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She did it her way, and that's why Danielle Collins will succeed on the WTA Tour

Danielle Collins strung together a career-best result on the WTA Tour, when she reached the semifinals of the Miami Open in March. Michael Reaves/Getty Images

Split seconds after Danielle Collins crushed a deep serve that zipped across the net on match point at the Miami Open in March, Venus Williams grunted loudly in despair. She couldn't handle the pace, and her return fluttered into the net.

Collins threw her arms up in the air, and for just a few seconds jumped in joy, as did her parents, who were seen in the stands wiping away tears.

But the jubilation of beating her idol didn't last long. Collins walked to the net and shook Williams' hand as her smile became less pronounced. It was like she hadn't just won the most important match of her life.

Business as usual, right?

"Honestly, I enjoyed it for a second, but I was already thinking about what I was going to have to do in my next match," Collins told ESPN.com.

This was in complete contrast to her reaction when she first met Williams in the locker room before Miami began.

"I was just so excited to be breathing the same air as her," Collins said thinking back to that moment.

But Collins, 24, knew she had to compartmentalize. When she is on the court, she is hardly focusing on her opponent. Just the little, yellow tennis ball.

In January, Collins won a $125,000 challenger event in Newport, California and leaped to a career-high ranking of 120. The next month she fared well at another challenger tournament in Indian Wells, reaching the quarterfinals, before going on a stellar run at the BNP Paribas Open, also in Indian Wells. She won three matches, including one against fellow American Madison Keys.

But it was the following two weeks that put Collins on the tennis radar. At the Miami Open, she won two qualifying matches and five main-draw encounters -- a run that saw her take down the likes of Monica Puig, CoCo Vandeweghe, Donna Vekic and Williams. Collins' run ended in the semifinals, when she was beaten by 2017 French Open champion Jelena Ostapenko.

Still, the string of events saw her ranking climb even higher, this time to No. 45.

Not bad for someone who was anything but a tennis prodigy.

Creating her own path to the tour

Unlike most tennis players, Collins' tennis journey did not involve turning pro at 16 and globetrotting the world every other week.

She was 6 when her father, Wally Collins -- who played recreational tennis -- started taking her to the local courts in St. Petersburg, Florida, to burn off some of that childhood energy. She'd spend hours hitting tennis balls against the wall. It was one of the few things that kept her attention. Collins wanted more. At 7, she made her mom, Cathy, drive her to North Tampa to compete in a tournament, and after losing in the round-robin stage of the tournament, Danielle cried all the way back home. She was worried she had disappointed her father.

"She had no fear, and I remember thinking to myself, 'Wow, this girl has something that not many players have." Collins' former college teammate, Olivia Janowicz

Her mother tried to convince her everything was going to be OK, but more importantly, she saw Danielle's desire to compete -- and win.

As she grew older, Danielle developed a lethal kick serve. At 15, during the final of the USTA Futures event, Collins faced Olivia Janowicz -- a future fellow Florida Gator tennis player and friend. Janowicz had match point in the second set. A huge grant was on the line and college recruiters were at the match to watch Janowicz (who is a year older than Collins). During a long rally that lasted more than 20 shots, Collins ripped a high forehand winner from the middle of the court like it was just any other point and not the title on the line.

From there, Collins went on to win the set and then the match.

"She had no fear, and I remember thinking to myself, 'Wow, this girl has something that not many players have,'" Janowicz said. "No one yells, 'Come on!' as loud as this girl."

Collins' game is similar to her personality, according to her coach, Pat Harrison.

"It is refreshing to be around her," he said. "She is brutally honest off the court, and that strength spills onto the court."

Even then, while a lot of junior players traveled to Europe and other parts of the world to play internationally, Collins decided to stay put in local tournaments.

"We are a lower middle-class family and I just didn't have the money to do that and I was kind of forced to play tournaments that were more within our budget," Collins said.

Not too cool for school

Collins wanted to go to college, even as junior players around her turned pro.

When schools started recruiting her, she thought to herself, "I didn't grow up with a lot, so if I can get a full ride to a college, get a good education and play tennis, why would I not want to do that?"

At the time, Collins didn't understand why a lot of coaches wanted their students to choose a career as a pro or go to college. Why couldn't she have both?

Other athletes played college basketball and football, then turned pro and had great sports careers. That same logic applies to tennis, too, she argued. Plus, specialization in one area is crippling. She wanted to be a well-rounded athlete with an education to fall back on.

Collins played for the University of Florida for a year. It was tough. She wasn't getting enough playing time, and at the end of the year decided to transfer to University of Virginia (which had also recruited her the year before). Immediately, Collins knew that school was a better fit. She was getting to play important tournaments. In 2016, she graduated as the No. 1 college player in the country with two NCAA singles titles (in 2012 and 2014).

The first one did not come easy. She had played in pain the entire year -- every forehand she hit hurt her wrist -- and had to get cortisone shots to be able to play. A week after her first NCAA title, she underwent surgery. A floating bone was removed from her wrist.

Despite the injury, she knew she could have a career in tennis. Collins had defeated some men's players in an IMG Academy during training. She wanted to be a pro.

She just needed a break.

That's what she got

This past January at Newport, Collins was playing 18-year-old Russian Sofya Zhuk. It was not Collins' day. She was mishitting a lot of balls. Her timing was off. She was down a break in the first set, when she shook her head and jumped up and down in an effort to snap out of her funk. Collins said to herself, "You know what? This is enough. Get it together."

She rebounded to beat Zhuk in straight sets, 6-4, 6-4. Collins walked away from the court like she knew this was going to be the outcome all along.

"That was probably one of the most exciting moments of the year," she said. "Just knowing that I can be in a situation where I am not playing that well and I have the strength as a person to turn a match around."

That victory -- and the subsequent surge in rankings -- opened up avenues, and before she knew it, she was playing the US Open finalist Keys in Indian Wells. Collins' parents were watching from their living room in St. Petersburg. Her mother remembered yelling at her husband: "Come out here and watch this. Danielle is playing amazing tennis."

Tears ran down her face as she watched Danielle hit the winning shot. It was an upset. A big one.

Collins' winning streak continued in Miami, making headlines in major news outlets: "American qualifier in semifinal."

On April 9, Danielle sent a text: "Mamma, I am No. 45 in the world. Can you believe it?"

Her mom replied: "I do believe it. We never doubted you at all."

What comes next?

Collins has several goals. She wants to keep playing in bigger tournaments and keep beating top athletes. She wants to eventually be a seeded player in all the Grand Slams and reach the second week. Perhaps even find her way into the top 10.

"She is one of the top power players in the world right now," Harrison said. "The power, ability and desire to win a Grand Slam is all there, so all she can do now is play well and bring a Grand Slam trophy home."