Danielle Collins, New No. 1 American Female Tennis Player After Australian Open, on What's Next

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danielle collins
danielle collins

Clive Brunskill/Getty Images

Danielle Collins is already having a banner 2022.

Though she lost the Grand Slam women's singles final to world No. 1 Ashleigh Barty at the Australian Open last Saturday, Collins tells PEOPLE that she feels like a winner regardless. Not only did she reach the first Grand Slam final of her career in Melbourne, but Collins also jumped 20 spots — from No. 30 to No. 10 — in the rankings to make her Top 10 debut. She's now, officially, the highest-ranked American female player.

"It means a lot to me. Especially growing up idolizing Venus and Serena Williams and them being the leaders of our sport in our country, especially for the last, I don't know, 20 years almost," Collins, 28, says. "To be the top-ranked American now means so much to me. It's something that I think everybody dreams of, for people that want to be professional tennis players. But to be able to accomplish this means the world to me. I'm kind of at a loss of words and almost uncomfortable thinking about it."

Collins, who had no traveling coach, no clothing sponsor, or shoe sponsor at the Open, adds, "It's just new for me, and I'm just trying to kind of take it all in. It almost just doesn't feel real."

The St. Petersburg, Florida, native began playing tennis at age seven and has been focused on being the best in the sport for two decades. Collins got a tennis scholarship to the University of Florida and transferred to the University of Virginia to take her college career to the next level, even winning the NCAA singles titles in 2014 and 2016.

"I'm just really excited that I was able to achieve this because to be Top 10 in the world has been on the top of my list for my goals for a while now. And now, I'm going to have to reevaluate and make some new goals, I'm really excited," Collins says, reflecting on her Australian Open feat.

ashleigh barty and danielle collins
ashleigh barty and danielle collins

Bai Xuefei/Xinhua via Getty Images)

But she remains humbled and determined to improve her game.

"To make the finals for the first time and to play in a really high-pressure situation against [Barty], playing against the No. 1 player in the world and with her home crowd support, I think that I'm going to be able to take this as a learning experience and use it for hopefully the next time, if I can make another one abroad," she says. "I don't really look at losing as a failure. I feel like I learned a lot of really positive lessons from our match and there's so much room for improvement. I feel like it's only positive vibes moving forward."

Collins says "the biggest" thing she took away from the tournament was "adding and implementing some variety into my game," explaining: "I had credited [Barty] after the match about how much I admire her as a player and the variety that she has across her game."

Collins' trajectory is anything but an overnight success. After years of debilitating health struggles that derailed her tennis dreams, the athlete finally reached a peak in her professional career.

Danielle Collins
Danielle Collins

WILLIAM WEST/AFP via Getty Images

"With the health challenges that I face with my endometriosis and rheumatoid arthritis, I think with all of that, it presented so many struggles that are very less than ideal for any professional athlete," she says.

During last year's Australian Open, Collins collapsed on the practice court in intense pain. She was diagnosed with endometriosis and underwent surgery in April 2021 to remove a tennis ball-sized cyst.

"My quality of life got to the point where it was unbearable," she says. "And having emergency surgery in the middle of my season last year — after playing some really great tennis, after actually having beaten [Barty] in Australia — and putting that on hold for two months. Then, continuing to have a little bit of a struggle coming back afterward, just because of everything that you go through in surgery when they tear through your abdominal walls, it takes a very long time to be able to strengthen that area back up. I strained that area because I came back too soon."

Collins says "there were lots of bumps in the road" but working through them only makes her recent career accomplishment that much sweeter.

"To finally get to this point where I'm just playing my best tennis and really just feeling my best on a day-to-day basis, physically, mentally, emotionally, it means so much to me," she says. "I felt like things were impossible. There were always seemed like challenges every day for a couple of years. To have gotten over this hump, for now, I hope I continue to be on the upward swing with my health. But you never what happens in life. So I'm just trying to be grateful for every day that I'm feeling great and just really happy about that."

Though it took longer than she initially expected for her quality of life to be where it's at today, Collins hopes others can learn from her experiences.

"I look back over the last couple of years and sometimes think, 'Oh, what could I have achieved if I had had this diagnosis a little bit earlier?' When you feel this bad, you don't get those days back," she says. "So I think the earlier people can get diagnosed, the better. But there has to be awareness around this condition. There's not a lot of discussion, I just hope that it might be something people consider when they're dealing with painful periods, and it might be something that they bring up to their doctor."

Collins' star is on the rise — and she's just getting started.

"Long-term goals are definitely winning a Grand Slam and getting to the Top 5 in the world, that would be an incredible accomplishment," she says. "I'd like to be able to go to the Olympics one day. I think that's coming up, pretty soon in one of my favorite cities [Paris]. I hope to be able to represent my country and have that experience, we'll see."