The 19-Year-Old Tennis Star Who Beat Cancer — & The Odds

Photographed by Ben Ritter.
Two years ago, a then-17-year-old Vicky Duval was the Cinderella story of the U.S. Open. She was a bubbly underdog with skill that surprised spectators and her opponent, Australian powerhouse (and former U.S. Open champ) Samantha Stosur, whom Duval defeated in three sets.

The 12 months that followed were arguably the height of Duval's budding career; she had officially ranked in the top 100 players in the world and qualified to compete in Wimbledon. Stepping onto the courts in London signified the next step in her plan for global athletic domination. And then, something got in the way.
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Photographed by Ben Ritter.
“It is with a heavy heart that I will have to step away from tennis competition for a short period after being diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma,” she announced at the tournament. “I received the news after my first round of qualifying at Wimbledon but decided to continue to compete. Being on court provided me with much comfort.” Despite her illness, she went on to play (and win) three qualifying matches and a first-round match against a top-30 seed.

"We kind of knew something was wrong since February [2014]," she tells me at this year's U.S. Open, where she's making her professional return in the mixed doubles tournament for the first time since her diagnosis and recovery. "We did a biopsy the week before Wimbledon because I had a lump in my neck. It had expanded and got to the point where my mom knew something was up. It was bulging out a little bit, and it just didn’t feel right. So we got it done, and they told me the day before my first round of qualifying. It was like, go home now and take care of it, or stay here and compete. And I was like, 'I'm obviously staying here.' I didn’t want to go home."

Following her loss in the second round, tennis was put on hold, and treatment became Duval's priority: "My treatment was three months long, so I was done by October, but it was for sure the three hardest months of my life," she reflects. "It was just chemotherapy, no radiation. And the good thing for me was that I was in stellar shape before starting, so my body didn’t go down the drain too much. I recovered really well, so that was a blessing, too."
Photographed by Ben Ritter.
For anyone, being diagnosed with — and having to fight — cancer is unbelievably frightening; Duval admits that although the ordeal is (thankfully) now behind her, her regular check-ups serve as a constant reminder of how "terrifying" the experience was. And for Duval, cancer served as not just a moment of reflection and appreciation, but as a motivator to recover and return to her "normal" life as a professional athlete as soon as possible.

"The doctors told me to be patient, because [my recovery] was going to be a lot slower than I thought it was going to be. The fact that [my doctor] told me that helped me a little bit, too, because there were times when I was doubting whether I was going to [return to tennis]... I got to be an average 19-year-old for a year, and then I was like, ‘Yay, back to tennis!’ I think it's definitely a privilege [to be a professional athlete], and to be back here after just a year; I had [the U.S. Open] as a goal."
Photographed by Ben Ritter.
It's clear that Duval is a fighter and a staunch competitor, both on and off the court; she credits this strength to growing up with two older brothers ("Pretty much my whole childhood, I didn’t do any 'girly' stuff. We used to take our skateboards out and skate down the slope of my house"), as well as a father who not only introduced her and her siblings to the game of tennis, but who has overcome his own difficult life obstacles.

"I moved to the United States from Haiti with my two older brothers when I was eight," Duval says, explaining that "Haiti was becoming a little bit unsafe." When she was seven, Duval was robbed and held hostage at gunpoint in her aunt's Port-au-Prince home. "The biggest thing was to pursue our dreams in tennis," she continues. "My older brothers were extremely good at tennis; they ended up playing in college. My dad was the one who got them into it. He would play with them occasionally, and then I started watching, and I picked it up right after them."

While Vicky, her siblings, and her mother moved to America, her father stayed behind in Haiti to continue his work as a physician. Then, the 2010 earthquake struck.

"[My dad] was trapped under a house for 11 hours after the earthquake before he was found," Duval says, explaining how he was able to dig himself out of rubble despite numerous broken bones and severe injuries. "He's been tested a lot, and had to give up his whole career pretty much, because he's paralyzed in his left arm. But he’s just, like, the happiest person, and I'm [also] happy all the time. I get it from him. It’s amazing to me how he goes about his life."
Photographed by Ben Ritter.
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Despite hometown tragedy and a life-threatening illness, it's this joy that truly defines Duval, not just as an athlete, but as a person. Her bubbly personality is invigorating, and her passion for the sport, her career, and for life radiates, even when discussing the moments that can be overwhelmingly difficult to talk about. Deep down, she is simply a girl who realized at the ripe age of 13 that the game of tennis is what she wanted to devote her life to — a girl who looks up to Venus Williams ("She's what I aspire to be," Duval says), not just for her athleticism, but for her courage facing the chronic autoimmune disease Sjögren's syndrome. Duval is the ultimate definition of a survivor, and now, she's ready to step back into the spotlight and reclaim what is hers.

"I’m much more appreciative of life," she says. "I'm much more grateful to be back on the court. We [as professional players] devote so much of ourselves to tennis that sometimes, you think that’s all it is — and it's not. Things happen. When your life is put on the line, you just enjoy yourself more."

Thanks to the USTA and Julien Farel Salon for providing the space for the shoot.
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