Playing in front of a boisterous crowd that overwhelmingly favored Puig, a Miami resident, Collins relied on her power and savvy to come back from a set down.
Entering this tournament, Collins’s ranking had risen to No. 93 from No. 160 at the beginning of the year. Based on her performance here, she is set to soar past several fellow Americans (perhaps as many as six) when the new rankings come out next week.
Collins had to win two qualifying matches in Miami just to get into the main singles draw, where she beat Irina-Camelia Begu, No. 16 seed CoCo Vandeweghe, Donna Vekic and Puig to reach the quarterfinals. The last three matches went three sets, and Collins overwhelmed her opponents in those final sets (6-1 against Vandeweghe, 6-1 against Vekic and 6-2 against Puig).
Credit Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images
Collins said she inherited her drive and work ethic from her father, Walter Collins, a landscaper who, his daughter said with obvious admiration, still mows lawns every day at age 80. Her mother, Cathy is a preschool teacher. Neither of them went to college, and Collins said their backgrounds made her even more determined to attend and finish college.
“My dad is the most hard-working person I know and both of my parents, nothing was ever handed to them,” she said. “Their opportunity growing up was different from my opportunity, and I’m grateful that they did everything they could for me.”
Collins’ father liked to play tennis, but he was by no means a professional coach. Her parents had little background in the costly, high-pressured world of tennis development, let alone access to the elite academies and junior circuits that funnel so many top players into the highest professional ranks.
But after seeing the Williams sisters, Collins knew she, too, could make it from public courts to the pros. As a child, she was a fixture at the local courts in St. Petersburg, whacking balls off the backboard and hanging around looking for a game. Eventually some “old people,” as she described them, asked her to join their league and they taught her how to play doubles.
Between ages 8 and 12, she designed her own high-performance development program — she would approach grown-ups, middle-aged men and women, at the courts and ask them to hit with her, and they usually did, she said. By the time she was 12, she could beat even the best of them.
“It taught me to be really savvy and resourceful,” she said, “to be like a little adult.”
Her parents took her to a few camps, and some coaches helped out. Eventually Collins attracted the attention of major universities. She chose Virginia, for a combination of the athletics and academics.
Collins won the N.C.A.A. singles championship in 2014 but turned down the opportunity to turn professional because her greatest victory, she felt, would be to graduate. She did, in 2016 with a degree in media studies, and she also won her second N.C.A.A. singles title that year.
As much as she learned on the court in college, Collins believes that it was her hard work in the classroom, and the degree in her back pocket, that gives her an edge in matches today. Owning a degree from a top university, she said, provides her with a sense of calm in critical moments of big matches, melting away some of the pressure that her opponent may feel more.
“It gives you peace of mind knowing this isn’t do or die,” she said. “If tennis doesn’t work out, if I get injured, I’m going to be O.K. I’m going to be able to get a job, and I’m going to be able to get a good job. I went to a good university and I worked hard. I can go out on the court with a much different perspective maybe than people who didn’t go to college, and I really try to utilize that to the fullest.”