Throughout November and December, we'll be highlighting the true heroes of tennis with our annual celebration of the gifted, the courageous, the inspired and the inspiring. You can read about heroes we've honored previously here.
Having just turned 20, Vicky Duval has already endured a lifetime’s share of hardship. At 7, while living in Haiti, Duval was held up at gunpoint by robbers at her aunt’s house. The ordeal prompted her parents to send her and her older brothers, Cedric and Leo, to Miami. Her mother, Nadine, joined them several months later, but her father, Jean-Maurice, stayed in Haiti to continue his medical practice in Port-au-Prince. Eight years later, a devastating earthquake hit Haiti’s capital, burying Jean-Maurice under collapsed walls for 11 hours. He barely survived an operation in his backyard before he was airlifted to a Florida hospital to recover, thanks to the generosity of an Atlanta couple that knew the family through tennis.
Throughout the ordeal, Duval channeled her emotions by focusing on tennis. In 2012, she won the USTA Girls’ 18 National Championships, earning a wild card into the US Open, where she lost in the first round to three-time champion and former world No. 1 Kim Clijsters. She also reached the semifinals of the junior event. One year later, after playing her way through the qualifying tournament and amid chants of “U.S.A.,” Duval notched the biggest win of her career, upsetting 2011 champ Sam Stosur in three sets in the first round.
Then, as she was enjoying her breakthrough, Duval’s world shattered. Just before Wimbledon last year, she noticed a lump in her neck. A battery of tests quickly followed and, moments after a first-round qualifying win over Marta Sirotkina, Duval was given the devastating news that she had Hodgkin’s lymphoma. She would need to return home and immediately undergo chemotherapy.
Instead, Duval, who had planned a summer of tournaments and a month-long stint with the Philadelphia Freedoms for Mylan World TeamTennis, refused to quit. She won two more qualifying matches, including a three-setter over fellow American Nicole Gibbs, and then upset the 29th seed, Sorana Cirstea, to win her first-ever main draw match at Wimbledon. After losing in the second round to teenager Belinda Bencic, Duval boarded a plane home to start chemotherapy and begin a journey that would take her away from the game for more than a year.
Duval spoke with TENNIS.com about her career, her comeback from cancer and being an inspiration.
What’s the greatest on-court challenge you’ve faced?
A. I think the hardest match I’ve ever played mentally was the one against Bencic. We had a rain delay the day before. I hadn’t really researched the cancer before and I wasn’t too sure what chemotherapy was, to be honest. So, on that day we couldn’t play I took the time to do some research. I learned about chemotherapy, what it does to your body and that it can be very hard. At that point I was upset and scared. I think I cried during 75 percent of that match. I was just like, “I can’t go home; I don’t want to go home and do this.” I couldn’t even think straight, I was crying the whole time. Then, right after the match, I was hysterical and one of the USTA coaches who had been helping me said, “Vicky, why are you crying? You just qualified and won a round. You should be so proud of yourself.” And I was like, “No, that’s not why I’m crying.”
You are now cancer-free. But this whole thing could not have been easy for you. What was the darkest moment?
The hardest part was after the first treatment of chemo because I really didn’t feel that I was going to be able to finish. But as far as recovery, I haven’t had dark moments. I’ve had tough days because it’s still a journey. I’m trying to find the strength to push through every day and it’s certainly not easy because chemo is something that physically pushes you all the way. It’s rough to get that motivation to keep pushing because I have doubts sometimes.
You are no stranger to family crises. Did seeing what your father went through and him fighting his way back help you in any way?
They’re both so different. With my dad it was hard emotionally because I didn’t know what to do to help him. First of all, we realized how lucky we were that he was alive. But I guess it’s how my mom would describe me going through cancer; you just don’t know what to do to make the person feel better.
The tennis community can be very supportive. Were any tennis players particularly helpful to you?
Oh yeah, several. One of the biggest was [former touring pro and Hodgkin’s lymphoma survivor] Ross Hutchins because he went through the same thing I did. He texted me quite frequently whenever I felt like, “Is this normal how I’m feeling? How did you get through this?” He really helped me understand that it’s OK what I’m feeling and that I’ll be fine. And the other one was Venus [Williams]. I thought was pretty amazing for her to take time out of her schedule to text me once in a while to see how I was doing.
You did a TedxYouth talk at IMG Academy and have written blogs and recorded video blogs during your time off. In all of them you mention religion. How did your cancer diagnosis affect your faith?
I don’t think it’s ever a good time to get diagnosed with cancer, especially at the place I was in. I really felt like I was ready to break through. It was hard, but my mom always taught me that everything happens for a reason. And that’s what I remind to myself whenever things get hard. You’re not really in control. You’re in control of your life, but you’re not, because God’s looking after you and he has a plan, and his plan is ultimately going to work out no matter what. So, at first I was in shock but I never lost faith. I was upset at God. I was like, “Why me?”
But later on you said, “Why not me?” Was that a watershed moment for you?
Yeah, I just felt like God put this upon me to carry out another mission. Because once I recover from this, what he has in store for me is greater than what I can possibly imagine. I had to understand that this was supposed to happen to me, and then take it and run with it to fulfill whatever my duties are from that moment on.
Are there any other positives from having this forced time off from tennis?
One thing is that I realized what I needed to do when I go back on tour. I’ve been watching a lot of the players’ habits. I’ve been analyzing tennis on the other side because when you’re playing it’s kind of hard to plan out what’s going on.
You grew up with two older brothers and started playing tennis because of them. When you first hit the ball and won your first tournament at age 7, how did you feel?
Liberated. I fell in love with it immediately because, growing up with two brothers, I was pretty competitive. We did a lot of boy stuff. I was into ballet when I was younger and I really loved that too. But I just had this force inside and tennis let me channel it.
Who were your tennis idols growing up?
Definitely Venus. I just loved watching her. I remember that Wimbledon final in ’05 (in which Williams, seeded No. 14, defeated defending champ and No. 2 seed Maria Sharapova in the semifinals and then saved a match point to beat top-seeded Lindsay Davenport in the final). And actually, when I was growing up my coach told me that I have the potential to have a playing style like Venus because I like moving forward. So I started modeling myself after her.
You are quite an artist and have talked about how painting makes you feel liberated. Does tennis give you that same sense of freedom?
Definitely. Tennis takes me to that Zen place. It’s kind of like everything is shut out when I’m playing. But it’s even more so when I hold my paint brush because painting is a little calmer than tennis. I have a little more time to think. When I hold my racquet it’s more of a rush. But both are definitely my two major passions.
You’ve had such a great attitude throughout this entire year. Is there anything you’re insecure about?
There are different aspects of insecurities. I don’t like my toes—they look like someone broke them 10 times—so if we’re talking physical insecurities, I would say my feet. As far as myself, I don’t want to sound shallow, but I haven’t really thought about my fears because I’m really pretty positive and happy all the time. It would be hard for me to explain something I don’t like about myself or something I feel insecure about. I just always see the best in everything.
How would you describe a hero? Would you call yourself one?
I would describe a hero as someone who has gone above and beyond to make the world a better place. There have been so many trailblazers in our society, but the person who immediately comes to mind is Nelson Mandela. I don’t think of myself as a hero. I’m not alone in what I’ve gone through in my life, but how I use my experiences to hopefully help others is what’s going to make my story unique. I want to shed light on fighting through adversity, appreciating every moment in life and just being happy. One day, I want to be a trailblazer.