Today didn’t really look like a good day for tennis youngsters. ATP rising stars Jerzy Janowicz and Grigor Dimitrov fell in rather unexpected fashion. Albeit Janowicz was critically injured, but Dimitrov’s loss was a head-scratcher for sure. The women’s side faired somewhat better, with 18-and-under Nationals champ Sachia Vickery coming through and Christina McHale pulling out a win against hard-hitting Julia Görges. McHale toughed it out and turned around a 5-match losing streak, but it was shaky success against a player whose biggest weapons (the serve and forehand) have become far too unreliable to bring her back into the top 20 where she sat a year ago. The star of the day was an unheralded American hope.
17-year-old Victoria Duval has the kind of rags-to-riches story that has really blown back the bougie background tennis has always been known for. Like Ivanovic and Jankovic and the Williams sisters, Duval probably wasn’t supposed to be on the court today. While a child in Haiti, she was apparently held up at gunpoint by a robber alongside an aunt and cousin — a sure “death sentence,” according to commentator Mike Tirico. Immediately after that, her mother picked up the family and moved to the U.S. When her father was gravely injured during the infamous Haitian earthquake that a occurred a few years ago, he was flown to the U.S. Luckily he survived. Which may explain why Victoria is so grateful for where she is at such a young age.
Duval’s epic and thrilling win over 2011 U.S. Open champion Samantha Stosur proved so many things to me. The major takeaway for me was how unique an on-court personality Duval has. She’s just as athletic as fellow American star Sloane Stephens, but moves with more elasticity. Unlike Stephens’s big serve and groundstrokes, which explode with a disciplined crispness, Duval’s strokes seem to sling back across the court with massive speed — a result of the kind of bouncy athleticism that she exhibits as she whirls like a slinky through the court. Stephens explodes from 0 to 60 to get a seemingly impossible shot or to rocket a groundstroke for a winner. Duval gets to just as many improbable shots and launches them back just as potently because, like a chaotic bundle of energy, she can’t seem to stop herself. When she cracks her racquet on the court, as she so commonly does, it’s to immediately halt the spontaneous burst of momentum rushing from one end of her body to the other and to sling back the other way.
In my mind, Duval is the final third of a truly exciting trio of rising U.S. WTA stars that includes New York Daily News's new “IT” girl Stephens and 18-year-old Madison Keys. What I love about this trio is the kind of talent and power they all bring to tennis. Stephens and Duval produce some really amazing racquet head speed that gives them the power and shot acceleration. Keys, on the other hand, has easy power, which allows her shots to blast through the court like a Davenport or Kvitova.
Duval is also a lot of fun on court. She’s a bubbly teen who wears her heart on her sleeve. Whenever she missed a winner on a crucial point or watched Stosur blast one past her, Duval furiously whipped her head upwards to the sky or smacked her racquet in frustration. As soon as she had beaten the U.S. Open champ, Duval jumped sky-high with the kind of glee so characteristic of “sweet seventeen.” Make no mistake though, Duval has poise and composure far beyond 17 years of experience. When down 4-2 in the second, she fought back to win it. As the match got tighter and tighter in the third, she held her nerve and kept going for her shots, which is a big ask for a teen facing a Slam champ playing at a pretty solid level. She has a really delightful, gracious, and unassuming personality, which makes her so easy to root for. When you hear her talk, Duval’s voice squeaks out of her mouth, seemingly trying to push out the thoughtful comments contained within. Here’s to hoping she can figure Hantuchova out come Thursday and flash that glass slipper for the rest of this year’s U.S. Open.