Kylie Collins’ most distinguished trophy is still in a box somewhere in her room, and the oranges are in a bag in her parents’ kitchen.
Yes, the trophy, a Tiffany’s crystal bowl, came with oranges — seven of them to be exact. She’s still debating whether to take the bowl out of the box, afraid it will break, and whether to make orange juice out of the oranges.
“A friend told me that if I did that, it would taste like victory,” Collins said.
The 15-year-old tennis phenom from Savannah just closed her best competitive year to date, winning the 16-and-under doubles championship at the Orange Bowl International Tennis Championship, an International Tennis Federation event. She and her playing partner, Kacie Harvey of Braintree, Massachusetts, defeated Maria Aguiar of Puerto Rico and Briana Crowley of the U.S. 6-3, 6-1, and the win now has Collins ranked as the No. 7 recruit in the country and labeled as a five-star blue chipper by the tennis apparel and equipment company Babolat.
The two biggest tournaments Collins competes in each year occur in back-to-back weeks in November: the Eddie Herr International Junior Championships at IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla., and the Orange Bowl International Tennis Championships in Plantation, Fla.
Collins said her motivation to win the Orange Bowl doubles came in large part from what happened in Bradenton.
Collins reached the semifinals and swept her first set 6-0 against eventual girls-16 tournament champion Katrina Scott. She started the second set up 4-0 and had all but clinched a spot in the finals when Scott made a miraculous comeback. Collins had her chances to close out Scott in the second set, but Scott narrowly came away with it 7-6, setting up a tiebreaker.
“Some things happened, we argued about some calls and stuff,” Collins said. “So that had built up a lot, everyone’s tensions were higher. We went into a third set, and the whole third set was a pressure situation. It was so close.”
The pair dueled back and forth until Collins gained a 6-5, 40-15 advantage when Scott hit a return near the sideline. The official ruled it out, leaving Collins to think she had won.
But the official then changed the initial call and said Scott’s return was in. Scott rallied to take the tiebreaker, then cruised to a 6-2, 6-2 victory in the championship match.
“I walked off the court basically knowing I had won that match,” Collins said. “I had called it out, and then he agreed with me, and I turn around to go get my towel at the back fence, and then he overruled it. I was completely speechless. I couldn’t even be mad at how I played. The match was just taken out of my hands.”
Growing up on the road
Collins isn’t growing up like a normal 15-year-old. She’s home schooled, which isn’t really an accurate description because she’s always on the go. She’s on the road training in Naples, Fla., or on Hilton Head Island, S.C., or competing in tournaments so much throughout the year, she takes her classes online when she can.
The tennis court teaches her plenty of life lessons.
“I think being on the court has definitely made me grow up a little bit more,” she said during an interview at the Sea Pines tennis facility near Harbour Town Golf Links. “If something doesn’t go my way, I have to push it aside and keep going. There’s so many lessons I can carry into life from it.”
One of them is how to move on from disappointment. And how to respond to it.
After bowing out in the singles tournament, Collins picked up her tennis racket and her gear and started doubles play. She and her playing partner also lost in the semifinals — another close one, 6-4, 7-6.
That’s OK, she thought. The Orange Bowl was right around the corner. On the day she turned 15, Collins paired up with Harvey, who she had played before individually.
“We both kind of lost early in the singles tournament, so we both really wanted to win it and get it back and show ourselves what we were capable of,” Collins said.
Collins and Harvey advanced through tiebreakers in the quarterfinals and semifinals before zooming past their opponents in the finals.
In the past, Kylie has followed in the footsteps of her sister, McKenzie, a sophomore on the Virginia Tech women’s tennis team and a former Savannah Morning News girls tennis player of the year at Savannah Arts.
McKenzie Collins said her little sister only plays tennis because she does.
“If I had played soccer, she would be on a USA developmental team,” McKenzie said. “Whatever I did, Kylie would have to do. Our mom would dress us the same, and today we buy the same type of clothes.”
McKenzie is five years older than Kylie and started playing tennis when she was 12. But because Kylie started playing much younger, she had more time to grow into the sport.
“She had the opportunity to do homeschool and had a private coach to guide her,” McKenzie said. “When I was in high school, maybe one day we’d get out of school and I’d take her to Van Der Meer.”
Van Der Meer Tennis Academy is based out of Hilton Head Island. Kylie currently trains with Smith Stearns Tennis Academy, which is also on Hilton Head Island, and she also travels to Naples to work with her personal coach, Evan Austin.
Kylie and McKenzie train together whenever McKenzie comes home from Blacksburg, Virginia — most recently for Christmas break. Kylie is at her most dangerous when playing near the front of the net, but McKenzie has the experience and hits hard enough to keep her near the back line.
“Before she went off to college, we made each other better,” Kylie said. “It’s always nice to hit with her. She doesn’t hit a soft ball.”
Staying in the moment
Collins knows she’s getting older. People tell her how good she is. Maybe good enough to bypass college and turn professional. They ask what her plans are.
McKenzie has talked to her about college, the importance of getting a degree in case a pro career doesn’t work out. She hopes Kylie will continue to follow her example. If she does, Kylie could become one of the most sought after recruits in the nation.
“People do say that, and it’s good to hear, to have that and think about that,” she said. “People will ask me do you want to go to college or pro, and I feel like I’m too young to even know. But it’s good to know that people believe in me and see that I can have a future in it.”
But right now, she thinks things are perfect the way they are now. She loves the travel the junior circuit has to offer, loves to play tennis every day. There’s pressure, but not the kind a professional experiences.
“I don’t know if it’s I’m not ready to grow up, I just want to hold on to playing as much of this tennis I can,” she said. “I want to accomplish as much as I can as a kid.”