INDIAN WELLS, USA - Danielle Collins doesn't want to be known as 'just' a tennis player. But for now she's perfectly happy being just that. The 24-year-old Floridian and two-time NCAA champion is finally starting to see her game come together on the professional tour in 2018.
Currently ranked No.117, Collins earned her wildcard into the BNP Paribas Open thanks to strong showings during the WTA 125K Oracle Challenger Series, and has made good on the opportunity. She followed up a three-set win over Taylor Townsend in the first round with a straight-set win over No.15 seed Madison Keys in the second round and finds herself on the cusp of making her Top 100 debut.
A graduate of the University of Virginia, Collins famously made her WTA main draw debut at the 2014 US Open, where she took a set off Simona Halep in the first round. Since graduating in 2016 with a degree in Media Studies, Collins spent her first full year on tour battling it out on the ITF Circuit in 2017.
But things are looking up for Collins this season. She won the biggest title of her career at the WTA 125K in Newport Beach in January, beating Sofya Zhuk in the final, and defeated Vera Zvonareva and Magda Linette last week at the WTA 125K in Indian Wells to secure her wildcard. Her win over Keys in the second round was her first Top 20 win and she will face off against Zhuk on Monday for a spot in the Round of 16 at one of the biggest tournaments in the world.
WTA Insider caught up with Collins after her opening win to discuss her transition from college tennis to the pros, why she keeps a big LSAT workbook by her side, and why her collegiate experience remains invaluable.
WTA Insider: So how did you get started in tennis?
Collins: My dad played league tennis, and he was pretty good. I tried some other sports like gymnastics, soccer, and swimming, but none of them clicked. My dad would take me out and teach me how to play.
But there was a boy, and on Mondays you could bring trophies to school. And I was like, where is this kid getting all these trophies? My dad said if you play tennis like he does, you'll get some trophies. So I started playing and I kept getting better and better and I started to like it more as I kept improving. I enjoyed competing and problem-solving. It was just fun.
I didn't grow up the more traditional way like most American players, where you get dropped off at the tennis club and you have a private lesson. We lived close to a couple of parks that had public courts and I would play with older people. I would hit against the wall as my mom jogged around. One day this group of older people who were around 80, were like oh, you're pretty good. Would you like to play some doubles with us? I was eight years old. Then I got better and better, so I would play with city league players, 4.0, 5.0 players.
I was a little bit self-taught. I had to figure things out on my own and be resourceful because my parents didn't have the money. It just got me tougher. I would play against these old guys and I was like 13. They would kick my butt. It makes you so much more competitive.
WTA Insider: So at what point did you think tennis could be more than just a fun thing but something you could do for a living?
Collins: I think I won 12s Nationals and the girl I beat in the final was a prodigy and she was going to be the next Maria Sharapova. I beat her and I told my parents, I'm going to be the next Maria Sharapova (laughs).
So there was a period where I was so locked in. I was asking my parents to be homeschooled and I wanted to dedicate my life to tennis. There were days they would go to Disneyland and I was like no!
When I got to high school, I didn't get the opportunity to play the international tournaments because my parents couldn't afford it because that costs a fortune. I had to just play national tournaments. I was No.1 in the country in the 18-and under division when I was 16 and getting wins over people who are out here and have been here for a while. But it just wasn't in the cards for me so I thought ok, I'm smart, I'm savvy, I can go to college and play tennis.
For the University of Virginia, out of state tuition is over $50,000 a year. A scholarship is worth a quarter of a million dollars. It's priceless in a way because you get to be part of a community and you get an education. That gives you so much leverage. I thought, I don't want to be just a tennis player. I want to be prepared for the world. I don't want to just depend on my tennis. It would be terrible if you got injured and you didn't have an education to fall back on. And to be part of a team, you don't get to experience that when you're older.
So that's something I really wanted to commit to. Even after I won NCAAs the first time, people asked if I would turn pro. I took a set off of Halep at the US Open and they were asking me if I would turn pro because it's so much money in the first round at the US Open. But I thought, honestly, my tuition for an entire year is more than that first round money. So I didn't take the money and I went back to school. Education is so important.
WTA Insider: You college players seem to love a big stage. Does that help at all here at Indian Wells?
Collins: It's always fun having your talent recognized and people supporting you and wanting to come out here and watching what you're doing. There were so many fans from start to finish. That's just such a nice feeling.
I've gone to other tournaments like 25Ks or 60ks and sometimes there's literally no one there. Sometimes I'm by myself and I'm playing someone who's by themselves. It's really nice to be able to come out here and be able to have such tremendous support from the fans and all the hospitality from this tournament. I'm just really grateful they gave me a wildcard.
WTA Insider: It's a reward for a couple of months of really strong play. Why do you think it's gone well for you so far this season?
Collins: I think I'm just getting a better feel for who I'm playing against. I'm starting to recognize more people as I'm playing more tournaments. When I first got out of college it was totally different. I was playing against way different opponents. It's a different level as well, getting used to that, getting quicker, thinking faster, thinking from all angles, and maybe problem-solve maybe more than I had to in college because I dominated so much in college. It was a little bit more challenging for sure getting started.
But the last couple of months I'm getting a lot of confidence under my belt beating some top players. I had some great wins last week at the Oracle Challenger tournament. Fell a little bit short but I'm getting a lot more exposure on bigger stages and playing against better players. Playing against these bigger players I'm getting more confidence, knowing that I'm there and that I belong at these tournaments.
WTA Insider: Making that transition from college to the pros, what's been the key for you?
Collins: Just making sure I have a good balance. I think scheduling is one of the biggest things for players, making sure you have a good schedule and not overplaying, but also playing enough. When I was in college I was used to being in one place more often and that doesn't really happen anymore. Sometimes I can be in three different places in a week. Getting used to that was a big challenge for me. Now I'm used to that and it's given me more confidence in myself knowing what to expect.
WTA Insider: Did you always know when you were set to graduate that you were going to go pro?
Collins: My freshman year I didn't even play that much at the University of Florida. I was basically a benchwarmer. I transferred to the University of Virginia after my freshman year, which was the best decision because I was with coaches who believed in me and worked with me.
I got off to a bit of a rough start. My sophomore year I was basically playing with a broken wrist the entire year. I had a broken fragment in my right wrist and I didn't want to have it removed. I wanted to play through it because I didn't want to sit out another year and waste another year.
I won the NCAAs and it was kind of out of nowhere. I was one of the last people into the draw and I was lucky I got in. I think just having a good attitude and just working hard and doing the best I could do.
But there were times I wondered if playing professional tennis is what I wanted to do. I have other interests besides tennis. I went to college for a reason. I'm bright and I have aspirations to continue my education once I'm done with tennis. When you're talented in other things you think about other options, but I know that tennis is my calling because if I didn't play tennis every day I would go crazy. I would get so bored.
I have such a unique talent and ability and to get to be able to do this as my job and make money at it and get to travel to places, that's just a godsend. So many people would want to do that. I'm so grateful that this is the job right now and I want to keep this job for a long time. Life's a long journey, so I'm just happy that I committed to playing tennis professionally and continuing it in the hard moments and not giving up.
WTA Insider: What's the most difficult thing adjusting to the pros? Is it more physical or mental?
Collins: I think you have to make some physical adjustments. But my physicality has always been one of my weapons. I can stay out on court for a long time, I move well, I'm explosive, but I also have good endurance.
I think the mental part can be challenging for people sometimes. Getting used to the traveling and the grind, losing in the first round and walking out with $180. That happened more than once last year, it probably happened 6 or 7 times. That's not a good feeling, but you have to stick to the process and realize it's a long road to the top and you're just trying to get better every day.
WTA Insider: At the start of the year, what were your goals for 2018?
Collins: As far as outcome goals, I would love to get myself in the Top 100 and play main draw of every Slam. We'll see if that happens. There are certain things I have to apply in my game to get there. My coach holds me accountable for that. I have a good team around me that's always pushing me to work towards those goals.
The important thing is to continue to work on those things on the road when you don't have training blocks. Sometimes you get a little too caught up in playing matches all the time and you're not thinking about the things you need to be working on. Today I actually had to remind myself of the things I needed to work on, especially in the third set. I said look, if I want to get to the next level I have to do this and I locked into it and got the job done.
WTA Insider: What did you have to remind yourself to do today?
Collins: Just taking it when someone gives you an opportunity. To not be a wuss and going the easy route and trying to play a million balls, which is necessary at times, but that's one of the things I had to tell myself. Coming to the net a little bit more, taking advantage of short balls. That kind of thing.
WTA Insider: When you were in school and contemplating a non-tennis life, what did you envision you might do?
Collins: Maybe going to law school. I want to go into business. I have this big book about the LSAT (Law School Admission Test). It really occupies my mind. I don't want to be a lawyer, but I want to use the law degree to go into business. I can see myself doing a lot of different things, but after I'm done with tennis I'll narrow it down.
It's good though because it makes me not crazy and makes me a normal person. You don't want to be too one-dimensional. It's good to learn about other things and find other interests because it just makes you more fun!