Danielle Collins was a two-time NCAA singles champion at the University of Virginia, but comparable success as a professional was more elusive. And then, well into her sixth season on the WTA Tour, Collins won her first two titles – in Palermo and San Jose – in a span of three weeks last summer.

“I think last year winning my first two events, I think it taught me how to win matches when I wasn’t playing as well and not playing perfect tennis,” the No.27 seed told reporters in Melbourne. “To win a tournament you really have to kind of embrace all of the different circumstances.

“I think I made a big improvement and step in the right direction last year with that, just trying to figure out solutions. I certainly added a lot of variety to my game and kind of developing more skills to be able to hopefully have deeper runs in tournaments, so we’ll see. Fingers crossed.”

Australian Open: Scores | Draw | Order of play

Superstitions aside, Collins hasn’t needed much help winning in Australia. She defeated Clara Tauson, the last teenager in the draw, 4-6, 6-4, 7-5 to advance to Monday’s fourth-round match against Elise Mertens. The No.19 seed Mertens was a 6-2, 6-2 winner over Zhang Shuai.

Collins trailed Tauson 4-6, 2-4, but never panicked.

“I think the first couple matches into a tournament, especially without playing warm-up events, it’s a little bit of trial and error,” Collins said. “I certainly gave myself a run for my money today.”

Collins was an Australian Open semifinalist three years ago – her best effort in a Grand Slam. She was one of four American women to advance to the second week, a tournament high, along with Amanda Anisimova, Madison Keys and Jessica Pegula from the top half of the draw. Romania and Belarus have two each.

Mertens’ best Slam was the 2018 Australian Open when she reached the semifinals. The 26-year-old Belgian has been remarkably consistent in the majors; this was the 16th consecutive time she’s reached the third round. On 10 of those occasions, she’s made the fourth.

Head-to-head: 1-1. Most recently Collins won a Round of 16 match at the 2021 Chicago 250 event, 6-2, 6-4.

No.14 Simona Halep versus Alize Cornet

Similar to Collins, Cornet, on her 32nd birthday, trailed No.29 Tamara Zidansek 6-4, 4-1, before rallying for a three-set victory.

“How I managed to come back, I don’t exactly know,” Cornet said later. “I just kept fighting, kept trying my best, and the match turned around.”

The last time the Frenchwoman was in Melbourne’s second week? Thirteen years ago.

Photo by Jimmie48/WTA

“It’s quite special,” Cornet said. “The day of my birthday, I mean, what else can I ask for?”

Perhaps a fourth-round opponent who isn’t as dialed in as Halep. She was a 6-2, 6-1 winner over Danka Kovinic. Halep has been into the second week in Melbourne Park for the past five years and, of the players remaining in the draw, has won the most titles, 23.

Cornet understands what she’s up against.

“I feel she’s kind of back at her best level,” Cornet said. “She’s a player that I really admire, that I also identify myself a little bit to. She has this will and she’s such a fighter, the way she plays with variation and stuff.

“What I saw last year in her game has definitely changed I think these past months. I think now she’s back on track for real. I can see she is ambitious in her eyes.”

Head-to-head: 3-1, Cornet, but they haven’t played in nearly seven years.

No.7 Iga Swiatek versus Sorana Cirstea

She’s still only 20, but Swiatek has been remarkably consistent in the majors. This is her sixth consecutive appearance in the second week of a Grand Slam, going back to her title at Roland Garros in the fall of 2020.

“Yeah, I’m aware, and that gave me a little bit of doubt before the match,” Swiatek said. “Because I wanted to, you know, at least do the same result as I did in previous years. I mean, that stat, I’m really proud of it right now that I achieved it, but in the morning I would say it gave me a little bit more pressure.”

Not that it was evident in Swiatek’s third-round victory over No.25 Daria Kasatkina, 6-2, 6-3. Swiatek has dropped only 12 games in three matches.

Cirstea, meanwhile, took out No.10 Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova 6-3, 2-6, 6-2 in Rod Laver Arena. Cirstea, a 31-year-old Romanian, made her Grand Slam debut at the 2008 Australian Open. Her last win on Laver? A decade ago, against Samantha Stosur.

“I think I’m in the best moment of my career tennis-wise,” Cirstea said. “I feel I have a lot of experience, and I do feel that also my game, it’s more complete right now. I’m very happy to see things are finally coming all together.”

Head-to-head: 0-0.

No.2 Aryna Sabalenka versus Kaia Kanepi

In her first three matches, Sabalenka has dropped the first set each and every time.

“Feels like I’m warming up in the first set and then I start playing,” she said, smiling. “I don’t know. I really want to win it in two sets, and I think that’s why I’m getting, like, so much emotional on the first set, and that’s why I’m like over-trying and I’m missing a lot.

“And after the first set when you’re losing, you’re kind of, `OK, maybe I don’t have to, like, overhit it or to panic, like, earlier.’”

Sabalenka eventually contained No.31 Marketa Vondrousova 4-6, 6-3, 6-1. Her service adventures continued – Sabalenka had another 10 double faults – running her three-match total to 41. If she keeps breaking opponents’ serves, it won’t really matter.

Kanepi, a 36-year-old from Estonia, was a 2-6, 6-2, 6-0 winner over Australian wildcard Maddison Inglis. She has a brief history against Sabalenka, a second-round win in last year’s Melbourne 250, 6-1, 2-6, 6-1.

“It was tough match,” Sabalenka said. “I remember it was a lot of winners and a lot of unforced errors. Yeah, I think I need to try to start from the beginning and don’t give her so much like opportunities, so I just have to be focused from the beginning.”

Head-to-head: 1-0, Kanepi.