For Danielle Collins, education and inspiration has been the bedrock of her life in pursuit of a career as a professional tennis player. The 25-year-old found her game on the public courts of St. Petersburg, Florida, her voice as a two-time NCAA champion at the University of Virginia, and her platform as one of the top American talents on the WTA Tour. After breaking into the Top 100 for the first time in 2018, Collins is now the World No.25, having pulled off a stunning run to the semifinals of the Australian Open in January.
WTA Insider sat down with the outspoken American ahead of International Women's Day, to discuss her unorthodox path to the pro tour, how her supportive family and experience in college sports taught her to stand her ground, and where she finds her inspiration to keep fighting the good fight in pursuit of equality in sports.
WTA Insider: How did you get into tennis?
Collins: My dad taught me how to play. One day a boy brought in his tennis trophies to class. 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 and even today, that’s what I love about tennis. I learned to think on my own and find a way to win, no matter if my opponent was bigger, stronger, or faster.
In a lot of ways, I was self-taught. My family didn’t have the money to send me to a tennis academy or even private lessons at a club, so I spent my time on the public courts playing against older people. I had to be resourceful and that just made me tougher athlete and competitor. Looking back on it all, I wouldn’t change a thing.
WTA Insider: When it comes to your journey and how it has unfolded over the years, what are the obstacles you've encountered in your quest to be a female professional athlete?
Collins: Historically women haven't always been in a powerful position. We know that. For me to be in a sport where there are such powerful women, like Billie Jean King and people that are women specifically, that are brave enough to transcend what used to be the social norms, I'm very honored.
If we look across the board at women's sports, I'm so proud to be a part of tennis. For the most part, in terms of prize money, we're head and shoulders ahead of where other sports are. That's a really big deal. I think in other sports equal pay hasn't been something that's been able to be conquered, and so for that to be something that happens in tennis is really great.
I hope that it can become that way for all women's sports because at the end of the day we all want equality. But unfortunately there are still some people that have powerful positions who are men and they don't feel that way. They don't want to lose their power. Luckily we don't have too much of that on the Women's Tennis Association.
I still think there are still areas where men are a little bit more respected. I still hear people say sexist comments. I've heard fans tell me 'I love to watch the man but I don't really get around to watching the women.' It's sexist. It's totally disrespecting females as a whole because you're basically belittling us and saying that it's not worth my time to watch you, and not appreciating the incredible talent everyone on the WTA Tour has.
WTA Insider: At what point did you realize being a female athlete might be a different experience than being a male athlete.
Collins: Before I went to college I understood that women faced discrimination personally and professionally. That is clear and obvious when we have basic political conversations and especially when we look at the gender pay gap in the U.S. and really around the world. But until you completely grow up and you enter into the real world, it's difficult to grasp.
I give a lot of credit to my parents, my dad specifically, for never making boys seem like they were more important than me. I have a lot of strong females in my family and we don't take any of that nonsense from men or boys. If a boy made fun of me at school or said something, my dad would say you are in charge, don't let them talk to you like that. And I don't.
But when I went to college and saw how the men's team was treated differently than the women's team, I started to recognize there was a problem. I didn't necessarily feel that I was at a disadvantage, but I didn't feel we were getting the respect we had earned. I think the media at UVA didn't promote our women's program the way they did for the men. It created a little bit of a chip on my shoulder. We had a really great men's team at UVA, but I had just as much success as them, if not more in some ways.
I have no problem talking about that publicly because it's just the way it was and that was one of the first times I started seeing where there's inequality. Now that I'm living in the real world and traveling and becoming more worldly, I see where women aren't as respected as men and I believe it’s so important for us to stand up for ourselves, not just individually, but collectively as women.
I'm just very glad to be a part of something where there's a zero tolerance policy at the WTA. Everyone is on board when it comes to female equality and for all women be treated the right way. I am so grateful that we have some of the most powerful and influential women involved that are really fighting and pushing for us on a day-to-day basis. We won't take no for an answer.
WTA Insider: Who is a woman you look to for inspiration?
Collins: When I was in college I was a very theatrical person. I almost majored in theater. Lady Gaga is a huge inspiration. I was going through a really hard breakup and I remember her saying, 'Some women choose to follow men, and some women choose to follow their dreams. If you're wondering which way to go, remember that your career will never wake up and tell you that it doesn't love you anymore.' That had such an impact on me and how I choose to dedicate myself fully in pursuit of my dream.
Just look at all of the philanthropic things that she's done specifically for women. Like opening discussion and giving voices to women on painful subjects like rape and sexual assault. She's really putting us on the pedestal we deserve, but most importantly inspiring women to be more comfortable in confronting these important topics in ways that maybe we were afraid to do so before.
Her fearlessness has helped women to become more brave and to use our voice. She doesn't care what men think and the repercussions. She throws everything out there and she's been so honest about her personal struggles as a woman. She really puts her heart and soul on the line. She has been a true monumental figure for women all around the world.
WTA Insider: How has your journey shaped you as a woman and an athlete?
Collins: I think the fact that I grew up in such a supportive family gave me the confidence that I have as an adult to stand up for myself and pursue my passion without apology. I was never a child prodigy, I wasn't tapped to be the next big thing when I was coming up and that kept me humble. I worked harder because nothing was given to me, and there's no time to feel sorry for yourself.
Going to college was crucial for me and my development and I learned so much both on and off the court and in the classroom. I'm incredibly lucky that I don't have to look far for inspiration now. I really believe that the people that work for the WTA, the leaders that we have in Billie Jean King and The Williams Sisters, empower women every day to stand up for ourselves, believe in our dreams, and never back down.