For the better part of the last decade, American tennis fans have been awaiting the arrival of worthy successors to fill the void left by retiring greats. On Tuesday night, they got a glimpse of hope in the 17-year-old Victoria Duval and her upset victory over a former U.S. Open champion.
On the men’s side, the wait for a dominant player has been an exercise in futility. Pete Sampras, Andre Agassi and Andy Roddick have all hung up their rackets, and for a week earlier this month, there were no American men in the Top 20 for the first time in the 40-year history of the ATP rankings.
On the women’s side, there has been more optimism. In addition to Serena Williams‘ recent resurgence (the 31-year-old has won three of the last five Grand Slam tournaments and shows no sign of slowing down anytime soon), a handful of female players—first Melanie Oudin and more recently Sloane Stephens—have emerged as potential heirs to the American tennis legacy. With her first-round 5-7, 6-4, 6-4 win over 2011 Open winner Samantha Stosur in Flushing Tuesday, many are wondering whether to add Duval’s name to the list.
Born in Miami of Haitian-American descent, Duval has faced more than her share of adversity off the court. Along with several of her cousins, she was held at gunpoint for hours in Port-au-Prince when she was seven. After Duval was freed, her parents decided to move the family to Florida, and Duval began training at the Bradenton-based IMG Tennis Academy in 2008. Two years later, tragedy struck again when Duval’s father was buried under the rubble of the 7.0-magnitude earthquake that ripped through Haiti. Despite suffering broken legs, seven broken ribs and a broken arm, he managed to dig himself out and has since recovered.
Duval made her professional debut just one month later, but did not earn her first WTA win until earlier this year (Tuesday’s win was only her third in all). Ranked 296th in the world, there was little in her play up to this point that indicated that the 5′ 10″ Duval was capable of defeating a former Grand Slam champion in 2013. But that’s exactly what she did, rallying from one set down to pull off a dramatic three-set victory. It was Duval’s second match at the U.S. Open—last year she lost to four-time Grand Slam champion Kim Clijsters in the opening round. (Fun bit of tennis trivia: That victory was the last of Clijster’s career.) Despite losing, Duval made an impression on the crowd at Arthur Ashe Stadium with powerful groundstrokes during the match and a disarming charm after it. On Tuesday, her win over a different former Grand Slam champion made an even bigger one.
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Though certainly an accomplishment, Duval’s victory does not come close to matching Oudin’s run at the U.S. Open in 2009 or Stephens’ performance at the Australian Open in January. Oudin defeated three opponents ranked in the Top 30—including Maria Sharapova—before falling to eventual finalist Caroline Wozniacki in the quarterfinals. Earlier this year, Stephens stunned the tennis world when she beat top-ranked Serena Williams in the quarters of the Aussie before suffering a semifinal defeat at the hands of Victoria Azarenka, who went on to with the tournament for a second consecutive year.
There’s still time for Duval to match those efforts. She faces 48th-ranked Daniela Hantuchova (23-21 in 2013) on Thursday and if Duval is able to pull off that upset, her third-round opponent would be either Julia Glushko or Sacshia Vickery—neither of whom is ranked in the Top 100. Bigger problems lie ahead in the fourth round, where Duval would likely meet 2011 Wimbledon champ Petra Kvitova. That said, she’s already dispatched one 2011 Grand Slam champion. Who’s to say she can’t do it again?
Sure, it’s too early to declare a 17-year-old with just three WTA Tour victories as a potential successor to Serena. But Duval’s win, coupled with Stephens’ breakout performance, is an encouraging sign for American women’s tennis that points toward a brighter future. One thing’s certain: the American men could stand to learn a thing or two from their female counterparts.