By Zoe Grenville
After tuning into one of Vicky Duval’s comedic YouTube sketches, someone unfamiliar with the 21-year-old prodigy might find her to be a typical millennial with a bubbly, infectious personality and a knack for humor. Yet the tennis player’s light giggle and zest for life hints nothing at the adversity of her past – and the gripping tenacity she possessed to overcome it.
Duval’s backstory reads like a book, a nearly unbelievable saga with one hardship after another; at only seven years old, she and her cousin were held at gunpoint during a robbery in her native Port-au-Prince, Haiti. This prompted Duval, her brother, and her mother to move to Florida, while her father stayed behind to work. In Florida, Duval thrived at Nick Bollettieri’s IMG Academy, her natural skill and dedication helping her rapidly surpass her fellow players. In 2010, however, 13-year-old Duval’s life would be disrupted once more as her father faced a near bout with death, caught under debris from the notorious Haitian earthquake for hours.
Despite having faced more obstacles – and successes – in her childhood than many adults, the ultimate test to Duval’s resilience proved to be at the 2014 Wimbledon Championships. Fresh off a Cinderella-esque defeat of Sam Stosur at the US Open and a pristine ITF ranking of 18, the eighteen-year-old was a rightful force to be reckoned with. She had amassed more than $250,000 in prize money by this point, and battled her way through the qualifiers and first round of Wimbledon. However, the teen’s crowning moment also revealed itself to be her darkest hour. In the early qualifying rounds, between matches, Duval had been diagnosed with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, a cancer affecting part of the immune system. After a second-round defeat, Duval flew home to face a year of chemotherapy, preventing her from playing the sport she loved.
Today, the 21-year-old is cancer-free, comeback-ready, and cheerful as ever. Those who know Duval have nothing but praise for her perseverance and work ethic as she climbs her way back to the top. “She stayed so committed and engaged in the process and that allow[s] us to keep progressing,” says strength conditioning coach Craig Acker. “She’s been such a pleasure to work with, very compliant…and a fun personality.”
Still, recovering from a year of debilitating treatment after being a pro is no small feat, a truth that Duval strives to overcome every day. Physically, her muscles had severely atrophied, and she and Acker are cautious to avoid triggering a past knee injury. Mentally, Duval is tasked with the mindset of training like a pro once more. A major challenge has been “getting her to embrace the process again for what it takes to get in shape to compete at the highest level.”
These days, Duval’s training regimen involves strength and conditioning to prevent injury, which has allowed her to ease her way back into daily hitting. Acker credits her amazing perseverance – and the USTA – for giving her the chance at a comeback story.
Duval trains at the USTA National Campus, a one hundred-court Orlando facility that is home to the USTA Player Development program. There, the USTA works closely with her to provide her with any grants, sports medicine resources, and facilities she may require.
These resources are not just technical ones; the sense of camaraderie Duval has experienced being around fellow players again has given her the peer community and extra encouragement she needs.
Acker describes the facility as a “tremendous benefit to her…from a standpoint of being around other players again.”
In fact, Duval has experienced an outpour of support from her peers throughout her journey, including texts from Venus Williams, a personalized player poster from the 2014 US Open, and advice from fellow Hodgkin’s lymphoma survivor and professional tennis player Ross Hutchins.
Today, Duval can be found playing ITF Pro Circuit events, climbing her way back up the ranks. Her goals for this year are to focus on her health and immerse herself in competition once more.
“Her skills are amazing,” says Acker. “She simply needed to practice and train enough to be ready to compete.”
A 2017 highlight has been competing in the 12th Annual Revolution Technologies Pro Tennis Classic in Florida. Duval defeated Wimbledon finalist Eugenie Bouchard in straight sets to reach the semis of the $80,000 tournament. “She battled hard and that was important to see,” says Acker.
As Duval continues her comeback journey with her usual poise, she proves that she can overcome one obstacle after another with dedication and determination.