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Australian Open loss is a beginning, not the end, for Danielle Collins

John Romano | The St. Petersburg native has persevered throughout her career and will be back in future Grand Slam tournaments.
Danielle Collins briefly got emotional while talking of the friends and colleagues who have helped her rise from near-obscurity to the final of the Australian Open where she lost to Ash Barty on Saturday.
Danielle Collins briefly got emotional while talking of the friends and colleagues who have helped her rise from near-obscurity to the final of the Australian Open where she lost to Ash Barty on Saturday. [ HAMISH BLAIR | Associated Press ]
Published Jan. 29

The tournament has ended, but the story goes on. Danielle Collins is not the Australian Open champion — Ash Barty beat her 6-3, 7-6 (7-2) early Saturday morning — but that’s just a minor plot twist. It arrives somewhere after the struggle but shortly before the breakthrough.

And that breakthrough will come. If not in Melbourne, then in Paris. If not in Wimbledon, then in New York. Sooner or later, Collins will have a second shot at a Grand Slam title.

Is that just fanciful thinking? Maybe it is. After all, the St. Petersburg native is already 28 and, if you’re talented enough to win a major, you’ve usually claimed one by now.

But after watching Collins push, struggle, shout, surge and ultimately fall short during ESPN’s broadcast, it’s not so difficult to imagine her one day holding an iconic trophy above her head.

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

“Right now, I’m disappointed,” Collins said at a news conference following the tournament. “But I think we’re going to have some time to celebrate everything that I accomplished this week with the people here supporting me. And it’s a great moment for me, regardless of the outcome today.”

For a short time on Saturday, it felt like the moment had already arrived.

Collins was a 50-to-1 longshot when the tournament began two weeks ago, but the odds rarely consider the resilience of a player’s heart.

Danielle Collins plays a backhand return to Ash Barty during the women's singles final at the Australian Open.
Danielle Collins plays a backhand return to Ash Barty during the women's singles final at the Australian Open. [ HAMISH BLAIR | Associated Press ]

Collins is the former Northeast High standout who grew up hitting balls off walls in public parks in St. Petersburg. She’s the competitor who won her first NCAA title at Virginia as the No. 32 seed in 2014, then came back and won again in 2016. She’s the pro who battled crippling pain from endometriosis for two years before having surgery last April to remove a tennis ball-sized cyst from her ovaries.

So when Collins lost the first set in 33 minutes on Saturday, there was no resignation in her eyes. It didn’t matter that Barty, an Australian native, is the No. 1 player in the world, and had not lost a set in the tournament. It didn’t matter that eager fans inside Rod Laver Stadium had been waiting 44 years for a native to win the hometown tournament.

Collins immediately came back to break Barty’s serve to begin the second set and her fierce reputation began to emerge. She turned, pumped her fist and shouted after the first break, and later directed another shout in the direction of a fan who had heckled her serve.

“It’s not easy going out and playing someone pretty much on their home court in the finals of a major, but this is what you live for in sports, right?’’ Collins said. “These are incredible moments that you don’t get to experience very often. And it was a real honor to be out there. I tried to embrace every moment, I tried to get the crowd fired up, I tried to get myself into it.”

She broke Barty’s serve again later in the second set and built a 5-1 lead, leaving the crowd on edge and the tournament’s storybook ending in doubt. But, serving two different games to win the set, Collins struggled putting her first serve in play as Barty stormed back for a 5-5 tie.

“I’m learning a lot of things along the way,” Collins said. “And Ash certainly taught me a lot of things today on court.”

Danielle Collins reacts after winning a point in the Australian Open final.
Danielle Collins reacts after winning a point in the Australian Open final. [ ANDY BROWNBILL | Associated Press ]

Was it the back pain that had been bothering her since playing singles/doubles matches in succession earlier in the tournament? That certainly didn’t help.

But, in the end, Barty was simply too overpowering. She won 82 percent of her points when getting her first serve in play, and she finished the match with 30 winners compared to 17 for Collins.

Collins, who did not sit down during breaks to avoid back spasms, seemed utterly spent by the end of the 87-minute match.

Still, she’ll wake up Sunday morning in Melbourne in the top 10 of the world rankings for the first time and as the highest-rated American in tennis. She’ll also be $1.1 million richer, which is not insignificant for a player without a shoe or clothing deal.

It’s a far cry from the player who was struggling to make it out of the first round of tournaments with $25,000 total purses in 2017, something she recently revisited with friend and mentor Marty Schneider.

“A few nights ago (we) were joking about some tournament he had attended with me — $25,000 in Orlando where I did not have the best performance,” Collins said. “Thinking about the way I’m playing now versus then. It seems like a lifetime ago, but it really wasn’t that long ago.”

Yes, this is the story of the working class.

The landscapers, the teachers, the kids who play on public courts. Danielle Collins is your inspiration.

This is the story of the dreamers.

The competitors who don’t start off with headlines or endorsement deals or high-powered agents and coaches. Danielle Collins is your vindication.

This is the story of the fighters.

The ones who do not let setbacks, injuries or raucous crowds hold them down. Danielle Collins will one day be your champion.

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

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