Tuesday, July 23, 2024

Daniel Collins wins the Miami Open – his way

MIAMI GARDENS, Florida — The moment Daniel Collins let Elena Rybakina and 14,000 fans into Hard Rock Stadium and everyone else in tennis knew what happened on Saturday. In the game.

Rybakina did what she usually does, using a right-handed trebuchet to launch one of her missiles into the middle of the court. That's when Collins, one of tennis' greatest catch-and-rep talents, reared up and ripped a swing that took both of her feet off the ground, curling a ball that didn't return and taking a lead that she continued on her way. For the victory that is the cornerstone of his tennis career.

About an hour later, she was standing on the podium clutching a large glass trophy for winning one of the sport's biggest titles in a tournament she watched as a child growing up on the other side of Florida. Collins beat the Wimbledon champion 7-5, 6-4, one of the most feared players in the game. And she managed it just in time, because here's perhaps the strangest detail about these magical two weeks, hours away from the public courts that began there – come season's end, she's gone.

Collins, 30, only eight years into his pro career and playing the best tennis of his career, vows to hang on to whatever happens later in the year.

A 2022 Australian Open finalist, two-time NCAA champion and a player with a locker room reputation as one of the most dangerous in the game may be stuck in her groove. Thanks for the memories, this and what else will happen in the next seven months.

She was tired and exhausted from trying to compete at the highest level while managing endometriosis and rheumatoid arthritis and the chronic pain that both conditions can bring. And the solitude and sport of the road. She wants to start a family and doctors tell her that, given her medical history, it is better to go late.

Few take issue with any of this. If nothing else, Collins speaks the truth like few people in the game. Always have.

However, his plans have confused many around the game. As she proved Saturday and the past two weeks, when healthy and locked in, she's better than most girls. They know it, and she knows it.

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And there's a quality that Collins brings to a tennis court, a fire and energy and the ability to take thousands of stadium-packed crowds from anywhere in the world on a journey with him. Andy Murray does it. So is Rafael Nadal. Serena Williams did. Bianca Andreescu, a Canadian who won the US Open at age 19 in 2019 and has battled injuries ever since, can do the same.

To see these players and a few others is to ride shotgun with them. What a ride it was, especially on a day like Saturday, when Collins was all fist-pumps, and explosive screams and comers, and 14,000 people in the makeshift arena at Hard Rock Stadium with him, especially that moment, when one final, signature crosscourt backhand ripped across the court.

(Robert Branch/Getty Images)

Rybakina watched it travel. Collins yelled, and she bent over her knees for a moment, letting all the noise fall on her.

“I felt like I was playing in front of thousands of my best friends,” Collins said.

From the outside, Collins' run to the finals in Miami was ridiculous.

She is the 53rd ranked player in the world to win the Miami Open since 1985. Last month he played in the qualifiers to participate in such tournaments below the Grand Slam tournaments. He had never reached the final in a tournament of this magnitude before. He injured his back last month in Austin, Texas and had to pull out in the middle of his quarterfinal.

He even committed himself to taking some time off the pro tennis hamster wheel during this last ride around the world. After losing in the second round of the Australian Open, he took a 10-day trip to Tasmania, intending not to return to that part of the world for a while.

Since then he has been traveling without a coach. She grabbed a college coach from her hometown of St. Petersburg, who has worked with her on and off since 2015, to take her through the tournament, Ben Maxwell, Eckert College's men's and women's coach. He was here with her last weekend, then practiced most of the week at Eckerd, and then came to the semifinals on Thursday.

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1980s American star Jimmy Arias, who runs tennis development at IMG Academy and has been one of her tennis gurus since childhood, came to her box on Saturday to help.

So, what exactly happened here to make it all come together like never before?

Did he see anything else this week?

She was very resilient and really enjoying herself,” Maxwell said Saturday evening. “Off the court, we're having a great time. I played some golf the last couple of nights and kept a low key off the tennis court. I think that's very important. Everyone gets caught up in tennis, tennis, tennis and training and training. Sometimes I take a step back and do non-tennis. “I think it's good to do some activities and calm down and she knows what to do. She's a talented, talented player and one of the best players in the world. I'm a big advocate of keeping balance off the tennis court. I think it helps with the mindset.”

About golf. She plays on her days off. Nothing too serious. A little time on the range, then a few holes. She wasn't very good, she said. (Maxwell doesn't argue with this assessment.) But that's why she likes to play. It's better to be bad at something than to try to improve it. It keeps her brain sharp and thinking about something other than tennis. Then she returns to tennis and feels absolutely fantastic.

She surfs a lot for the same reason. But the waves aren't that good around Miami or anywhere near the big tennis tournaments, so it's golf. Plus, it allows her to live the ideal Floridian life — a little golf, a little tennis, maybe a dip in the pool at the resort where she's staying.

“Living the dream,” she said the other day.

Afterward, Quincy, her poodle mix, accompanies her to the competition and holds her equal in the manner of a service dog. “Mr. K.” She calls him.

She sticks to “Mr. K.” There are a few videos of her playing at the doggy daycare during her matches. Quincy is so confused by it all, he said. He looks at his mother. He sees a ball. He didn't understand why he wasn't there and wasn't involved.

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However, he was never far from her thoughts. Maybe that's why she was so effective in Miami. She won 14 out of 15 sets in seven matches and later recused herself from post-match chats.

As Rybakina stubbornly tries to crush the party that many people have been putting in motion all day, as she desperately tries to close out the biggest title of her career, Mr. K., not in her mind.

Everywhere she walked Saturday, on the field and in every corner of the tennis court, Collins heard voices.

Let's go DC.

You can do this.

We love you.

She had never experienced anything like this before, except when everyone gave her hometown hero the same treatment at the finals in Australia two years ago. But this time it was all for her.

It was surreal,” she said. “So I will never forget this day.”

From the start of the day, she told them to keep their emotions in the locker room and wait until after the match. As one match point, then another and another slipped away, she returned to her working point routines. Return to the breath as in her yoga practice. Hop, hop, hop to keep her legs alive and to dissipate the nervous energy so it doesn't get in the way of the things she knows she needs.

Then came one last ripping back.

“I had so many thoughts in my head,” she said. “At the end, I was like, 'Thank God, thank you, I got over that hurdle.'”

Of course, there was another question. Still going to quit?


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The questions come from a good place, she said. They make her feel wanted. There are other things she likes. Good stuff. Great stuff. She wasn't going to let anything get in the way of her trying to get it.

Again, Collins spoke the truth.

(Frey/TPN/Getty Images)

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