About an hour before Donald Young took the court in Arthur Ashe Stadium for his opening-round match against Roger Federer on Monday night, another American upstart was making her tour debut. At 16 years old, Victoria Duval, who was born in Florida and raised in Haiti until she was 8, gave an utterly charming, guileless, innocent prematch interview that left everyone wondering, “Where in the world has this kid been?” By her bright smile and squeaking voice — ESPN’s Chris Fowler described her affectionately as “Urkel-esque”– you would never have known what that kid has seen.
When she was 7, armed robbers held her and her cousins hostage in Port-au-Prince before releasing them. Her father, a physician, was buried underneath the rubble when a destructive earthquake hit Haiti in 2010. He managed to dig himself out and was airlifted to a hospital in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. Duval has seen some things, things that no one at her age (or any age) should.
Yet there she was on the biggest tennis court in the world playing her first senior level match — she earned a wild card into the U.S. Open main draw by virtue of winning the U.S. under-18 championships — against one of her idols, Kim Clijsters, who is playing the last tournament of her career. Clijsters, 29, says she knows in her heart she is done with tennis, that her body simply will not let her play the sport the way she wants.
The match was a foregone conclusion. Clijsters rolled over her underpowered and inexperienced opponent 6-3, 6-1, but not before Duval charmed the crowd. After she broke thanks to a series of unforced errors from Clijsters, the teenager turned her back to her opponent and tried (but failed) to contain the ear-to-ear smile of a kid whose only thought was, “Holy crap! I just broke Kim Clijsters!” It was 51 minutes of inevitability, but by the end of the night Duval was trending on Twitter, reporters were demanding to speak to her and even Clijsters asked to take a picture with her.
When Duval left the court to huge cheers, she might have walked past another young prodigy. Or at least a former prodigy, 23-year-old Donald Young. He was set to take on another legend, Roger Federer, and unlike Clijsters, Federer, 31, isn’t close to pulling the plug. There is no dip and there is no holding pattern when it comes to Federer’s game these days. He is playing as well as ever. There was nothing Young could do to change that Monday night. Federer won 6-3, 6-2, 6-4 in 1 hour, 34 minutes.
Federer was brilliant as usual under the Ashe lights (he’s 22-0 in night matches at the U.S. Open), beginning his quest for an Open-era record sixth U.S. Open. He’s back at No. 1 for the first time in 25 months, the favorite with Rafael Nadal out with a knee injury and coming off a Wimbledon title and an Olympic silver medal. But he has recent ghosts in New York — losing to Juan Martin del Potro in the 2009 five-set final and then squandering match points in semifinal losses to Novak Djokovic in 2010 and 2011.
As for Young, most know his mythology by now. As legend has it, a 10-year-old Young had a hit with John McEnroe, and McEnroe was so impressed he called IMG and told it to sign the kid immediately. If McEnroe’s stamp of approval doesn’t put you on the tennis radar, nothing will.
And so Young grew up under intense scrutiny. As a junior he excelled, winning two majors and ascending to the No. 1 junior ranking. The talent was there, but whether the infrastructure and guidance followed suit continues to be debated. He has remained defiant in his commitment to his parents as his coaches, gotten himself into spats with the USTA and insisted on going about things his own way. He was vindicated last year when he had a career run at the U.S. Open, losing to Andy Murray in the fourth round. He followed it up with strong showings in Asia, making the final in Bangkok and successfully qualifying for two Masters events in the fall. He finished 2011 ranked No. 39. It looked like Young had finally tapped into his potential.
Of course, 2012 has been disastrous. He’s won three matches all year, the same number he won at the U.S. Open in 2011, and went on a 17-match losing streak that he finally snapped last week in Winston-Salem, N.C. As luck would have it, he was given the worst draw of any of the 128 players in New York: a streaking Federer in the first round.
So as with Duval against Clijsters, Young’s fate was a foregone conclusion. Federer whipped his forehand with brutal authority and precision, leaving Young shaking his head and looking at his box for solutions. There were none. With the loss, Young will tumble outside of the top 100. He’ll no longer receive direct entry into the major tournaments in Asia. That’s bad news considering the volume of points he needs to defend from last year. There’s a chance he could be out of the top 250 at the end of the year.
McEnroe, the man who arguably put Young on the map, had no problem setting forth his criticisms of Young’s lack of development. He needs to grow up, McEnroe said. His time is running out, he said. He’s let too many opportunities slip by, he said. All these things may be true. Yet it struck me that while McEnroe and his brother, Patrick — the head of USTA player development who took Young to task for criticizing the USTA last year – seemed to take pleasure in picking apart Young’s game and development during the ESPN2 broadcast, we may not even be speaking so negatively about Young if not for the unfair expectations placed on him by the very people now tearing him down. Why wasn’t this just another routine win for a No. 1 over No. 81? Why did this feel like so much more?
Expectations are a burden, and they can weigh down both player and pundit. The two prime-time matches on Ashe were in the books before they started. Barring injury or implosion, neither underdog had a chance. Yet for Duval, winning a mere four games off Clijsters was a moral victory. She was applauded off court and gave us something to smile about. For Young, winning nine games off one of the best players to ever pick up a racket — and breaking him, mind you, something no player did two weeks ago in Cincinnati — was simply another step on the road to irrelevance.