Danielle Collins interview: 'A cyst the size of a tennis ball was removed from my ovary'

Danielle Collins interview: 'A cyst the size of a tennis ball was removed from my ovary'
Danielle Collins has battled endometriosis to reach as high as No 23 in the world rankings  - GETTY IMAGES

Danielle Collins has battled endometriosis to reach as high as No 23 in the world rankings – GETTY IMAGES

Danielle Collins was busy packing last weekend ahead of her flight to Paris and upcoming grass-court tournaments. Nothing unusual, you might think, for a player preparing for the next trip on the circuit, but the American’s preparations have been altogether different this year.

“I have a bunch of different recovery tools, so the challenge is to get all this into two suitcases,” Collins told Telegraph Sport from her home in Florida.

Last October, when Collins went to the French Open for the delayed grand-slam, she beat former champion Garbine Muguruza on her way to the quarter-finals. This time, she has little idea what to expect.

Collins has not played a competitive match since Miami in early March, but that is only the start of the story. More alarmingly, it is only eight weeks since doctors made four separate incisions in her pelvic/abdominal area. This invasive process was the only way to treat her crippling endometriosis.

“My doctor was adamant,” Collins, who has lived with her condition since graduating from college in 2016, explained. “She said I would be ready for the French Open, but they had to tear through the abdominal muscles, so there was a lot of rehabbing involved. They removed a cyst the size of a tennis ball from my ovary, as well as material from my bowel and bladder. But I’ve felt such relief since. And I’ve been more physically consistent in the last two weeks than I can remember: no missed practices or workouts, no flu-like symptoms.”

Collins has shown huge resilience to become a force on the WTA circuit  - GETTY IMAGES

Collins has shown huge resilience to become a force on the WTA circuit – GETTY IMAGES

Endometriosis is a medical iceberg: an issue that is rarely discussed, yet affects an estimated 10 per cent of women worldwide. It develops when tissue similar to the lining of the womb starts to grow in other, unwanted places. The only way of identifying it is to insert a tiny camera into the abdomen – and that is one reason why, in the UK, the average case goes undiagnosed for more than seven years.

The primary symptoms involve horrific, debilitating periods which can last for weeks at a time. Indeed, listening to Collins’s experiences, it seemed extraordinary she was able to play professional tennis at all.

Collins has a vivid memory of the first time her curse struck. It happened five years ago at a second-tier event in Georgia, just a couple of months after her graduation. “I was the first match on at 10am,” she recalled, “I woke up at 3am throwing up. I thought I had eaten something bad, but then my cycle started. When I left the Airbnb at 5am, my coach said, ‘You’re up early,’ and I replied, ‘I’ve got to get to the drugstore for a pain reliever.’ ”

Her innate combativeness can be judged from the fact that she still made it all the way through to the final. “Ever since then, I have had painful periods,” added Collins, who is 27 .

“At Wimbledon in 2018, I was walking to practice and I started having the sharpest pain in my lower back and stomach. I actually fell over and I couldn’t get up. I had to have a cart to take me to transportation so I could get home. My hitting partner was looking at me, thinking, ‘Is she being over-dramatic, making a scene?’

“It was the same in Australia this year, during the quarantine, when I fell over on the practice court and I was lying there on my back.”

Showing superhuman stoicism, Collins regrouped so successfully at the Adelaide International that she defeated world No 1 Ashleigh Barty in her second match. But she was forced to retire midway through her quarter-final the next day, because of back pain that was presenting like a slipped disc. The real cause remained elusive. After her recent surgery, she discovered that the large cyst in her ovary had displaced her uterus and left it pressing on a spinal nerve.

Having beaten world No 1 Ashleigh Barty in Adelaide Collins was forced to retire midway through her quarter-final the next day because of back pain that was presenting like a slipped disc - GETTY IMAGES

Having beaten world No 1 Ashleigh Barty in Adelaide Collins was forced to retire midway through her quarter-final the next day because of back pain that was presenting like a slipped disc – GETTY IMAGES

Collins has since made contact with four or five other athletes who suffer from endometriosis. (Or just “endo”, as the initiated refer to the condition.) Some had already discussed it publicly, and popped up in her google searches. Others were former tennis players who are retired, yet never revealed what they were dealing with. Now, one of her priorities is to spread the word.

“I was lucky enough to have a really good friend who has endo,” Collins said. “She kept saying, ‘You have a lot of the symptoms I have,’ and I’d say, ‘I don’t disagree.’ Now I hope I can be someone’s friend in that way; that I can motivate someone to go and see a specialist, just like she did for me. My biggest advice is that painful periods are not normal, and that if you’re being told that your pain is caused by something else, it never hurts to seek a second opinion.

“That’s something I wish I had done earlier. When I found out what it was, I was shocked – but also hopeful, because I was at rock bottom with the physical agony, and I didn’t know how I was going to keep playing tennis. My biggest fear was that the endo might have affected my fallopian tubes, because I would like the option of starting a family one day.”

Collins also suffers from rheumatoid arthritis – although she says that a dairy- and gluten-free diet has calmed those issues down significantly. She puts her resilience down to her background, which is unusually blue-collar for an American tennis star. Her mother has just retired as a primary school teacher, while her father still mows lawns for a living, despite being 82 and dealing with severe arthritis.

“Whenever I have a bad day, I just look at my dad, and how diligent and hard-working he is,” said Collins. “I know it might take me a bit of time to get back to consistent match-play, but I love the game and I love the travelling. I want to have as long a career as I can.”

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