Danielle Collins is Going Out Swinging

Earlier this year, the perpetually feisty player affectionately known on Tennis Twitter as DanYELL announced she would retire at the end of the season. In honor of her stellar run at the Miami Open, we’re republishing an excerpt of a profile from Issue No. 10, by Vanity Fair veteran and author Lili Anolik.

Can a girl, one ultra-femme in look and manner, be cocksure? If she moves with a lithe feline grace, every gesture sleek, preening, self-contained, is it possible that she also swaggers and struts, chin up, shoulders back, like a gunslinger, like a gangster, like Mick Jagger? Is there a distaff equivalent to macho? It was these thoughts and thoughts of this ilk that were floating through my head the first time I watched Danielle Collins, age 25, from St. Petersburg, Fla., No. 35 in the WTA rankings, play. The occasion: the 2019 Australian Open. The round: fourth. The opponent: former world No. 1, current No. 2 seed, and winner of three Grand Slam championships Angelique Kerber. I’d never even heard of Collins before, understandable since she was 0 and 5 in the majors, if not quite forgivable since she’d clawed her way up from the qualies to the semis of Miami the previous spring, defeating, among others, Venus Williams. (Truth be known, I was only watching this match because I’d stumbled onto it while seeking another, Nadal vs. Berdych, scheduled for that day as well.) And yet here Collins was, not simply beating Kerber but cleaning her clock, the first set a blink-and-you-missed-it 6–0.

I couldn’t believe what I was seeing, except, as it turns out, I hadn’t seen anything yet. On the third point of the second set, Collins hit a drop-shot winner and unleashed a “Come on!” that was closer to a primal scream than a standard-issue exhortation: jaggedly guttural, at least half a dozen os in the on, delivered while looking Kerber dead in the eye, and punctuated with a Byronic shake of the fist, itself a response to the “Come on!” that Kerber had uttered—to herself, at normal volume, with the normal number of os in it, and no fist shake, Byronic or otherwise—the point prior. The emotional release of celebration or castigation at the end of a high-stakes exchange is recognized as a necessity for players, and is accepted, nay, embraced by the vast majority of fans. This, however, was not that. This was a clear instance of one-upmanship (one-up-yours-manship, really), nakedly ad hoc and aggressive and hostile in a way that was rare, practically unheard-of, in professional women’s tennis, which still, even after all these years, retains its patina of decorum: the ladylike skirts; the hand raised in feigned apology following a let ball; the solemn hush of the crowd, as if the contest were taking place in a library rather than a stadium.

Photos by Radka Leitmeritz for Racquet Issue No. 10

Collins has created for herself a persona that’s near mythic in its dimensions and implications: that of a wrong-side-of-the-tracks, in-your-face tough chick who’s born ready and up for a fight and out to take what’s hers, and maybe even some of what isn’t. And this persona all but demands a response from you, positive or negative. (At a tournament last fall, after a tense first set, including a heated exchange with the umpire, she returned to the court amidst boos and catcalls, two passionately ambivalent and, I’d argue, entirely characteristic reactions to her. She doesn’t do faux modesty or make excuses and is strikingly free of visible signs of insecurity, and this, coupled with her erotic charisma, can be off-putting to people. She gets under their skin.) Yes, she’s launching a jewelry line. Still, the accessory she wears most proudly is the chip on her shoulder.

Collins is the youngest child of Cathy, a preschool teacher, and the second child of Walter, a landscaper, whose work ethic Collins speaks of with reverence. (“My dad’s 81. He still mows the lawn every day.”) She’s an autodidact tennis-wise. (“I tried camp but my parents couldn’t really afford it, so I went to the park near our house and played against adults. Adults were nice to me. They’d teach me new stuff, like how to serve. And they were competitive, too.”) She was a very good junior, if not, as she is quick to tell you, a prodigy. (“I was number one in the 18-and-unders by the time I was 14, 15, but I wasn’t a superstar. My parents didn’t have the resources to send me to the international tournaments, and there were other people the USTA prioritized. Those people were able to play junior Wimbledon and junior Australian Open. The USTA chooses players it thinks are going to make it, and I just wasn’t one of them.”) Her college career started inauspiciously, with a benching her freshman year at the University of Florida. (“The coach there [Roland Thornqvist] didn’t like how feisty and confident I was. He maybe viewed me as egotistical.”) She’d turn it around, though, and fast, when she transferred her sophomore year to UVA, where she’d win the NCAA singles title with a broken wrist. (“For a while I had this shooting pain and I thought it was tendonitis. Finally, at the end of the fall semester, I went in for an X-ray. The doctors said, ‘When did you break your wrist?’ They told me that if I didn’t want to be in pain, they had to go in and take out the bone fragment, but it would be a two-month recovery. There was no way I was going to sit out another season, so I’m like, ‘I’ll just play with it.’”) She’d win the title again her senior year. After graduation, she’d make the decision to go pro.

Whether Collins has been overlooked and underestimated her entire tennis life is a matter of debate. What isn’t is that she feels overlooked and underestimated, and resents it hugely, and has used that huge resentment as fuel and a goad, motivation to accomplish her highly improbable goals. She’s got something to prove, and she’s going to prove it or die trying. (Check out her record against fellow Americans, several of whom are former USTA Chosen Ones, if you don’t believe me.) And it’s this combination of desire and desperation, along with an ability to dramatize both these things, that gives her matches an edge and a tension, makes them purely mesmerizing. She puts it all on the line—overtly, blatantly—every time she steps on the court. How can you tear your eyes away?