Danimal’s dream fulfilled — Final quotes from the Miami Open

The IX: Tennis Tuesday with Joey Dillon, April 2, 2024

Howdy, y’all, and Happy Tennis Tuesday! This past weekend marked the end of the first hardcourt season and we’re now diving into clay with Charleston and Bogata. However, we’re not talking about that today.

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This week’s column is all about Danielle Collins’ fairytale fortnight to take the biggest title of her career in her home state six years after her original breakthrough to the tournament semifinals in 2018.

Let’s go back to Jan. 18, when Collins announced that 2024 was going to be her final year on tour. To say the least, I was beyond bummed. If you’ve been a longtime subscriber, you know that she is one of my all-time favorite players. I’ve been shouting from the rooftops about the American since her college days at the University of Virginia when she ripped a backhand down-the-line winner against Simona Halep at the 2014 US Open, ending with her trademark “KAMAN”…….in the second point of the match. I still remember Martina Navratilova saying “Oh, hello!” and since then, she’s brought grit, feistiness, determination, sass, flair and more to the tour.

Even before Miami, Collins has had a pretty solid season. She was on the verge of upsetting No. 1 Iga Swiatek in Melbourne, beat Naomi Osaka in Abu Dhabi and quarterfinaled in both Dubai and Austin. She turned 30 in the off-season and for a player that has only been at the WTA level full-time since 2018, many have been wondering why she’s saying goodbye. Honestly, it’s pretty simple.

Collins has been upfront about the health struggles she faces every day with her rheumatoid arthritis diagnosis in 2019 and then endometriosis in 2021. She’s always been a player that’s been able to realize the window of being a top professional athlete is short and she wants to experience other things in life like motherhood and she’s called out the double standard that men wouldn’t be getting the same treatment — and she’s right. Though tennis has been her everything since she was a kid, she’s always thought about the bigger picture — studying for the LSAT while grinding in ITFs after school, pursuing a jewelry line or mentoring kids in her hometown of St. Petersburg.

I think it’s easy for casual fans to protest an athlete’s retirement decision because we’re not in their shoes whatsoever. College alums like Collins turn professional at 22 or 23, so a seven-year window is even shorter in the grand scheme, but we have to pause and realize that they’re also human. These players wake up everyday with aches and pains, go through the rehab, practicing, travel, matches — for decades. We see them on our TVs where they make tennis look so easy and we see them as superhuman, but — PLOT TWIST — they aren’t. They want to travel to places and actually see the culture. They want to be able to see loved ones for more than a couple of days at a time. They want to find hobbies that they put on the backburner because they might get hurt trying it out. Yes, they’re making millions of dollars, but there’s a ton of sacrifices they give up to entertain people like us.

Now, just over two months after announcing that she’s bidding farewell, Collins is on the verge of the Top 20 again and is putting a jolt in the Paris Olympics conversation for Team USA. With her first WTA 1000 title, Collins bypasses Madison Keys to be the No. 4 American currently in the Race to Paris and is just behind No. 3 Emma Navarro. There’s plenty of tennis to be played, but Collins is playing with a freedom that is beyond refreshing. After losing the first set of the tournament to Bernarda Pera, she didn’t lost a set and only one went beyond 6-3. She’s playing her aggressive, feisty tennis that continues to capture the love and adoration of tennis fans and I honestly think — and I hope — we’re going to see her in Paris.

The Danimal Retirement Tour is sure going to be a hot topic the rest of the year after this fortnight. However, it’s time for links!

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This week in women’s tennis

Not only did Danielle Collins put her name in the ring for Team USA, but so did Bethanie Mattek-Sands and Sofia Kenin. The duo didn’t even get into the doubles draw and got a spot as alternates following a withdrawal but left the 305 as champions defeating Gabriela Dabrowski and Erin Routliffe in the final.

Nadia Podoroska and Jessica Bouzas Maneiro were the winners of the two WTA 125 clay tournaments held this past week.

Angella Okutoyi is carrying a torch for Black African players, who have been longing for a top professional player after starting to create junior and pro opportunities all over the continent.

I agree with Dana Matthewson: We need more wheelchair tennis tournaments at ATP and WTA events

If Daria Kasatkina has anything to say, she won’t suggest Caroline Wozniacki be your chauffeur in Charleston.

While the Saudi super tour seems to be paused for now, Katrina Adams expressed how professional players deserve more money than they’re already making.

Emma Navarro is soaring up the rankings, but she’s attacking the cartwheel like her rise — one step at a time.

Congratulations to Alison Riske-Amritraj, who announced she is expecting her first child this summer. Speaking of, before bringing kids was mainstream on the WTA, there was Lindsay Lee-Waters, who was a mother of two as she toured in ITF and WTA events. She spoke to LaGrange High School students in Georgia, instilling some wisdom she learned from her two-decade career.

Mainstay Entertainment shared that Serbian player Aleksandra Krunic will be the focus of a documentary detailing what it really takes to be an athlete outside of the glamour on and off of the court.

Former top-20 player Peanut Louie-Harper was featured as a “Remarkable Woman” in the Bay Area for the work she’s done in retirement with her non-profit.

Madison Keys and the Credit One Charleston Open held a pro-am event, raising $75,000 for her Kindness Wins Foundation.

While Iga Swiatek, Coco Gauff and Aryna Sabalenka headline the Madrid entry list, Naomi Osaka was granted a wildcard into the WTA 250 in Rouen, France.

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Tweet of the week

A really, really great winner’s speech from Collins showing the type of person she is:

Five at The IX: Miami Open Week 2

Q. Danielle, obviously St. Pete girl, obviously Florida, and then you being the first American woman to win at Hard Rock, that’s something special since the tournament changed locations. You mentioned obviously how hard it was to hide the emotions, but had some fist pumps out there, building up the crowd a bit. In the final match point, can you share those emotions a bit? What was that like?

DANIELLE COLLINS: Well, I had a few match points, and Elena was doing some great things out there and pushing me back and really forcing me to come up with some good stuff movement-wise, hitting hard shots, hitting the small parts of the court.

So that is really challenging when someone forces you to come up with your best stuff. I certainly felt that way on the returns and the serving today. I knew that I had to bring my A game.

You know, I think it’s great when you have so many matches where you feel like you’re in the zone and you’re playing well. I’m a human, and so sometimes you start sitting there and, you’re like, Is this too good to be true? Am I going to lose my ability to place the ball inside the court today? Am I going to trip and fall?

That’s a thing that kind of crosses your mind. Is this too good to be true, the way I’m playing right now?

And then just trying to bring it in and stay focused and think about things tactically, technically, and make adjustments when needed. Because I think this is what tennis is all about. It’s a game of adjusting.

I had to do that a lot during this match and had to be open-minded and try to get a little bit creative. I did a good job of that.

I told myself, Just keep those emotions in the locker room, and then we can go and be emotional a little bit later. But it was hard to hold it in. It was just such a happy day for me on the court. Whether I won or lost, having the crowd support, I have never gotten to experience anything like it.

Only thing similar is playing against Barty in Australia, and the crowd was the other way, which was also really cool to be a part of, as well, but to have, like, literally felt like I was playing in front of thousands of my best friends, I just — yeah, I’ll never forget it (smiling).

Q. Danielle, just to go back to that point and that game, really, which you said was really long and lots of battling, it was tense to watch. I imagine it was extremely tense to play. Were there other moments, like, in your career that flashed through your mind at that point, like NCAA games with the NCAA title on the line? Or what were you calling on to get through that and find the stuff that you needed?

DANIELLE COLLINS: Yeah, well, I think all of the past experiences, positive and negative, definitely help. You have moments where you’re, like, oh, this is similar to that and that can help me. Then you have moments where, Wait a second, up a set and a break, oh, not this again. [Laughter.]

That can creep in too at times. I think just staying within myself, a lot of the psychological work that I have done has been kind of centered around breathing and the routines between the point to kind of get me centered. I feel like this tournament has been the most centered that I have been.

I know it sounds like a little yoga, hippy-dippy, and I know that’s probably really weird with my persona, but I do try to kind of think about that stuff a lot to keep me in check. You know, I feel like the experience that I had, like, playing in Australia in front of big crowds, like, especially when I played Barty was really helpful.

I also think in other finals that played like San Jose, Palermo, and those were much smaller arenas compared to what we were playing in today, I think that helped. Playing under pressure at Billie Jean King Cup, a couple of close ties there that I’ve gotten to be a part of, you’re playing for something bigger than yourself. That is a lot more pressure, just like in college.

So I think all those experiences helped me. But I was very focused too on having my box help me as much as they could. Having that support is critical, I think, for us as individual athletes. Having people that have been in my corner for so long like Ben and then Jimmy coming out today helps, nice to have a former world No. 2 in your corner giving you some tactical advice in those moments because they have been there. That was really helpful, as well.

I think I have to credit my box too for helping me get through those big moments. There are moments where you feel like you get punched in the stomach and moments where you feel so excited and happy. It’s just a roller coaster out there. I think it’s like that for everyone.

Q. When you woke up this morning or stepped on the court today with knowing that this is going to be your last Miami Open or the last year, does this decision make you feel more pressure or more you can appreciate the situation more?

DANIELLE COLLINS: Yeah, I mean, when I walked in today, I immediately had, like, a few cameramen on me and we were having some great moments with my team. I said, you know, these are some, like, really special moments. I don’t want to be so focused on everything else where I don’t get to kind of take it in.

I really think, like, part of the reason why I played so well and did a good job today was because I had that mentality of, like, I’m going to enjoy every minute of this. This is my last year, this is my last season, and these are some of my final events. I want to remember these moments.

I do look back on sometimes different stages of my career, and be like, wow, that’s kind of a blur and I don’t really remember it that much. It doesn’t really seem that long ago when you say, oh, four years or six years, but in a lot of ways it can feel like an eternity.

I’m just trying to get better at taking it in, like you were saying. I feel like today I woke up and when we were in the car, I was, like, oh, this is going to be the first time I play a finals in my home state and have a lot of crowd support. This is so exciting. We changed the playlist, got really pumped up. It was just so much fun. This day has been, like, the best.

I’ve been going, going, going for the past few months playing back-to-back tournaments. Now I get to celebrate with friends. I have so many family members and friends that have flown in from all around the country and world. We’re going to have a great weekend. We got a pickleball tournament coming up tomorrow. Yeah, I’m competitive, so we are always doing competitive activities, fun fact.

Yeah, I’ve got a night out on the town. Haven’t done that in a while. Hopefully I can stay up for it (Laughter.) And wear a nontennis outfit. I’m so excited. [Laughter.]

Q. Which one was more disappointing: Last year’s final or this one, do you feel more disappointed about?

ELENA RYBAKINA: I think it’s different, but it’s just completely different situation. Last year I was coming from Indian Wells, and I knew to make Sunshine Double, everybody says it’s very difficult and with difficult conditions, big change from Indian Wells coming to Miami, so I was there also focusing match by match.

Here I was happy with two good matches, and then again I came to the final. So pretty much I wouldn’t say disappointing. I think last year and this year, it’s good result. Of course it’s not easy to lose in the final, but in the end, in the long run, I think it’s still a great achievement.

Q. Athletes, competitors always talk about the hunger, right, the hunger to win, hunger to succeed. How would you describe what that concept means to you now at this stage in your career? Is it very different or not different at all to the Vika of 10, 15 years ago in terms of what she thought being hungry as a competitor meant?

VICTORIA AZARENKA: Well, I think there is two different ways to look at it. One is what it motivates you to win, right? For me, it definitely shifted when I was young. And especially where I come from and the way my career was going, one of my top motivations was to prove people wrong and to really, like, you say I can’t? Well, watch me. So that was my primary motivation.

After I achieved being No. 1, winning Grand Slams, winning gold medal, and so many titles, and probably also becoming a parent, like, that motivation was not a priority for me. It’s not something that made me, you know, turn on, like, beast mode.

So I needed to find what it is is I don’t need to prove people wrong. I mean, I have a big list of résumé to not do that but to shift and find what it is that’s going to motivate me. That’s been, I wouldn’t say a challenge, but it’s definitely a searching process.

I feel like this year, especially like after the kind of pretty challenging last year, I feel like I was able to at least find that space, and I’m working through that. It’s not an overnight thing and, you know, once you got it everything goes smoothly, but I feel like I’m in a good place where I’m on a good track.

I am hungry, and my hunger comes from that I want to learn more and I’m trying new things and I’m okay with those. I feel like I’m accepting a little bit better, not failing but trial-and-error concept. It’s not easy, because I want to win all the time in everything I do.

I have a little boy who is mirroring me, so I can understand how intense that can be. But yeah, so for me, I would use those in two different concepts.

Mondays: Soccer
By: Annie Peterson, @AnnieMPeterson, AP Women’s Soccer
Tuesdays: Tennis
By: Joey Dillon, @JoeyDillon, Freelance Tennis Writer
Wednesdays: Basketball
By: Howard Megdal, @HowardMegdal, The Next
Thursdays: Golf
By: Addie Parker, @addie_parker, The IX
Fridays: Hockey
By: @TheIceGarden, The Ice Garden
Saturdays: Gymnastics
By: Lela Moore, @runlelarun, Freelance Writer

Written by Joey Dillon