April 18, 2024

Open Court

MORE TENNIS THAN YOU'LL EVER NEED

Quebecer Collard returns to competitive tennis

Not long ago, Gatineau, Que.’s Mélodie Collard was a top-20 junior.

But she kind of fell off the face of the earth, in a competitive sense, for the last nearly two years.

Good news: the 19-year-old returned to the pro circuit this week,

Collard and Julia Adams played the doubles at the $60K ITF in Charlottesville, Va., losing 7-6 (3), 6-3 to the No. 4 seeds, a pair who have plenty of pro experience at the WTA level.

It was Collard’s first match on the pro circuits since the summer of 2021, when she and Carol Zhao won their first-round doubles match in Montreal. Collard had won the “pre-qualifying” tournament for the young Canadians and played in the singles qualifying as well, losing in the first round to Kamilla Rakhimova.

Collard and Adams are doubles partners at the University of Virginia, where Collard is a sophomore and which is located in Charlottesville. The match came just a few days after UVA lost the ACC semifinals to undefeated UNC.

But let’s flash back a little.

Top-20 ITF junior

Mélodie Collard at the 2020 Australian Open, just before the pandemic.

Collard was a terrific junior – her peak ranking was No. 17, in Jan. 2020, when she was only 16.

That was fairly rare in Canadian tennis pre-pandemic, although a good group of girls emerged in the last couple of years. Beyond her, there was only Leylah Fernandez.

And what they had in common was that they both had their own training structures – Fernandez with dad/coach Jorge, and Collard at home in Gatineau (which is in Quebec, just over the border from Ottawa, Ontario) with coach Matthieu Toupin heading things up.

If you did your own thing, that basically meant that you don’t fit into the Tennis structure. And that meant, for the most part, that you had to find your own way to afford the whole development grind. (Things seem to have evolved a bit on that front; we’ll see how it goes).

So it was always a scramble, even though it was fairly clear that this player had a ton of potential, even if it was still a work in progress.

First, she’s tall and powerful, a great-looking athlete. But the most striking thing, watching her play, was that she was eager to come to the net and play an all-court game. That’s always tricky in the forehand-and-backhand world of junior girls’ tennis; it’s a long-term view towards building a complete, all-around player. And still, she had great results.

Good victories – in juniors and the pros

Collard posted a lot of wins before she disappeared from the competitive circuit.

She played in the 2019 junior Fed Cup finals, along with several players who were part of the Tennis Canada system – Annabelle Xu and Mia Kupres.

Xu and Collard are currently teammates at Virginia.

She and Cody Wong made the doubles semifinals at the 2019 junior US Open. And she and countrywoman Jada Bui made the final at the Orange Bowl later that year. Collard also reached the final of the Grade 1 tournament in Merida, Mexico that year, losing to Victoria Jimenez Kasintseva (who played at the WTA 1000 in Madrid this week).

And at Roland Garros in 2019, she teamed up with fellow québécoise Leylah Fernandez, who later won the girls’ singles title.

Here’s what it looked like when they met Emma Navarro (who lost the singles final to Fernandez) and Chloe Beck.

Collard and Fernandez at Roland Garros in 2019

At 18, she was ranked a career high No. 336 on the WTA Tour in doubles. And at 16, she and Fernandez won the doubles at the $60K ITF in Saguenay, following that up with a final the next week at a similar event in Toronto. They were her first pro tournaments in doubles.

But then … the pandemic hit.

As with so many players (not just the up-and-coming juniors), everything kind of stopped in its tracks.

We sort of lost track of her at that point.

Hard to keep the momentum

A lot of players at that crucial stage of their development lost out with the pandemic, during which tennis shut down for five months – and for all intents and purposes was a challenge to come back to. That was especially true with the lack of tournament competition available, especially in Canada.

Collard’s last tournament before the stoppage was the 2020 Australian Open juniors.

Collard playing at the 2019 US Open juniors, where she reached the doubles semifinal

She didn’t return for more than a year, to a $15K ITF in Antalya, Turkey in March 2021. And she did play a few more junior tournaments – but only through May, 2021.

But if there might have been an array of options before everything came to a standstill, Collard seems to have decided (as a lot of players did), that college tennis was the best bet.

And so she began at Virginia in the fall of 2021. As it happens, she overlapped a little with Navarro, seen in the above video and the pics below. Collard is majoring in kinesiology.

It was a fairly illustrious court, in the end.

We know where Fernandez went from there; she won the junior girls’ singles. And two years later, she was in the US Open women’s singles final.

Navarro spent two years at Virginia. Now, she’s full-time on the pro circuit and, last week, hit a career high of No. 101 (just a few points outside the top 100).

Beck is a senior at Duke (also in the ACC) and has had a stellar college career both on court and in the classroom.

What’s next?

With all that history, it was great to see Collard’s name in the draw at a pro event this week.

Right from the first time we saw her (putting aside the fact that she looks a little like Daria Kasatkina’s taller kid sister), we were all in on her talent.

Hopefully this tournament appearance, even if it’s right in her college neighbourhood, signals a serious return to competition for Collard, who turns 20 in late June.

And hopefully Tennis Canada will be on board to help her.

We’ll keep you posted, and when time permits try to talk to her to catch up.

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