MELBOURNE—The word talent is often associated with qualities found in art museums. Tennis’ avatar is Roger Federer—smooth of swing and walk, elegant in dress, posture, even hair.
But as Billie Jean King once said, “Persistence is a talent.”
Given King’s assertion, one of the most talented people still in contention at this year’s Australian Open is 25-year-old American Danielle Collins.
Said Collins, a two-time NCAA singles champion while at the University of Virginia, “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. It made me kind of have to in some ways I don't want to say work harder, but I was kind of like playing from behind because I wasn't a child prodigy.”
In her first appearance in the main draw of the tournament, 0-5 at all majors until this year’s Australian Open, Collins today made her way into the semis with what proved to be a resounding win over 44th-ranked Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova. The very score revealed persistence: 2-6, 7-5, 6-1.
“I really got it together in the third set and went out with confidence,” said Collins, “kind of cleaned some areas of my game up.”
As late as the final stages of the second set, it was hard to think it would end so swiftly. Collins had led 5-2, but upon serving for the set at 5-3, played a terrible game. As matters grew tighter, Collins was hardly the happy warrior. And even once she captured the set, breaking Pavlyuchenkova after at 14-point, three-deuce game, the conventional thinking—based on each playing a very similar brand of power baseline tennis—was that the third would be tight. Though Collins possessed the ethereal but genuine quality known as momentum, Pavlyuchenkova had the edge in the experience department, having played 194 three-set matches (108-88) to just 16 for Collins (10-6).
Having earnestly labored on Laver, Collins begin the third set on fire. Closing out a love hold in the opening game with a 106-M.P.H. ace down the T, Collins handily broke Pavlyuchenkova at 15, held again at love (another closing ace) and earned a double-break at 15. Another love hold for 5-0 (this time ending it with two aces) meant that Collins had commenced the third by winning a remarkable 20-of-23 points. Two games later, on her third match point, Collins closed it out.
Collins’ view of the third set intrigued. Given that her college education is a distinguishing part of her story, we will use the true-false test methodology to evaluate several of her post-match comments.
“I knew that she was nervous.”
True. Was this classic tennis player logic, of someone who’d never even won a match prior to 2019 going up against someone who’d won 59?
“It looks like she’s playing really loose tennis,” said Payluchenkova, who in her sixth trip to a Slam quarter (0-5) was perhaps anxious about what it was going to take to at last reach a semi.
“I knew that she was physically deteriorating.”
True, particularly given that Sunday night Pavlyuchenkova had beaten fifth-seeded Sloane Stephens in a late-night epic.
“I decided that I wanted to play some long points, extend some rallies.”
False. Were we watching the same match? In these rapid-fire five games that began the final set, only one rally lasted more than seven total shots.
“I went after my shots at the right time.”
True. In the third set, Collins had 13 winners and only one unforced error. And in the match she hit 38 winners to a reasonable 20 unforced errors (Pavyluchenkova’s tally was a frustrating 36 to 36).
Long ago, back in 2006 and 2007, Pavlyuchenkova had won two consecutive Australian Open junior titles. This was her 45th main career draw appearance in a major, her best efforts to date four trips to the quarters. Perhaps the possibility of at last reaching a semi gave her pause as the third set began. Or was she merely unable to derail Collins?
“She was just better,” said Pavlyuchenkova, “she’s going for it and she’s not afraid.”
Speaking of Collins, my Tennis Channel colleague Martina Navratilova said, “She’s feisty as heck—I love it.”
As Collins has shown all tournament, persistence is often wed to another lesser-known, but arguably unteachable talent: passion.
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