St. Petersburg’s own homegrown tennis star, Danielle Collins, takes to the court in her home state this week as the Miami Open gets underway in South Florida. Collins, 27, looks to ride a surge of momentum from her triumph last month over world No. 1 Ash Barty at the Adelaide Invitational in Adelaide, Australia, as well as her recent sponsorship deal with St. Pete-based Dynasty Financial Partners.
The score line of the straight-sets win over Barty was 6-3, 6-4, but Collins, speaking to the Catalyst in an exclusive interview two days before the Miami Open, said the numbers don’t tell the whole story. She was down a break in both sets and had to battle back versus Barty, against whom she had been winless in three attempts.
“I fought back from a 4-1 deficit in the first set and a 3-1 deficit in the second set,” Collins said. “To be able to win a match when you’re down like that against the best player in the world, and certainly one of the best servers in the world, I think that says a lot about my tenacity and where my game is at currently.”
Indeed, 2021 has been very good, so far, for Collins. Currently ranked No. 40 in the world, the St. Pete native has a 9-4 record and advanced to the semifinals at the Phillip Island Trophy event in Melbourne, Australia, and the quarterfinals in Adelaide after ousting Barty. In 2019, Collins took the tennis world by storm when she advanced to the semifinals at the Australian Open, one of professional tennis’s four Grand Slam events. That showing boosted her ranking to No. 23 in the world, but she said there’s nothing like a win over a No. 1 player to provide motivation when the chips are down, calling the recent match against Barty a source of confidence and “a weapon in my back pocket, so that when I’m in challenging situations in future matches, I can say, ‘OK, look, I’ve beaten somebody who’s No. 1 in the world.’”
She added, “Down 4-1, 3-1, to win the match that way was even more exciting and rewarding than a match that was quick and easy. It’s a really special win and it’s probably going to be one of my most special wins for the rest of my career. So hopefully I can keep getting wins like that on a regular basis.”
While some pro tennis players chose to play a vastly reduced schedule in 2020 because of the Covid-19 pandemic, Collins was fairly active, playing in six tournaments around the world, including the Australian Open, U.S. Open and French Open. Life on tour can be lonely even at the best of times for tennis players, but the health and safety protocols and restrictions imposed on them by tournament organizers provided a challenge as tough as any opponent on the other side of the net, according to Collins.
“We spend so much time by ourselves and now we are incredibly isolated,” she said. “To be quite honest, I’m scared for our sport because I don’t think this type of environment is sustainable for professional athletes, or really for anybody.”
On the men’s tour, world No. 1 Novak Djokovic drew public scorn and criticism earlier this year when he submitted a litany of demands to officials at the Australian Open, complaining about being confined to his hotel room with little access to fitness and training resources. Djokovic again cited Covid-19 restrictions when he announced last week that he would not compete in the Miami Open.
Collins hasn’t been nearly as vocal but acknowledged that the Serbian superstar’s point might have been lost on people who aren’t familiar with the economics of tennis, which are vastly different from team sports such as baseball, basketball, football and hockey. In addition to solitary confinement, she said, the pandemic has wreaked havoc on the finances of many lower-ranked players who have to make a living by playing in as many tournaments as possible.
“We’ve had our prize money cut at some tournaments, like the Miami Open, up to 70 percent,” Collins said. “We’re having to manage our finances much differently, because as individual athletes, we employ our coaches, our physical therapists, anybody who works with us — they’re not employed by the tours.”
But Collins, who hails from a family of modest means in St. Pete and grew up playing tennis on public hard courts, said her situation pales in comparison to people who’ve lost their jobs because of the pandemic.
“I don’t want to sound like a whining athlete,” she said. “A lot of people look at what we’re doing and it seems very glamorous, and there are certainly moments that are very unique and special. And I think all of us are appreciative of those moments, especially in this climate, but where we’re at right now is so different from where we were at before the pandemic started. And I just hope that we can return to normal, because I’m really worried about our sport.”
Collins also touched on what it’s like for professional athletes to play big games and matches in venues without fans, or with very limited numbers of fans in attendance.
“I think if you asked all of the players, ‘Would you rather play with fans?’ We would all of course say yes,” she said. “But we realize that with the pandemic going on, if we want to continue playing, most of the events are not able to be at full capacity. And sometimes that means not having any fans at all.”
She added, “One of the things that makes being a professional athlete so special is having fans and people that support you along the way during the short period of your life as a professional athlete. They’re there with us during the emotional losses and the moments of victory. That’s what makes the whole experience so special. And so without the fans, it’s not the same.”