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More than a meme, Danielle Collins embraces authenticity at US Open
The fiery fourth-ranked American has found new balance with coach Jared Jacobs, making the 2022 Australian Open finalist one to watch in Flushing Meadows.
Published Aug 28, 2023
WATCH: Collins pushed Swiatek to three sets at the Omnium Banque Nationale earlier this summer.
NEW YORK—“So much of what gets covered are moments we don’t get everything perfect,” concludes Danielle Collins. “Everyone strives to be their best and to be a good person, but a lot of times it’s hard when you have so much negative energy being thrown at you, or people fixating on things that aren’t necessarily a true representation of your character, who you are as a person.
“Unfortunately, those positive stories don’t end up getting covered.”
Don’t worry, Danielle. This is a positive story: about one of the biggest personalities in women’s tennis; about an athlete yearning for balance; about a woman striving for self-improvement while refusing to put a game before her own happiness.
A former Grand Slam finalist, the fourth-highest ranked American is unseeded in her eighth US Open appearance, largely a result of selective scheduling that is as much about mental health as physical.
“I love playing tennis, but it would be really challenging to play some of the more demanding schedules that some of the other players play,” she tells me after a win at the Western & Southern Open. “It would be difficult for me to be in the headspace and in the positive mindset that I am in if I was traveling that much and spending that much time away from home. I’m able to know when I need to take a couple weeks off to just chill out and spend time with friends, family, loved ones, and not really focus on the tennis as much.”
I’ve been really feeling like myself on court, showing a lot of positive, outward emotions. But I did have to spend time working on that, because there was a period where I was feeling kind of down. Danielle Collins
It may be difficult to reconcile this zen approach with Collins’ intense on-court persona, and for a while, the former world No. 7 let that side dictate her career. It was only after a double-diagnosis of rheumatoid arthritis and endometriosis that Collins was forced to unclench her fists. This season, she only played one tournament between Miami and Roland Garros; after a busy summer, she will return home to her four dogs (Quincy, Lola, Scout, and Harper)—unlikely to play more than her average 17 events.
“Maybe if I did play more tournaments, I could have more wins! Sometimes I do wish I could be one of those tennis machines who goes out and plays hundreds of matches. That’s just not me.
“I know a lot of other players are so driven and motivated that they don’t know when to hit the off button, and that’s something I’ve never really struggled with. The balance is just so key for me.”
Charged with maintaining that balance is old friend but new coach Jared Jacobs, who took Collins on full time in Paris. Introduced by mutual friend Bethanie Mattek-Sands, the Penn grad often watched Collins, a UVA alum, from afar, admiring her fiery on-court demeanor and texting advice after matches. By the US Open swing, Collins is playing the tennis that had her in the Top 10 only last summer, looking and sounding more like herself as she pushes world No. 1 Iga Swiatek to three sets at the Omnium Banque Nationale.
If Collins, with her regal bearing and ramrod posture, is a queen, then Jacobs, on the floor beside her in Cincinnati, is her fool—more accurately her Infinite Jest-er, making her laugh and think while still able to tell her the truth.
“I think the emotional intensity that she needs to play with takes a lot out of her, and she needs that bit of time off to decompress and get back into the headspace,” Jacobs explains, Collins nodding in agreement.
“I have interests and things I like to do outside of tennis,” she adds. “Sometimes it works in a good way that it distracts me from wanting to do tennis, tennis, tennis all the time.”
Together, Collins and Jacobs make the most of their off time, indulging shared interests in psychology and philosophy, reading David James Duncan and listening to Huberman Lab podcasts.
“We should do a podcast,” suggests Collins, who also enjoys Tish and Brandi Cyrus’ Sorry We’re Stoned, “but we would have to learn how to produce one, get all of that audio equipment. We can barely get photos right!
“We would finish and be like, ‘You were recording, right?’” jokes Jacobs.
Add podcast production to Collins’ master-class wish list, along with sushi rolling, spy training—"Both of us want to be spies in our next lives!” —and social media management.
“I’m not like a gift person, that’s not my love language,” muses Collins, a highly proficient home chef with specialties ranging from risotto to coconut curry. “I’m definitely more of an experience person, so I just want to let everyone know, all my friends who are going to be reading this article, please chip in for my Japanese cooking lesson!”
Collins lets loose her inimitable laugh, a hallmark of that lighter off-court personality that she tries to share with a relatively limited online presence.
I’m a laidback, easygoing person. I am patient, kind. My friends and family know that, so if I’m in a situation where I’m being competitive, they know that side of me but they also know how I really am. The people I really care about, those are the ones I care about what they think of me. Danielle Collins
“I’m just this old soul at heart who wants to be watering my plants or reading a book,” she sighs, quoting a meme: ‘Everyone talks about an inner child. I have an inner old lady who says inappropriate things and wants to be in bed by 8PM.’
“I feel like a lot of times I’m not able to be present if I’m active on social media because it requires so much thoughtfulness and creativity. It’s not that I don’t have those things, but I like to prioritize my time so I can be present and in the moment. I would so much rather host a game night and do Family Jeopardy than be trying to figure out the filter, the angle, or the timing of a video. I guess that’s just not my talent. I would certainly like to improve so that I could engage more with fans the awesome people supporting me.”
Where Collins does shine on social—and has won over many fans—is with her viral on-court reactions. In the nine years since her thunderous US Open debut against Simona Halep, Collins has gone from cartoon villain to campy folk hero: The Democratic Republic of Collins—a play on her DRC initials—inspires fans to string together her enthusiastic celebrations and make GIFs from her Liz Lemon-style eye rolls.
“I feel like the outside world and tennis fans, there’s this assumption that, because I’m so competitive and driven that I’m just thinking about how I’m going to defeat my next opponent, or that I’m in the gym and I’m practicing 24 hours, yelling ‘Come on!’ all the time,” she laughs again. “But there’s so much more to the puzzle, right?”
Collins gave fans more fodder in Canada when she confronted Maria Sakkari over a ball the Greek angrily bounced into the stands, channeling a reality show reaction worthy of Netflix’s Break Point when she yelled “Shut your mouth!” from across the net.
“She almost hit someone, and I got villainized for standing up for them,” says Collins.
It’s at this point, when Collins and Jacobs begin the pilot for that podcast.
“A couple months ago, I wouldn’t have done that. I would have been too worried about what other people are saying or thinking about me, or judging me. I feel like, so much of what Jared has tried to help me with is being my authentic self, what’s important to me and my values, and not being so concerned about the things that I can’t control. I think that’s helped so much to put things into perspective, because it’s easy to drift away from that.
“There’s so much outside noise and criticism that we get as players, and it’s tough, right? And as a woman? There’s unfortunately a lot of societal expectations of this meek and mild woman. But then there’s this other thing where I’m playing competitive sports…”
“The players are really expected to ride this razor-sharp edge between too much and not enough,” adds Jacobs, “especially on the women’s side, because I’ve seen men’s matches where they get chippy or lazy, and no one really thinks twice about it. There’s a much bigger microscope when the women play, even on little things…”
Remember, this is a positive story.
“I think a lot of times, there’s a tendency to focus on the times we don’t get it perfect,” says Collins, “instead of the other millions of times when we give tickets to a little girl and her mom at Wimbledon, or spending time with a sick child in the hospital, or nurturing relationships with kids in the area and mentoring them and their families, giving endless amounts of time to fans and people after or before matches, developing relationships with those fans.”
Though she plays an individual sport, Collins can’t help but notice its tendency to flatten athletes, remove their complexities. But what Collins is arguing—with Jacobs to help advocate—is that there is no either/or. She’s both/and.
“I tell her, ‘I love that people don’t know what to expect from you.’” Jacobs says. “That helps when opponents come out for matches, they’ll be like, ‘I don’t know what to expect.’ Tennis needs personalities like Danielle.”
Intense and laidback, serious and self-deprecating, Collins has broken out of her narrative attic, free to show all that she has been on her quest to become all she can be.