Anybody who thinks it’s impossible to make it on the pro tour after playing college tennis wasn’t at the Miami Open on Wednesday.
Danielle Collins, the 93rd-ranked two-time NCAA champion and graduate of the University of Virginia, pulled off a 6-2, 6-3 shocking upset of seven-time Grand Slam champion Venus Williams in the evening quarterfinal match. She seemed as surprised as everyone watching at what she accomplished. She was just the second qualifier ever to reach the Miami Open quarterfinals.
“The first time I saw Venus in the locker room, I nearly cried,” Collins said after the match. “She was my favorite player, so I’m trying to wrap my head around this. It took a lot of years of hard work, getting kicked in the smaller tournaments. I’m finally starting to put all the pieces together.”
She will face No. 6 seed Jelena Ostapenko in the semifinals.
In the afternoon match, John Isner, a four-year All-American during his time at the University of Georgia, advanced to the semifinals with a 6-1, 6-4 win over South Korean Hyeon Chung. The 32-year-old beat No. 2 Marin Cilic in straight sets in the previous round and is aiming for his first title in a Masters 1000 event.
Like Williams, Collins, a native of St. Petersburg, grew up playing on public courts. She didn’t come from a country club family. Her father, Walter, is a landscaper and worked as a commercial fisherman. Her mother, Cathy, is a preschool teacher. Neither are college graduates.
So, when it came time to make the decision to turn pro or go to college, Collins opted for the education her parents never got. She spent a year at the University of Florida and then transferred to Virginia, where she earned a degree in Media Studies in 2016.
Collins said she always related to the Williams sisters because they didn’t come from a privileged background.
“I didn't have an easy upbringing,” Collins said. “I didn't come from a super-wealthy family, and I wasn't at the country club every day playing in the little tennis camps with the other little kids. A lot of times I was at public courts playing against adults and asking people to play with me. I think they kind of went through the same thing, and so that really resonates with me a lot.
“I think it gives me a different perspective. I'm just, like, so grateful every time I go out on the court and get to play another tennis match, because I know it could be so much different.”
All along, there were skeptics who believed Collins would have been better off turning pro at 16, like many of the top girls she played against in juniors.
And yet, there she was Wednesday night, on center court in Key Biscayne, dominating eighth-ranked Williams. Collins raced to a 3-0 lead, and used her power, court sense and big serve to win the first set in 38 minutes.
The first game of the second set went to five deuces, before Collins, who was serving, saved a break point and won the game on a 104 mph ace in the corner. Williams fought to get back into the match, but Collins never cracked.
She said she tried to relax before the match, talked about her dog with her coach, and watched funny videos on her phone.
“I obviously have an incredible amount of respect for Venus, but you kind of have to take the name out of it and just focus on the tennis part and play one point at a time and use your tactics that you come up with your coaches, and that's exactly what I did,” Collins said.
She said she tried to “expose (Williams’) movement” and keep her running, as she had played back-to-back long matches.
“She played very well, aggressively, she went for every shot and it landed,” Williams said. “There’s going to be some days where they don’t land, but that wasn’t today.”
Collins burst onto the scene the last two weeks with wins over top-Americans Madison Keys and CoCo Vandeweghe at the BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells, California. She reached the Round of 16 there, and her ranking has jumped from No. 160 to 93, and will go even higher after this week’s results.
Before Wednesday’s win, her previous three matches went to three sets, and she dominated the third set in all three. She beat 2016 Olympic gold medalist Monica Puig 3-6, 6-4, 6-2 in the fourth round.
“Nobody skyrockets to the top very fast, and the only difference is that most of the girls I’m competing against turned pro at 16,” Collins said. “I went a different route and went to college.
“To me, college was priceless,” she added. “It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and my parents didn’t go to college, so to graduate from such a prestigious school was important for me and my family.”
Asked if she was surprised to see a 24-year-old college graduate winning high-level matches at this stage of her career, Williams said: “There’s more than one way to skin a cat. You don’t have to do it the traditional way.”
“I think it's great to see former collegiate players having success on tour,” Miami Open tournament director James Blake said. “Not everyone is ready from a physical and maturity standpoint to deal with the rigors of tour life at a young age, and I think playing collegiate tennis is something more people should consider.
“I know that my time at Harvard was very beneficial for me, and my development as a player. Tennis is an individual sport and there is no one road map to success. For some, that is college, and others it may not work.”
Isner, the No. 14 seed, reached the semifinal on Key Biscayne in 2015. He hopes to go a step further this year. His victory Wednesday will push him into the Top 10.
“Every match I’ve played this tournament I’ve gotten better,” Isner said. “I keep getting stronger — that’s a very, very good sign going forward. These conditions are absolutely perfect for me. I’m happy to be in the semis and let’s see if I can keep going.”
In keeping with the college theme, former University of Illinois player Kevin Anderson will play in the quarterfinals Thursday against Spaniard Pablo Carreno Busta. Anderson beat American Frances Tiafoe 7-6 (7-3), 6-4 in the fourth round.