What do you do when you catch your first glimpse of a college player who has joined the tour? If you’re like me, you look for the flaws. What was it that kept them from believing, like virtually all top players believe, that they were ready to turn pro when they were in their teens?
With Danielle Collins, the 24-year-old graduate of the University of Virginia who faced Venus Williams in Miami on Wednesday, there’s a raw quality to parts of her game. Her ball toss is high and she can misfire with her serve by yards. Her elbow can fly out on her forehand, and she can struggle with it when she’s on the run. Over the last few weeks, in her matches against Madison Keys, CoCo Vandeweghe, Donna Vekic, Monica Puig, and now Venus Williams, I’ve waited for one of her flaws to prove fatal, for that moment to come when the more-seasoned pro takes over, and Collins shows her inexperience. It hasn’t come yet. If anything, the opposite keeps happening: Collins keeps taking over.
She appears to be getting better with every match she plays. It took her three sets to beat Vandeweghe, Vekic, and Puig in Miami, but just two sets—6-2 and 6-3—to beat Williams, the woman Collins calls her idol. How is the native Floridian, who didn’t appear to be on any future-star radar screens four weeks ago, doing it?
Match point from Danielle Collins vs. Venus Williams in Miami:
To start, she has a world-class backhand. Instead of letting herself get knocked back by Venus’s serve, Collins set up well behind the baseline and moved forward to meet the ball; more often than not, it was her backhand return that knocked Venus back. Collins did the same once the rallies began. Any time there was a chance for her to step into the court and crack a backhand, she took it. The result, typically, was a blazing winner; she can hit them with equal ease crosscourt or down the line.
“There wasn’t a shot she couldn’t make,” Venus said of Collins.
On Wednesday, I kept waiting for Collins to stop making those shots, to wake up and realize she had a chance to beat Venus Williams. If anything, when things got a little tight and Venus started to pick up her game in the second set, Collins bore down harder, and found just the shot she needed.
More than what she does with the ball, it’s that single-minded mentality that has really stood out about Collins. She fights hard, but she fights intelligently and manages her emotions well. If she’s a perfectionist, she hasn’t shown it; rather than let a lost point turn into five more lost points, she moves on to the next one quickly, and doesn’t give herself time to sulk or get negative. When she missed a ground stroke against Venus, she came right back and rifled the next one. And when she called her coach, Pat Harrison (Ryan’s father), out on court, she had specific questions for him about what she was doing wrong with her service motion.
Collins’ serve didn’t get much better after their discussion, but it was there when she needed it. Serving at 5-3, she went up 40-15, double match point. On the first one, she smothered a nervous forehand into the net. Could Collins close? Was she finally going to tighten up? She never needed to find out, because she won the point with her best serve of the night.
Collins is the first qualifier to reach the semifinals at the Miami Open, and you get the feeling there will be more breakthroughs ahead. So far, everything about her has been geared toward finding ways to win, not worrying about mistakes made or chances squandered. If collegiate tennis teaches you anything, it’s how to fight—for yourself and your teammates. I may have to stop looking for the flaws in former college players, and start looking for what makes them special.
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