Collins' run highlights
benefits of collegiate tennis
Ashley Marshall | January 24, 2019
Danielle Collins was hardly a trendy pre-tournament pick for a deep run at the Australian Open. And while most fans may not have seen her breakthrough coming, her former collegiate coach says her success is both a long time in the making and thoroughly deserved.
Mark Guilbeau coached Collins for three years at the University of Virginia, helping the now 25-year-old win a pair of NCAA singles championships as a sophomore in 2014 and again as a senior two years later.
“When she plays her best, she is a Top-10 player every day of the week,” said Guilbeau, who left Virginia in 2017 after 12 years with the program during which time he led the school to consecutive ACC championships. “This has been a progression; it absolutely has not happened overnight.
“Danielle has not skipped any steps, from the way she went about it as a young, young kid going to public courts and rounding up a game on her own, to having her father as a coach teaching her from Bjorn Borg videos.
From going from the junior level and playing college tennis and giving that two chances instead of one to getting her degree and grinding all the way through the ITF Pro Circuit, she understands the process, and she knows how hard she has worked at it. I think she can absolutely sustain this level.”
To the casual observer, Collins shot out of nowhere to reach the semifinals of the Australian Open, snapping a run of five consecutive Grand Slam first-round losses. But while the manner in which she made the final four at Melbourne Park – rallying to beat No. 14 seed Julia Goerges in Round 1, defeating No. 19 seed Caroline Garcia in the Round of 32 and dismantling world No. 2 Angelique Kerber to reach her maiden quarterfinal – was largely unexpected, each victory in isolation was not that out of left field.
After all, Collins entered the Australian Open as the 35th-best player in the world, coming off an impressive season that saw her climb 131 spots in 12 months, reach major semifinals in Miami and San Jose and secure headline-making wins over fellow top Americans Madison Keys, Coco Vandeweghe and Venus Williams.
Collins has always spoken about her internal confidence and self-belief, and Guilbeau said that those who worked with her in the past knew a deep run at a major tournament was not only possible, but likely.
“I know it’s a long, hard path and it’s very stressful, but I knew deep down that she could do these types of things,” Guilbeau said. “The scary part was probably her just having the opportunity.
“She knew she was going to do things like this and, without getting too biased, myself and my assistant coach at Virginia, coach Troy Porco, always spoke with Danielle about her ability to get inside the Top 50 and go beyond that. I’m extremely impressed. It’s incredible. I’m very happy for her.”
Collins’ success has also continued to shine a light on collegiate tennis, in particular the benefits it can bring players while highlighting the fact that it is possible to go to school, get a degree and still have success on the professional tour.
“It is so long overdue and such a positive advertisement,” Guilbeau said of the attention Collins’ run has afforded the college game. “It happened on the men’s side with John Isner and Steve Johnson. I always told Danielle that exactly what was happening on the men’s side is going to happen on the women’s side and that she could be one of the leading players in that regard. Players like Kristie Ahn helped a lot. Players like Nicole Gibbs helped, Laura Granville, Lisa Raymond, going further back. But truly being a four-year graduate, you don’t see that much. I think Danielle knew that, at 23, 24, 25, she wasn’t too old. She was just getting better.”
On the Virginia campus, Collins’ efforts have also not gone unnoticed. Current women’s tennis head coach Sara O’Leary, who served as a USTA Collegiate National Team coach in 2015, said Collins’ incredible run created a buzz across the entire college campus.
“Our team, the athletic department and all of UVA have been following and supporting her with such pride,” said O’Leary, a second-year coach at Virginia. “It’s been awesome for everyone with ties to the program to see one of our own doing so well and representing UVA tennis at such a high level. While Danielle didn’t play for me, I have no doubt that the incredible resources here in Charlottesville contributed to her development and readiness for the tour.
“She has obviously had some great coaching since her time in Charlottesville, but her professional success is certainly a point of pride for all of the people who work so hard to support our players both on and off the court. It has also provided confidence as well as a blueprint for our current and incoming student-athletes as to how to make the most of UVA’s resources and prepare for a successful career on tour.”
Guilbeau rejected the long-held notion that the collegiate game can’t successfully translate to the pro ranks, and he said that it wasn’t until Collins began to realize that she didn’t necessarily have to reinvent her approach that she began to fulfill her abilities.
“From a tennis standpoint, Danielle heard a lot that in pro tennis you can’t do the same things you did in college tennis, and I can tell you that, as a coach who worked with that young lady a lot, I think you can,” said Guilbeau, who singled out her drop shot as just one shot that can, and should, be utilized more at the pro level. “What I tried to reinstill in her game was the great things she did in college. Just bringing those back into her game, knowing how well it worked at the college level, that it would transition to the pro level.
“There were some things I saw she wasn’t doing in pro tennis because she felt like she had to do something bigger or better or different. You don’t. You have to be a good player. She was a very good player in college, and she carried that into the transition [to the pros].”
Speaking to that technical side of Collins’ game, Guilbeau said the Florida native has the complete package, from a flat serve that regularly checks in at 116 mph to a precise kick serve that she developed and mastered during her rise through the Pro Circuit. Then there’s the two-handed backhand, something Guilbeau characterizes as “world class,” plus a “sneaky-good” forehand, especially the inside-in shot in the ad court that he says has the ability to quickly end points.
While those offensive weapons were on full display in Melbourne, perhaps no more so than in the rout of three-time Grand Slam champion Kerber (Guilbeau called this one of the best performances he has seen from any female player in a long time), her former college coach said her defense and mental strength are equally as strong.
O’Leary, whose team is in Oklahoma City for the ITA Kickoff Weekend, echoed this assessment of Collins’ mental strength while also dismissing the idea that playing college tennis at the expense of turning pro sooner always hinders progress.
“Danielle is an incredible ambassador for collegiate tennis,” she said. “[She] is using her platform in such a positive way by sharing why she made her decision to go to the University of Virginia and what a positive impact it has had on her career and her life.
“Many players have the misconception that collegiate tennis can deter one’s progression to the WTA Tour, but Danielle is proving to everyone that is not the case. She is a perfect example of what young players can accomplish if they fully embrace the collegiate tennis experience and view it as an opportunity for personal development. I don’t think it’s any coincidence that Danielle, who has shown herself to be one of the most mentally tough players on tour, came up through the collegiate ranks. The experience of playing for your teammates and your university is always something a top collegiate player can draw on in their toughest moments on tour.”
Asked what the future holds after her semifinal defeat to Petra Kvitova on Thursday, the ever self-confident Collins, who is now coached by Pat Harrison at IMG Academy and supported by Mat Cloer from the USTA, stated she was ready to embrace the challenge ahead.
“I think last year I did a really great job of showing people in Miami and Indian Wells, San Jose, plenty of tournaments throughout the year, Eastbourne, that I can play at this level. I think I have justified that," Collins said.
“I'm really excited for my success to be recognized and to continue playing on the biggest stage and against the biggest and best opponents in the world. Maybe some people thought I was a one-hit wonder; it was a fluke. Clearly none of this has been a fluke.”