CREDIT: USA Today
Jumping for joy and collapsing at the net, 17-year-old Victoria Duval provided the biggest moment of the U.S. Open thus far, rallying from a set and two games down Tuesday night to oust 11th-seeded Sam Stosur from the major tournament she won just two years ago. Duval’s tennis is fascinating, her squeaky voice endearing. The story of how she got to this point, of how tennis itself made her presence on this stage possible, is downright amazing.
Duval was born in Miami but spent most of her young life in her parents’ native Haiti, where her brothers played tennis but she focused primarily on ballet. As a seven-year-old, she was kidnapped, along with her aunt and cousins, and taken hostage. In 2010, her father nearly died when he was buried alive under rubble from the massive Haitian earthquake.
“It was traumatizing, [but] worse things have happened to people,” Duval told the New York Daily News last year. “I’m lucky I got out of it. I’ve kind of erased that all from my mind.”
Somewhere in between, Duval found tennis. She won her first tournament, worked her way up the junior ranks, and lost to her idol Kim Clijsters in the first round of last year’s U.S. Open.
Like most American tennis prodigies, Duval matriculated through a prominent academy in Florida. Unlike most of them, she needed far more than help on the court to get here. The earthquake left her father, a doctor, paralyzed in one arm and unable to return to his medical practice. He was brought back to the United States on a private jet chartered by a friend the family met through tennis. According to ESPNW, the U.S. Tennis Association has offered support to keep her playing, and coaches have offered services pro bono.
“It was definitely financially difficult, especially after the earthquake,” she told Sports Illustrated. “My dad wasn’t able to work anymore. I’ve been very fortunate. A couple family members have helped me. Hopefully with this win today, that will change a little bit.”
Becoming a professional tennis player isn’t cheap. The USTA estimates that it costs $150,000 to turn a junior player into a professional. The British association estimates that training a top player from age 5 to 18 costs $400,000, according to Bloomberg. A single academic year at the IMG Tennis Academy in Boca Raton, Florida, where Duval trained, can cost $80,000. The USTA provides financial assistance to its top junior players and scholarship opportunities to others.
That cost, which without a few strokes of luck could have prohibited Duval from reaching this point, keeps many American teenagers who don’t have family friends or connections willing to help from pursuing tennis, which relies on an “exclusive pay-for-play model that restricts tennis to those who can afford it,” the New York Times wrote last year. As a result, the USTA’s player development wing and top tennis insiders are wondering if the entire model should be restructured. USTA player development head Patrick McEnroe is now pushing more tennis players toward college, where they can save money while still playing competitively. The USTA also wants more public schools to embrace tennis — and for more young stars to embrace it along with them instead of going to exclusive clubs, academies, and leagues.
That all seems to make sense: the United States hasn’t produced a men’s Grand Slam champion since Andy Roddick won the U.S. Open in 2003. The most successful American women, Venus and Serena Williams, came from modest financial backgrounds and skipped the academy route to be coached by their father. Right now, the USTA may provide financial assistance when players need it, but it also perpetuates the gap between the haves and have-nots by pulling the most talented young Americans away from scholastic tennis and open tournaments.
Duval may have overcome her hardship and the cost of turning young talent into professional skill with help from the USTA and others, but how many other American teenagers are missing out on the sport because of its exclusive nature and prohibitive cost? That may not only be hurting American tennis, but the entire professional game, and making stories like Victoria Duval’s more rare than they could be.