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St. Pete’s Danielle Collins took a hard, but rewarding, road to tennis stardom

Playing in her first Grand Slam final this weekend at the Australian Open, Collins is now the top-ranked American in the sport.
Known for her fiery persona on the court, Danielle Collins has been oddly relaxed while reaching the final of the Australian Open for her first shot at a Grand Slam title.
Known for her fiery persona on the court, Danielle Collins has been oddly relaxed while reaching the final of the Australian Open for her first shot at a Grand Slam title. [ HAMISH BLAIR | Associated Press ]
Published Jan. 28|Updated Jan. 28

Common sense says this is a mismatch. A tough break for an aspiring champion.

In the first Grand Slam final of her career, St. Petersburg’s Danielle Collins was unlucky enough to draw Ashleigh Barty, the No. 1-ranked player in women’s tennis.

On Barty’s home turf in the Australian Open.

Where an Australian player has not won in 44 years.

Yup, sometimes, the odds are just stacked against you. The gods laugh at your misfortune, and destiny spits in your direction. Sometimes, fate chooses an opponent with a vengeance.

So why is Collins still smiling?

When you see her news conferences from Melbourne, why does she seem so relaxed? As you watched her cruise through the semifinals, why was this player with the fierce reputation and nicknames, such as the Danimal or DanYell, looking ever so cool?

Could it be that Collins has stared down tougher opponents than this?

Could it be that the kid who grew up playing on public courts in St. Pete because the country clubs were too expensive, or the prep star who went to college because she wasn’t a tennis prodigy, or the fledgling pro who endured years of pain while fighting endometriosis, is tougher than anyone knows?

“I think the most gratifying part of it all is thinking back to how many early mornings my dad got up with me to go practice before I went to school,” Collins said during an Australian Open news conference. “I remember one time when my dad had a cold, he didn’t want to get out of bed. I cried. I said, ‘Please, I want to go practice.’

“I remember him getting on the bike and accompanying me on my run when he didn’t feel well. Being able to share those moments with my parents, just thinking back on all of the hard work they allowed me to do. They were the ones that drove me to practice, tried to provide me with the best resources in the area, to get me in with the best coaches and players.”

Danielle Collins plays a backhand return to Iga Swiatek during their semifinal match at the Australian Open.
Danielle Collins plays a backhand return to Iga Swiatek during their semifinal match at the Australian Open. [ HAMISH BLAIR | Associated Press ]

Her father, Walter, ran a landscape business. Her mother, Cathy, was a school teacher, and Collins was a late bloomer. While the rest of the tennis savants were traveling the globe in their teens, Collins took a circuitous route to fame. A two-time NCAA champion at Virginia, Collins didn’t join the tour full time until she was 24 and began that year ranked somewhere around No. 150 in the world.

She had a breakthrough in 2018 and reached the semifinals of the Australian Open in 2019 but seemed to plateau after that. Collins finished three successive years ranked 36, 31 and 45 without ever winning a tournament. She was good, but she was not yet a threat to the sport’s elite.

Then came the diagnosis that temporarily derailed but eventually freed her career. After years of being told that the intense pain she was feeling during her menstrual cycle was normal, Collins finally learned that she was suffering from endometriosis.

She had surgery nine months ago and a tennis ball-sized cyst was removed from her ovaries, as well as other material cleaned out of her bowel and bladder. Three months later, she won back-to-back tournaments for her first victories on the WTA Tour.

Now, win or lose in Australia on Saturday morning, Collins will crack the world’s top 10 for the first time and will be the highest-ranked American on tour.

“It finally got to the point where I couldn’t deal any longer with it physically or mentally,” Collins said in Australia this week. “Once I was able to get the proper diagnosis and the surgery, it’s helped me so much, not just from a physical standpoint but from a mental standpoint.

“When you’re dealing with that type of physical pain multiple weeks out of the month, you’re not putting yourself in a position to be able to perform consistently.”

Danielle Collins reacts after winning a point against Iga Swiatek during the Australian Open semis.
Danielle Collins reacts after winning a point against Iga Swiatek during the Australian Open semis. [ HAMISH BLAIR | Associated Press ]

Since the surgery, the fiery reputation Collins had developed on the court has cooled somewhat. Her game has grown more rounded while she has maintained her signature power shots.

No. 7 seed Iga Swiatek, who lost to Collins in straight sets Thursday in the Australian semifinals, said it was unnerving to see returns coming back so quickly.

“I was prepared for her playing an aggressive game, but I think that was the fastest ball I have ever played against in a match,” she told reporters in Melbourne.

Now, at 28, Collins has a chance for the first Grand Slam title of her career. It is not the normal trajectory — in the past 20 years only four women have won their first Grand Slam at a later age — but Collins has never gone the conventional route.

The crowd will be on Barty’s side, and the odds will, too.

But if we’ve learned anything about Danielle Collins as she has climbed the tennis rankings, it’s that you never want to count her out.

John Romano can be reached at jromano@tampabay.com. Follow @romano_tbtimes.

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