From Qualifier To Quarterfinals, Collins Continuing Dream Run in Miami

WASHINGTON, March 28 (by Michael Dickens)

It’s been an incredible March for American Danielle Collins. Building upon her round of 16 finish at the BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells earlier this month, which included a Top 20 win over fellow American Madison Keys, Collins has reached the quarterfinals at the Miami Open presented by Itaú. Together, they represent a pair of career-best results.

For all the talk about Serena Williams‘ comeback after a year-long maternity leave, Collins arguably is the best story in American tennis right now.

On Monday evening, the 24-year-old former two-time NCAA singles champion from the University of Virginia beat local favorite Monica Puig of Puerto Rico, 3-6, 6-4, 6-4, for her ninth win in her last 10 hard court matches. It improved her 2018 win-loss record to 18-4.

Although many in the Grandstand crowd were cheering for Puig, Collins kept her composure and stayed focused throughout the 2 hour and 11 minute match. She won 35 of 44 (80%) of her first-serve points, which included six service aces, and broke Puig six times in 14 opportunities.

“The first set was closer than it seemed,” Collins told after beating Puig. “I knew that if I could play a hair bit better, I could get easily in control of the match and take it under my wing. That’s exactly what I did. I had a lot of motivation today to win that match.”

After winning two qualifying matches just to reach the main draw, Collins will face No. 8 Venus Williams, whom she considers one of her tennis idols, in the quarterfinals on Wednesday. The Collins-Williams match leads off the Stadium’s night session and should draw a nice crowd. A three-time Miami Open singles champion, Williams advanced by knocking out 2017 Miami Open champion Johanna Konta of Great Britain on Monday afternoon.

“I’m looking forward to playing somebody I’ve idolized my entire life,” said Collins, a native of St. Petersburg, Florida. She was just four-years-old when Williams won her first Miami Open title. “I’ve had the two best weeks of tennis in my life. Win or lose, I don’t really have anything to lose. I’m going to go out there and do the best I can, and it’s going to be a great match, I think.”

With her recent run, Collins has moved up 28 spots to No. 65 in the WTA live rankings, which represents her career best ranking. She’s currently ranked No. 6 among the American women. Earlier this season, Collins won the WTA 125K Oracle Challenger Series tournament in Newport Beach, California, her fifth career singles title, which set the tone for her season. She’s also won four USTA Pro Circuit titles going back to 2011.

“This has been a high for her, erasing so many question marks,” said Tennis Channel analyst Tracy Austin during Tuesday morning’s Tennis Channel Live show. “A month and a half ago, she was playing challengers and ranked outside of the Top 100. Now, she’s well inside the Top 100. She’s fearless as well. I think she will go out there (against Venus) and do well.”

After her victory Monday night over Puig, Collins received a supportive tweet from her alma mater:

Isner reclaims No. 1 American spot

After going 0-6 against World No. 3 Marin Cilic, John Isner has won three of his last four matches against the Croatian. In Tuesday’s lead-off match in the Stadium, the No. 12 seed Isner (ranked No. 17) won convincingly over the No. 2 seed Cilic, 7-6 (0), 6-3, overcoming windy conditions that challenged both players. It was the highest-ranked player he’s beaten this season. In advancing to a quarterfinal showdown against No. 19 seed Hyeon Chung on Wednesday afternoon, Isner showed an abundance of focus and calm against Cilic.

Interviewed by Tennis Channel after his win, Isner said this was his best serving match of the year. Indeed, he fired 12 aces, placed 73 percent of his first serves in play, and won 41 of 48 (85%) first-serve points. Also, Isner did not commit any double faults, lost just 16 points on his serve, and faced no break points from Cilic. The 32-year-old American credited his recent doubles title that he won with Jack Sock in Indian Wells for improving his confidence.

“I certainly served well, much better than my first two matches of the tournament,” said Isner. “More importantly than that, I stayed calm and deposed in those tricky conditions. 

“I know Marin was having a tough time – he didn’t have a good serving percentage (58%) – and it’s tough to play in that kind of wind. I think my demeanor on the court is what really pulled me through.”

In reaching his first quarterfinal of 2018, Isner admitted this is the best he’s felt all year. “Any wins at any level builds your confidence,” he said, after improving his 2018 win-loss record to 5-6. Now, having reclaimed his spot as the No. 1 American male (replacing Sam Querrey), it’s on to face Chung, who advanced in straight sets over Joao Sousa of Portugal. Although, the South Korean beat Isner, 7-6 (3), 5-7, 6-2, in Auckland back in January in their latest meeting, the American owns a 2-1 head-to-head advantage. “He’s an unbelievable player. My hands are going to be full,” said Isner.

Stephens dominant against Kerber

Reigning U.S. Open champion Sloane Stephens showed her dominance over Angelique Kerber of Germany on Stadium court Tuesday afternoon. The 25-year-old American needed barely more than an hour – 61 minutes in all – to become the first to advance to the women’s semifinals, winning 6-1, 6-2 over the 2016 Australian Open and U.S. Open champion. She will face wild card Victoria Azarenka on Thursday.

In her last 10 matches against lefties, Stephens is an impressive 9-1.

Building on her round of 16 win over No. 3 seed Garbiñe Muguruza on Monday, the No. 13 seed Stephens was solid from start to finish in her quarterfinal against the No. 10 seed Kerber – and played consistent despite the windy conditions that prevailed in the Stadium. She won 78 percent (25 of 32) of her first-serve points, hit 22 winners and faced just one break point, which she saved. Meanwhile, Kerber won just 52 percent (16 of 31) of her first-serve points, well below her season average of 69 percent, and hit just nine winners while committing 25 unforced errors.

“Sometimes, you have to get out of your comfort zone to get your best results, but I stuck to my game plan the whole time,” said Stephens during a post-match TV interview. “I’m super excited playing here.”

Stephens broke Kerber four times in 10 tries and outpointed the German 60-38 to advance to her first WTA Premier Mandatory semifinal. She improved her win-loss record to 7-4 while the loss dropped Kerber to 25-5.

“Sloane Stephens is an absolute joy to watch when she’s into it,” tweeted David Law of BBC5 Live and co-host of The Tennis Podcast. 

During her post-match press conference, Kerber said she felt the effect of Monday’s nearly three-hour effort to beat qualifier Yafan Wang. “I always believe I can win the match or turn it around, but at the end when I was trying to be aggressive, one step was too slow every time,” she said. “I was always one step too far from the ball and then I make mistakes.”

With her victory over Kerber, Stephens broke into the Top 10 for the first time in her career, moving up three spots in the WTA live rankings to No. 9. According to New York Times tennis correspondent Ben Rothenberg, Stephens doesn’t have any points to defend until August. “Enviable opportunity for her to push further,” he tweeted after her win.

Five wins in a row for Azarenka

Wild card Victoria Azarenka continued her comeback with a 7-5, 6-3 win over No. 5 seed Karolina Pliskova by overcoming four breaks of her service. To her credit, the 186th-ranked Azarenka who moved into the Top 100 with her win (moving up to No. 98), broke Pliskova seven times and outpointed her 75-61 to advance to the semifinals against No. 13 seed Sloane Stephens on Thursday.

“It wasn’t easy; Karolina is a good player,” said Azarenka, the 2016 Miami Open champion, during an on-court interview after her win. “I had to fight back. I had to adjust to the wind and play safer. However, I think I moved pretty well.” 

Azarenka, who has won five matches in a row to improve her win-loss record this season to 6-1, has lost just one set in Miami. Her win over Pliskova – the highest-ranked player she’s beaten in 2018 – extended her winning streak at Crandon Park to 11 matches. Azarenka’s last loss was to Stephens, 6-1, 7-5, in the second round at Indian Wells, in which she won just 15% of her second-serve points. “I feel like I need to play my best tennis to beat her,” she said.

Moving on …

• Moving into the men’s quarterfinals: No. 5 seed Juan Martín del Potro defeated No. 22 seed Filip Krajinovic, 6-4, 6-2, for his 14th consecutive victory. His next opponent is No. 20 seed Milos Raonic, who beat unseeded Jeremy Chardy, 6-3, 6-4. Also, No. 16 seed Pablo Carreño Busta advanced easily over No. 31 seed Fernando Verdasco, 6-0, 6-3 in a matchup of Spaniards. Next, he’ll face No. 6 seed Kevin Anderson, who beat unseeded and 63rd-ranked Frances Tiafoe, 7-6 (3), 6-4.

• Props to Borna Coric, who has been amazing in three-set matches this year, winning 86 percent of them (6 of 7). His latest was a 7-6 (2), 4-6, 6-4 hard-fought win over unseeded Denis Shapovalov. The 21-year-old Croatian, seeded No. 29, has put together a semifinal finish at Indian Wells and followed it up by reaching the quarterfinals at Miami. He’s 10-2 in his last 12 hard court matches. Next, he’ll face No. 4 seed Alexander Zverev, who defeated No. 17 seed Nick Kyrgios 6-4, 6-4.

About the author

Michael Dickens is a Washington, D.C.-area freelance journalist who writes and blogs about tennis.