In 2014, Victoria Duval was ranked number 87 in the world in tennis, and she was winning many battles in tennis. But the 19 year old American was forced to fight a whole new kind of battle: an all out war against Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
It began last summer just before the qualifying rounds at Wimbledon. She was told that she had Hodkin’s but that it was treatable with chemotherapy.
After that doctor‘s visit, she went out to play tennis and, against all odds, went on to qualify, earning a spot in the main draw of Wimbledon. She then upset No.29 seed Sorana Cirstea in the first round before falling to fellow WTA Rising Star Belinda Bencic.
She remarked, “The physical therapist advised me to keep the news as private as possible, and to stay focused on the tournament. For better or worse, my state of denial made focusing quite simple. I went on to win all three of my qualifying matches — and, in the first round of the main draw, even beat a girl ranked Top 30 in the world”
Duval hasn’t played since, but today she announced she’s ready to take on the WTA once again. On Monday, she said that she believes “that I can contend and win every match I play at the U.S. Open.”
“I’m just enjoying every moment I have, in tennis and in life,” she said.
“It’s been an incredibly long journey, but I’m so ready to compete and can’t see a better place to start than the U.S. Open,” Duval told wtatennis.com. “I’m playing my first tournament at a $25,000 ITF event in Landisville, Pennsylvania and possibly the WTA in New Haven after.”
It will be 14 months since Duval last competed on the WTA circuit, but one thing that hasn’t changed is the 19-year-old’s positive outlook. She saw her break from the game as a blessing in disguise and was able to do a lot of “normal” activities.
“The one thing I was happy to invest a lot of time in was my art. I’ve been able to get so much better at different kinds of art techniques and it was a form of therapy for me. I interned in an office for a short time and learn ‘real world’ tasks and got to be around people who aren’t just athletes. I also shared the story of my cancer in a TED Talk. My illness gave me a breath of fresh air and gave me insight on my tennis career.”
The road back will be a long one for Duval, but with Corina Morariu, Alisa Kleybanova and ATP player Ross Hutchins as inspirations of cancer survivors making it back on the tour, she’s more than ready.
“I know my best tennis is ahead of me. I know God gave me this gift to share to others and I’m more than eager to get back on tour.”
Duval plans to share her comeback through her YouTube channel, where she hopes to collaborate with players that she kept in touch with while she was out of the game.
“The support I got from other players was incredible. I did a video with Madison Brengle, so hopefully I can do some more fun travel stuff on the road.”
While Duval has her immediate plans on Flushing Meadows, she’s already looking past the year’s final Grand Slam.
“For 2015, after the Open, I think my schedule will be mostly Challenger tournaments in the States. I may play Québec City or the 125 in California in November, but I’m going to listen to my body after New York and plan accordingly.”
The grass is definitely greener for Duval, who aims to do better than her career-high No.87 ranking.
“Of course you want to do better than your previous best, but my main priority is staying healthy and playing a full season. I’ve been given the chance to come back and I don’t want to waste it.”
She hopes to use her comeback as a platform to help others overcome adversity and persevere through it.
“I want to show people that sometimes you’re dealt with a tough situation beyond your control, but all you can do is make the best of it. An illness doesn’t define me, but how I bounce back is what I hope people will remember.”
“In hindsight, it was a break I needed,” Duval told wtatennis.com. “It gave me the chance to reflect on my life, my tennis, and on who I am and what I want.”
“It was the hardest moment of my life,” she recalled. Given the choice to go home right away to start treatment or stay and play, Duval chose to keep playing. “I just wanted to put if off for a little bit longer and just play as many matches as possible before going home.”
“Sometimes I’ll be gripping my racquet at home, just to remember what it feels like.”
“I just laugh about my life, now,” Duval said.
“It’s been hard, yeah, but now I can look back at it and smile.”
” I didn’t know much about cancer— I just automatically associated it with death.”
During the TED talk, Duval described her journey in detail thus, “Once my illness was more thoroughly explained to me, I realized that I had a great chance of winning the battle with cancer. My fears started to slowly dissipate. And in the same way that I relied on my faith to get me through qualifying, I knew that God had a plan for me in this new battle.
When I flew home, I went to the hospital to do some more tests and build a plan of treatment. Hearing the effects and process of chemotherapy terrified me. Nonetheless, I was optimistic.
That optimism was short lived. A few days later, after finishing my first round of chemo, I lost hope. I didn’t see how I was going to be able to deal with feeling so horrible for three months. But I somehow found the strength to persist.
Every two weeks, my parents drove me to Jacksonville for treatment. Words can’t really express what it feels like to go through chemotherapy. The constant urge to throw up, headaches, stomach pains, fatigue, loss of appetite, metal taste in your mouth, and the list continues. The good news for me was that I was in stellar shape before starting treatment, so my body responded well. I was even able to play some tennis.
After completing my last round of treatment in September, I cried enough tears to fill a lake. Tears of joy, of course. Three months felt like an eternity, but I did it! I won my battle with cancer!
My oncologist informed me that the fight wasn’t over, however. He said the road to recovery would be a long and arduous one. I thought, well, how bad could this be? The tough stuff is over now! Not so fast…
I started playing tennis again in late November. I was ecstatic to be back on court. Even though my body didn’t last long at practice, it surely felt like a privilege. In December, I started doing a lot of pool workouts with my physical therapist to start building some strength. The first month was very difficult. My muscles had practically atrophied. At the time, it seemed impossible to get back in shape. But I kept pushing. After a few months, I became strong enough to graduate from physical therapy to tougher fitness training with a conditioning coach. In March, my trainer and I felt that it was time to really focus on the gym. From a tennis perspective, my timing was there. But physically, I couldn’t keep up on the court.
I started to feel much better around April — though still not even at 50 percent of where I was before treatment. For the past two months, it has been steady progress: 30 minutes in the gym, turning to an hour, then turning to an hour and a half. At this rate, I’m going to be back to doing what I love in no time!
My goal is to be playing tournaments in a few weeks. I am also writing my memoir, coming out Fall 2016, in which I will elaborate in much more detail about my journey.
This journey has been a tough but educational one. The most important lesson I learned is appreciation. I learned that good health is a privilege — and that, once you have something taken away from you, you begin to realize how much you took it for granted.
Finally, I learned that everything happens for a reason. God has opened my eyes to a new meaning of life, and showered me with many blessings. Little did I know how much of a blessing this illness would end up being”
“I wouldn’t change what I went through for the world”, she finishes with a smile.
An inspirational story for all of us to keep in mind. Let’s wish her all the very best at the US Open 2015.