Victoria Duval’s childlike high-pitched voice makes her seem much younger than her 17 years, but the Miami-born, Haitian-American teen showed the poise of a seasoned veteran Tuesday as she pulled off one of the biggest upsets in recent U.S. Open history.
Ranked No. 296 in the world and forced to go through qualifying rounds because her ranking wasn’t high enough for the tournament draw, Duval relied on relentless defense and her huge heart to stun 11th-ranked former U.S. Open champion Sam Stosur 5-7, 6-4, 6-4 in the first round.
The crowd at Louis Armstrong Stadium fell in love with bubbly, bespectacled Duval early in the match, serenaded her with “USA! USA!” chants, and roared as she leaped up and down to celebrate the biggest victory of her career.
And that was before they knew her fascinating back story, before they knew that at age 7 she was held hostage by armed robbers in her aunt’s Port-au-Prince house, before they knew that her father, Jean-Maurice, an obstetrician and gynecologist, was buried underneath a pile of rubble for 11 hours after the 2010 Haiti earthquake, sustaining a broken back, punctured lung, five broken ribs and paralysis of his left arm.
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Upon learning her history, it is easier to understand Duval’s toughness under pressure.
After delighting the crowd Tuesday, Duval, who calls herself “goofy’’ and “childlike at heart,” entertained the media with a wide-ranging interview that covered everything from her favorite SpongeBob SquarePants cartoon character — “Gary the Snail, because he’s cute and doesn’t get enough credit” — to receiving a Twitter shout-out from Lil Wayne to the harrowing conditions her father faced in the earthquake and the “angels” who saved him.
She told reporters about benefactor Harry Kitchen, a Georgia developer, and his wife, Charlotte, who chartered a helicopter to airlift Duval’s father from Haiti to a Fort Lauderdale hospital, where he stayed more than two weeks. The Kitchens had met Duval at a tennis club in Atlanta when she lived there with her mother, Nadine.
“If it wasn’t for them, my dad definitely wouldn’t be here today,” Duval said. “Not everyone just pays $30,000 to fly a helicopter to save someone. Great story. They’re amazing people. I mean, they’re angels. We couldn’t have found better people.
“They wouldn’t let planes in because there was no runway. My dad, they found him after 11 hours. It was incredible. I’m so grateful, I don’t know how he managed. He’s not able to work now. But he’s improving so much.
“Emotionally, it was hard at first. But he’s as happy as he’s ever been. He had a couple surgeries. We’re just so happy that he’s in a good state of mind right now, that he’s here with us. Life is short and I take nothing for granted.”
Duval was born in Miami, but spent her early childhood in Port-au-Prince with her parents and brothers, Leo and Cedric. Her mother gave up her neonatology practice to move with her children to Boca Raton, where all three became serious about tennis. Jean-Maurice stayed behind to run his medical practice.
Duval prefers not to talk about the violent robbery at her aunt’s house.
“It’s not a good memory, so I’ve tried to forget as much as I could about it,” Duval said. “I don’t remember too much of it anymore, which is great.”
Cedric got a scholarship to play tennis at Lynn University. Leo is playing at Ave Maria University near Sarasota. And Vicki, the one-time aspiring ballerina, got early guidance from former pro Lori McNeil, and then bounced around from the Rick Macci Academy in Deerfield Beach to other South Florida coaches.
When she was 11, she trained at Grove Isle in Coconut Grove, along with friend Sachia Vickery, who won the USTA Girls 18s national title a few weeks ago and also advanced to the second round of the U.S. Open on Tuesday. Both girls already had big dreams as fifth-graders. Duval once told the Miami Herald: “I want to be No. 1 in the world by age 16.”
At 13, she was invited to the Nick Bollettieri Academy in Bradenton.
From there, Duval went to Atlanta and trained briefly under Melanie Oudin’s coach, Brian de Villiers. Most recently, she was working with U.S. Tennis Association coach Kathy Rinaldi in Boca Raton.
She won the USTA Girls 18s title in 2012 and earned a wild card into the U.S. Open, where she lost to Kim Clijsters on center court. Duval said that experience helped prepare her for Tuesday’s match against Stosur.
Tennis legend Billie Jean King has taken an interest in Duval, invited her to play team tennis with the Philadelphia Freedoms over the summer, and sent her a text message after Tuesday’s win. Duval thanked her on the court for being a mentor and for reminding her to “always have fun.”
She was giddy to learn that, in addition to Lil Wayne, New York Knicks star Amare Stoudemire also had congratulated her on Twitter. Duval doesn’t have a Twitter account yet — “because I’m not famous.” Not yet.
Two Miami-Dade commissioners praised her at their meeting Wednesday.
“She’s doing a tremendous job,” Commissioner Dennis Moss said at the end of a transportation and aviation committee meeting. “It’s just wonderful. Congratulations to her, to her family. It really bodes well for U.S. tennis into the future.”
Commissioner Jean Monestime, who is Haitian American, added to the praise.
“When I grow up, I want to be like Victoria,” he said.
Duval’s next match is Thursday against 48th-ranked Daniela Hantuchova, who has been ranked as high as No. 5 and been a Grand Slam quarterfinalist.
“Hopefully, I can play like I did again, and we’ll see how it goes,” Duval said.
Asked if she thinks she’ll someday be a tennis star, she replied: “That’s what I’m working for. If God will let it, then let’s go.”
Miami Herald writer Patricia Mazzei contributed to this report.