Beating Venus Williams a testament to Danielle Collins' strong resilience

KEY BISCAYNE, Fla. -- It was a brawl, a ferocious struggle that often seemed less like a tennis match than a street fight between two women who had developed their games on uneven and sometimes broken courts far from the country clubs and tennis academies that produce so many of their peers.

Never mind that one of them, Venus Williams, is a five-time Wimbledon champion and, at age 37, a much-loved icon of the game. Never mind that her opponent, qualifier Danielle Collins, was ranked No. 167 at the start of this year, with just one tour level match (a loss) on her resume. Never mind that Collins had always "idolized" Williams.

Williams' mantra lately has been that stats and details don't matter very much. Every opponent is a threat. You just start out even and try to win. On a sultry evening here, when the persistent wind that has plagued so any matches finally expired, Collins certified Williams' opinion. She just went out there and won, crafting a sensational 6-2, 6-3 upset largely because she played bold, fearless tennis.

"[Collins] played very well, aggressively," Williams said afterward. "She went for every shot and they landed. There are days when they don't, and that wasn't today."

Unfortunately for Williams, this was a day when her own shots didn't land. While she put more than 70 percent of her trademark, heavy serves into play, she won just 51 percent of those points. Collins, by contrast, served just a tick better than 50 percent but won 66 percent of them.

Collins' determination and composure throughout the match was striking, a testament to a leathery resilience that was partly inspired by the Williams sisters.

"Growing up, watching so many of their matches, I could really relate to them, to their upbringing," Collins said. "I didn't have an easy upbringing. I didn't come from a super wealthy family. I wasn't at the country club every day, playing in camps with the other kids."

Collins' father, Walter, was a commercial fisherman and even today, at age 80, he works as a landscaper, mowing lawns while his daughter mows down seeds at tournaments. Collins was a court rat who spent adolescent days at the public courts near her home in St. Petersburg, Florida. She importuned anyone to hit or play practice matches with her.

"The Williams sisters went through something similar, and that really resonates with me," she said, adding that having to blaze her own trail made her resourceful. "When you're little and have to go up to people and ask, 'Hey, will you hit some balls with me?' it makes you a little adult, it makes you grow up. Even at a young age I was pretty mature."

The experience also endowed Collins with a patience and grit that is evident in her game. It has also given her perspective that she feels is different from that of her peers. "I'm just so grateful every time I go out to play a tennis match, knowing how different it can be."

Those circumstances and experiences also motivated Collins to attend -- and finish -- college, something neither of her parents had done. That turned out well for the University of Virginia. She became a two-time NCAA champ and wasn't even tempted to turn professional after logging the first one. "It costs over $50,000 to go to UVA," she said. "And I was really happy being on a team, being in the classroom."

Living with a target on her back as a dominant collegiate player helped Collins develop the aplomb she shows on the court. Her current run really began at Indian Wells, where she qualified and upset Madison Keys en route to the fourth round. That run didn't satisfy or cause Collins to take her foot off the gas. It inspired her to surpass that career-best result here and become the first WTA qualifier to make the semifinals at this event.

Collins will play French Open champion Jelena Ostapenko in the semifinals Thursday night. They've met before, but only in a junior tournament. "It was on clay court; a lot of long points, and I won the match. That's all I can remember."

It promises to be an explosive clash, as both women are fearless ball-strikers. Collins will rely once again on a persuasive combination of excellent movement and a willingness to open up the court with heavy groundstrokes. She understands her new status will bring greater pressure to perform, but professes not to be too concerned about that.

"I'm kind of all business," she said. "I try to be in the moment, without looking forward to what's in the future, not thinking about the past."

Perhaps so, but her recent exploits will be a nice bit of past to think about someday.