15th year as a pro, the quarterfinal ceiling is one she has yet to break through.
It doesn’t get easier each time she gets there. And drawing an unseeded player in her first Australian Open for an opportunity to get to the Final Four was both blessing and curse.
The pressure of the prodigy
Pavlyuchenkova was everything Collins was not as a kid: a genuine prodigy.
She became the No. 1 junior in the world back in 2006 after winning the Australian Open junior girls’ title over Caroline Wozniacki in the final. She also won the girls’ doubles with Canada’s Sharon Fichman. Pavlyuchenkova went 18-0 through three tournaments Down Under, dropping just two sets. Later, she got to the French Open junior final (losing to Agnieszka Radwanska) and won the doubles over Radwanska and Wozniacki, again with Fichman.
She won the US Open juniors that year, too. And went for the calendar Grand Slam in doubles before losing in the final. And she won the Australian Open juniors again in 2017.
All of this long before turning 16. She reached her career high ranking of No. 13 the day after her 20th birthday in 2011.
She has played every single major since the 2008 French Open. But until this week, she had reached the quarterfinal stage just four times – once at each event. The pressure she was putting on herself to finally get through that door was palpable as the match went on.
Collins didn’t come in carrying any of that baggage. She veritably danced around the court as Pavlyuchenkova shuffled.
As well, Pavlyuchenkova had a very tough win over Sloane Stephens that ended far, far too early in the morning. She just didn’t have enough gas left in the tank for the third set. And Collins knew it.
Not her first big splash
A year ago at this time, Collins was playing the Newport Beach Challenger. That’s the tournament that features Yanina Wickmayer, Varvara Lepchenko, Tatjana Maria and Genie Bouchard this year.
She was working on winning the Indian Wells wild card that went to the highest-performing American during the Oracle Series. And she won it, beating Madison Keys on her way to the fourth round of the big event. Next up, in Miami – still having to qualify because of the lag time with the ranking – she did even better.
Collin went from the qualies to the semis, beating Coco Vandeweghe and Venus Williams before bowing to Jelena Ostapenko.
She began that stretch ranked No. 119 and, by the end of it, was knocking on the door of the top 50.
But it didn’t carry through the spring and summer – especially Grand Slams. And her first WTA fall Asian swing didn’t produce a lot of results, either.
So Collins arrived in Melbourne looking for her first career win in a Grand Slam main draw.
“When I lost at the French Open, I played Wozniacki. And when I lost at Wimbledon, I played Mertens. When I lost at the US Open, I played Sabalenka. So I lost to some really good players. I did everything I could those days,” Collins said.
“I think I’ve gained more experience in the last year, which is great. Yeah, I don’t think much has really changed. I think I’m just getting a little bit different outcome. That’s based off of the hard work that’s been put in in the past, just having faith in what I’m doing.”
She didn’t just post her first win, she has posted her first five Slam wins.
Next up is Petra Kvitova, who looked nigh-on unbeatable in sending local favorite Ashleigh Barty out of the tournament Tuesday night.
The two had a battle in the first match of their respective seasons. Kvitova won the Brisbane barnburner 6-7(6), 7-6(6) 6-3.
If their Australian Open semifinal on Thursday – to be played on a day when the forecast high is exactly body temperature, 37C (98.6 F) – comes even close, that’s a hugely promising prospect.