The list of former college tennis stars who have struggled to make names for themselves on the pro tour – let alone crack the Top 100 – is a long one.
A system in which players must travel the world – usually on their own dime – to compete in lower-echelon tournaments before they even get a whiff of playing in a more prestigious Grand Slam event makes achieving pro stardom an uphill climb.
But former University of Virginia standout Danielle Collins, a two-time NCAA singles champion, is defying the odds.
Collins, who defeated Venus Williams, 6-2, 6-3 in the quarterfinals of the Miami Open last week, is now ranked No. 53 in the world – the highest-ever singles ranking of any former UVA player, male or female, surpassing 2008 alumnus Somdev Devvarman (No. 62 in 2011) and 2001 alumnus Brian Vahaly (No. 64 in 2003).
On Monday, UVA Today caught up with the two-time NCAA champion.
Q. You’ve been on fire lately. How do you think you’ve been able to put it all together and have such great success?
A. I think I’ve put myself in a good situation, just in terms of getting better each day and making improvements within my game to play at a high level. I think the biggest thing is just experience.
When you’re first getting started, it’s hard to get a lot of points, hard to get a lot of prize money. You have to work your way up and it takes a lot of time. And so once you get your foot in the door and have opportunities against big players, you have to go out and take advantage because you don’t get that at the lower levels.
Q. What was it like playing against Venus Williams, who you grew up idolizing?
A. It was pretty cool. The first time I saw Venus in the locker room I nearly cried because I just adored her so much growing up. And I think any American can relate. Everybody knows who the Williams sisters are. America loves them. It was kind of a surreal experience.
Q. What was it about her that you admired as a kid?
A. I think the biggest thing I could resonate with was that she grew up playing on public courts; she didn’t come from a prestigious tennis family that was extremely wealthy. She had to go out and make a name for herself and work her hardest and be resourceful. That’s what I admire the most about her and her sister.
Q. You’ve said your dad is the hardest-working person you’ve ever met. Has he been pretty thrilled with what you’ve been able to accomplish?
A. He’s been proud. Luckily, he was able to catch a couple matches in Miami. He did have to work, though. He’s 80 years old and he still has a landscaping business. He goes out and mows lawns every single day. He’s definitely the hardest-working person I know. I don’t know any people who are still working at 80 – especially doing the kind of job he’s doing. It’s pretty impressive.
Q. What was Venus’ reaction when she saw how emotional you were about meeting her?
A. She was very nice. She said, “Hello” and “How are you?” She’s a very good person on and off the court.
Q. What did it feel like after the last point, when you knew you had beaten her? And did she say anything to you when you shook hands at the net or afterward in the locker room?
A. She was very kind. She congratulated me on having such a great match and playing so well. She was just very positive and a great person to compete against.
I think that’s the biggest thing I admire about her – even when she has a bad day, she handles it the right way and is able to celebrate other people’s success and be very selfless. I think that’s what makes her a champion.
Q. Have you exceeded the goals you had at the start of the season?
A. I wanted to break into the top 100. That was the biggest goal for 2018. That was accomplished very soon in the season, so I think now it’s to try and keep my ranking inside the top 50 and then make some baby steps and try and break into the top 40. I have some things in my game that I can improve – and if I do, it will be only upward from here.
Q. You’ve won a little bit of prize money. Have you splurged on anything, or are you just saving it?
A. I haven’t splurged on anything yet. I try to be pretty smart with my money. Anything I am going to be splurging on will be a very good investment. I’m always thinking about how my money can grow.
Q. A lot of people don’t realize you started your college career at the University of Florida before transferring to Virginia, where you played your final three years. Looking back on that, why do you think that was a good decision for you?
A. At the time, it was hard moving away from Florida and moving away from my family. I didn’t get to see my family very much because my mom and dad had to work all the time. I didn’t have my parents at every single match. I made a big sacrifice, but I knew it was going to be the best thing for my education and I knew I was going to be putting myself in the best environment in terms of coaching [under former Virginia coaches Mark Guilbeau and Troy Porco]. Mark and Troy really believed in me.
Q. Will you be returning to the Boyd Tinsley Classic in Charlottesville later this month, or has your ranking gotten too high?
A. I’m not sure. … I have to think about it a little because I also have to prepare for the clay court season over in Europe, because there will be a couple-week stretch of going to Madrid, Rome and then playing Strasbourg and then the French Open. I have to have a couple-week training block to physically prepare for those weeks because, ultimately, I want to have my best performances in the Grand Slams.
Q. Why don’t you have a Twitter account anymore?
A. Twitter is all negative. When I think about mental health and then I go on Twitter and see the crazy things that people say to celebrities and athletes – it makes me sick. It’s appalling. I used to lose matches and people would threaten to kill me and my family.
Twitter doesn’t do a very good job of holding those accounts accountable. I was like, “I don’t have to deal with this.”
I have my Instagram account [danimalcollins], which I feel is a little more uplifting – most of the time.
Q. You were a media studies major at UVA. Have you given any thought to what you will do after your playing days are over?
A. I definitely want to go into business. I’m not sure specifically what that means. I think that will involve, potentially, getting a law degree, so that I can utilize that in a business career. That’s something I’d really like to do.
But hopefully my tennis career won’t be done for at least another 10 to 15 years! I’ll be the oldest person in law school [laughing].
Q. In a recent interview, you said having a degree from UVA gives you peace of mind as you continue on in your professional career. What did you mean by that?
A. It gives me peace of mind knowing that if I ever have an injury or if I’m just simply not playing very good tennis, I can go out and get a good job. And I can have a lot of opportunities aside from the tennis world if I want to.
A lot of the people on tour don’t have that option because, quite frankly, they didn’t get more than a high school degree. And it’s very hard when you don’t have an education to be able to have different outlets in your life to go to.
So I’m very thankful that I made the right decision by going to college and going to a really good school like UVA. I’ve put myself in a situation where I don’t have to deal with pressure when I step out on the tennis court because I know I have a plan A, a Plan B, a Plan C. I know I have so many tools in my pocket, and that’s because of my experience at UVA.
Q. In that same vein, any advice to young players out there who have dreams of getting to where you are?
A. My biggest piece of advice is you have to sit down and be very realistic. You have to look at what the players make inside the Top 100 and what type of money players are making well outside the Top 100. You have to say, “Is this the type of lifestyle I want to live?” You have to look at the travel schedule that the top pros put themselves through. And you need to talk to people about their experiences.
I think the biggest thing is, even if you only go to college for a year – it’s so crucial. If you go to college for a year and then turn pro and it doesn’t work out, you can always go back to school. But it’s a little bit harder if you don’t go that first year.
Q. Have you kept tabs on the UVA teams?
A. Oh, yeah. I’m a passionate alumna and follow all the different sports. But I’m very proud of how the tennis teams are doing. With coaches like Sara [O’Leary] and Andres [Pedroso], I think it’s an exciting time for the programs and the fans. I think they’re going to do an incredible job with both programs. I look forward to seeing what the future holds.