Just three years ago Danielle Collins was not well known outside the college tennis world. She was fresh off her second NCAA singles title at the University of Virginia, but still yet to turn professional.
Shortly after graduating from UVA with a bachelor's degree in Media Studies, she turned her attention to tennis full-time. She ranked No. 162 in the world a year ago, but had a major breakthrough at this year's Australian Open, becoming the first former collegiate player to reach a Grand Slam women's semifinal in the modern era. Now she's up to No. 35 and is preparing for the U.S. Open, which starts Monday.
"I think a lot of times when you have success people think it just happens overnight but it really takes years and years of practicing really hard and making important sacrifices in your life over a long period," Collins told CNBC. "I'm finally piecing together all the parts of my game and playing some great tennis."
The 25-year-old from St. Petersburg, Florida took an unconventional path to stardom. She was not a child prodigy and says she initially learned tennis by hitting against a wall at a local park.
She also does not have a tennis pedigree. Her father played some recreational tennis, but worked as the owner of a landscaping company and her mother was a teacher. Collins ultimately was a part of the Raymond James Courier's Kids program at St. Petersburg Tennis Center.
However, what truly makes her stand out is she is one of only three players on the WTA Tour to attend college for four years before turning professional.
"I really wanted to prove to myself that I could get a degree from one of the best schools in the country. I also realize injuries happen and we have short-lived careers as athletes so it is important to have a career backup plan."
"Going to college also gave me a little more time to mature and grow into the person I needed to be in order to have a successful career after my tennis journey," she added.
Not only is Collins rising in the tennis rankings right now, but she is also an aspiring entrepreneur, designing her own jewelry line. She currently has a joint collaboration with Ritani, a fine jewelry company specializing in engagement rings and bridal jewelry. She does some of the designs and Ritani produces and sells her jewelry.
"I don't want to just be a tennis player. While I love tennis, I am also really passionate about art and jewelry," Collins said.
Besides her partnership with Ritani, Collins has several sponsors including New Balance, Head and Oracle.
Collins says if she didn't turn professional she likely would have gone to business or law school. For now, she hopes to continue to expand her jewelry line, while aiming for her first Grand Slam title.
As for the future of U.S. women's tennis overall, she says it is brighter than ever. "I can't remember a time when there were 13 U.S. women players ranked in the top 100," she said.
Collins will play both singles and doubles at the U.S. Open, which begins next week in Flushing Meadows, New York.