Duval's star falls back to earth
She eked into the main draw as a qualifier and shocked 2011 champion Samantha Stosur in their tournament opener Tuesday night in Louis Armstrong Stadium with a win that left people asking, "Is this kid really just the 296th-ranked player in the world?" But Thursday the nothing-to-lose attitude that carried 17-year-old Victoria Duval to that three-set victory had deserted her.
For Duval, the previous 48 hours had been a whirlwind of requests for TV interviews and invitations to tell and re-tell the remarkable backstory of her early childhood in Haiti, and her father's narrow escape from being buried alive in the earthquake that struck the country several years ago. She'd gotten congratulatory messages from celebrities ranging from Billie Jean King to Li'l Wayne, and charmed folks at her first postmatch news conference with her answers to whether she just might be America's next great female tennis hope ("If God will let it, let's go") and -- just in case anyone forgot how young she is -- a deconstruction of why she preferred Gary the Snail over SpongeBob Squarepants in the cartoon series ("Bob gets all the credit").
By the time she took Court 17 on Thursday evening for her second-round match against 30-year-old Daniela Hantuchova, everything seemed to catch up to Duval.
Hantuchova dismissed her 6-2, 6-3 in 1 hour, 12 minutes.
Afterward, Duval admitted her head-spinning run as the first-week darling of the US Open had affected her.
"It was overwhelming," she said. "Beating Sam in the first round and feeling a little bit of expectations in the second round, that's something I'm going to learn to adapt to. I mean, I had goose bumps watching it in the locker room yesterday. That was a great achievement. Hopefully, I'll have many more."
Duval didn't embarrass herself or flop. Not even close. But great portions of the match were a reminder that it might not be all bad if the hype around her slowed down a bit. She's still a work in progress rather than a finished product. She was playing in only her third Grand Slam match ever on Thursday night, and she admitted at times she was reminded of the step up in competition she was facing.
Just a couple weeks ago, Duval was playing in the 18-and-under national championships and didn't even make the semifinals. She entered Thursday's match with just $54,000 in career prize money. Hantuchova once rose to the top five in the world.
At times the gap in experience between the two women showed.
Duval appeared to be fighting herself as much as Hantuchova at times. She raced out to early breaks in both sets, but Hantuchova just calmly, inexorably reeled her back in by sticking to a game plan centered around staying away from Duval's forehand, easily the best shot in her arsenal. When Duval's backhand proved not quite as sharp as it was in her opening match, Hantuchova only hammered at it more relentlessly, and Duval grew visibly frustrated with how she kept spraying her groundstrokes long and wide.
Duval had kept her composure against Stosur right up to the moment she served out the match. But now here she was, tossing her head after some mistakes, bouncing her racket head off the court, or crouching down on her haunches at one point to try to compose herself. But nothing she tried worked for very long. Duval didn't smack enough winners to overcome her 27 unforced errors or Hantuchova's own shot-making and superior power. "She hits hard," Duval said.
At this point in her development, Duval doesn't have the sort of serve that can bail her out, either. Her first serves to Hantuchova averaged a pedestrian 85 mph -- or about what many women's players scaled-back second serves routinely register -- and a few even dipped into the high 70s.
But Duval insisted she still walks away from the Open happy and encouraged. And she should. The Williams sisters are in their early 30s, after all. Someone is going to succeed them as the next great American female tennis player. After the way Duval played against Stosur, Duval has inserted herself into the conversation, all right.
But she hinted even she thinks it might not be all bad if the hype around her dies down for a while.
"I know that was a big win [over Stosur], but I'm not going to go above and beyond myself just because," Duval said. "I'm going to set reasonable goals."
The kid is good. And smart.