NEW YORK -- On a rainy Wednesday, the kind of day that intensifies our anticipation of a covered court at the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center, the talk of the U.S. Open still spun around Victoria Duval, the irresistible 17-year-old who knocked off 2011 champion Sam Stosur on Tuesday.
For Duval, this was a tremendous victory. But for all the adults on the scene -- the marketers, the media, the sponsors, the agents, the coaches and, not least, the USTA -- this was a dream result as well.
An ascendant player arrives on the big stage. She has the requisite "backstory," the term of art to describe the ability to tell a larger narrative through this athlete. (Surely you've heard about her kidnapping as a 7-year-old and her father's remarkable survival during the 2010 Haitian earthquake.) That Duval speaks flawless (if impossibly high-pitched) English and is able to address the crowd here in her native tongue doesn't hurt. Nor does the fact that she is (sort of) a product of the much-embattled USTA.
Tennis tends to eat its young. And that's after assaulting them in other ways: drowning them in hype, peppering them with requests and burdening them with expectation. The compendium of upstart players who rode a wave after a successful tournament only to crash ashore is a vast one. Duval had barely finished giving her endearing postmatch interview on Tuesday -- winning over still more fans -- when she was being compared to other prospects at her age. To Venus Williams, who broke through in 1997, when she made the final as an unseeded player in her U.S. Open debut. And to Melanie Oudin, the cautionary tale, who reached the quarterfinals here in 2009 and has seldom been heard from again.
To hype or not to hype is a vexing question. On its face, it seems distasteful. These are teenagers, seduced by bright lights -- Duval appeared on Good Morning America on Wednesday -- and attention. Unlike team sports, there is no infrastructure to handle requests and shield the player from the cameras, microphones and glad-handers. The interest of agents, usually a membrane of protection, militates against a measured approach. (You represent Duval? It would be a dereliction of duty not to try to cash in on this surge.) Pity the kid. And, some would say, LEAVE HER ALONE!
But these calls of "Give her space" and "Give her time" also seem a bit disingenuous. Part of the pleasure of being a sports fan entails finding the Next Big Thing. Whether it's watching the NFL draft or trying to steal a fantasy-league bargain, spotting future stars is part of the drill. There's an expression in tennis, "If you play, you're fit. If you're fit, you play." It applies to injuries, but could apply to hype as well. If you're out there, you've inherently agreed to a certain level of scrutiny. If you're not ready for the acclaim that comes with winning, don't turn pro.
Don't tag Duval the Next Big Thing? Fine. But declining to express admiration for her performance against Stosur and (measured) excitement over her prospects? That's naive.
The good news here: If Duval's play on the court is an indication, her factory setting is "poised." Part of what made her first-round win so sweet is that it was Duval who had the superior will and served out the match at 5-4 in the third set against a veteran opponent. You'd like to think that an athlete capable of handling that pressure can deal with what comes next. Whatever that might be.
Anyone else notice Victoria Duval wearing a dress from Venus Williams' EleVen clothing line?
-- Adam Hyland, New York
• Yup. We might say that Venus already has a material impact on Duval's career. Sorry.
Seriously, we also noticed 18-year-old American Sachia Vickery saying that Venus gave her tips before her first-round match that helped her defeat Mirjana Lucic Baroni. Take note, haters.
Given the havoc created by early rain in some years, why do they persist in stringing out the men's first-round matches for three days? Who benefits? They don't do it with the women, after all.
-- Gavin Spencer, New York
• To borrow from Sarah Vaughan, whatever TV wants, TV gets.
I loved Francesca Schiavone's hug with the ball kid during her first-round match against Serena Williams. Who doesn't need a shoulder while getting a beatdown in front of millions of people? I wondered if what she did was against the rules, though. Could she have received a code violation? Just curious.
-- Adam, Wisconsin
• I'm sure there's a zealous attorney out there who'd make the case that Schiavone's gesture constituted impermissible physical contact with an official. But this is why the chair umpire needs some "spirit of the rules" discretion. It was lovely moment -- one of the few for Schiavone that night -- and what a shame it would have been to have invoked the code.
Kudos to Donald Young for winning his first-round match. He has had an up-and-down career, sometimes self-inflicted. However, he got into the main draw by playing the qualifying tournament and played a strong first round.
-- R. Clark, Jackson, Miss.
• I confess I saw little of Young's 6-1, 6-0, 6-1 victory over Martin Klizan on Tuesday. The social media traffic seemed to indicate that this was as much about Klizan's non-effort as Young's channeling his inner Rod Laver. Still, give Young the credit. He's struggled mightily over the last few years, taken hits from all corners (some deserved, some not) and burned through his ration of wild cards. He had to qualify for this main draw -- i.e., earn it -- and it seems to have served him well. Perhaps there's a larger lesson in there.
Jerzy Janowicz = Ernest Gulbis? Talented but erratic ...
-- John, Elysian Fields, Texas
• Janowicz was visibly injured in his first-round loss, his lower back wrapped in enough tape to cover an HVAC system. Gulbis is in another class.
Varvara Lepchenko-Alexandra Dulgheru, Christina McHale-Julia Goerges, a Venus blowout of Kirsten Flipkens -- I blew off work to watch this??? No thanks, guys, I've got plenty of Law & Order reruns to watch.
-- Paul R., Easton, Mass.
• Look at it this way: At least you didn't work, come home to relax by watching tennis only to see Serena defeat Schiavone 6-0, 6-1 and Victoria Azarenka beat Dinah Pfizenmaier 6-0, 6-0. Seriously, tennis tournaments are like Gumpian boxes of chocolate. Some matches you get stinkers. Some matches you get Victoria Duval. All part of the appeal.