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Forging Ahead

Elina Frumerman

  AP Photo

AP Photo

It's a rain-soaked winter day, and last year’s US Open sensation CiCi Bellis is pumped. She’s coming off her first four-day rest in at least a year and she’s pummeling forehands and backhands against a pair of former Division I college players. Her mother, seated nearby, barks out occasional instructions. "That’s too flat and low," Lori Bellis says. "More margin."

The nearly inseparable mother-daughter tandem is on the fifth floor of the Metropolitan Club near downtown San Francisco, a private women’s social and athletic club. The court has seen better days. The yellowish light was dim, water dripped from a patchy roof—the setting was utilitarian, at best.

Certainly, it was a far cry from the bright lights and adulation that engulfed CiCi at the U.S. Open, where the California teen—then a 1,208th-ranked wild card—upset 12th-seeded Dominika Cibulkova, the 2014 Australian Open runner-up, 6-1, 4-6, 6-4 in the first round. At age 15, CiCi became the youngest player since 1996 to win a main draw match in New York. Long before she went on to lose in the second round to unheralded Zarina Diyas in three sets, the media hype machine was grinding away.

It’s a well-oiled device, especially for Americans desperate for the Next Great Player. It goes something like this: Bright-eyed, precocious youngster wins a match or makes a mini-run at a big event and suddenly he or she is on morning talk shows and in magazines—and more often than not falls back into mediocrity. The 21st-century world of pro tennis takes as much brawn as brain, and the linear rise of such teenage players as Serena Williams and Martina Hingis are increasingly a thing of the past.

CiCi—spunky, uncowed, articulate, out-of-nowhere, too young to drive—was catnip to tennis fans. And despite the recent memory of a darker side to Cinderella stories that launch in New York, her arrival was almost impossible to separate from the last U.S. Open darling, Melanie Oudin. In truth, Oudin was both older and far more accomplished when she laid waste to a host of Russians, including Maria Sharapova, to advance to the 2009 US Open quarterfinals. Ranked No. 70, then-17-year-old Oudin had already reached the fourth round at Wimbledon earlier in the summer. She finished in the Top 50 that year before slowly sinking under the crush of expectations and injuries.

"I’d hate to compare them other than the excitement," says a former teenage phenom, two-time US Open champion Tracy Austin, who graced the cover of Sports Illustrated at 13. "They are very different situations."

For starters, CiCi is the superior junior, having clinched the ITF’s year-end No. 1 ranking with a semifinal showing at December’s Orange Bowl. She became the youngest world junior No. 1 since 2006. The Bellis family also seems aware that the journey to a successful pro career is a minefield. It’s part of the reason CiCi has not turned pro and that her parents insist if things don’t work out she will enter college.

"I feel Ceec could be more successful going to Stanford for four years," says her mother, using the shorthand for CiCi’s nickname, a play on the initials for Catherine Cartan. "Then she can write her own ticket. She’s so smart and her favorite subject is math. She can work for a venture firm and make a billion times more than she’d make in tennis."

CiCi, however, sees college as Plan B. If she breaks into the Top 100, she says she will leave the amateur ranks. "I want to be No. 1," says CiCi, who admired Belgian star Kim Clijsters growing up, "but you can’t really say that."

Indeed, the dingy court that winter afternoon served as a grounding touchstone of sorts. It is where CiCi took some of her first swings as a child, and where the family practiced until her prowess sent them to sunnier Atherton, CA, about 30 miles south of the city. Their home near the Stanford University campus has a pool and a tennis court but they must trek up to San Francisco on rainy days.

"This court was perfect for a little one," continues Lori, a former competitive junior player from Indiana who prides herself on her heartland work ethic. "Now it’s perfect for her game because it’s lightening-fast. When anything is off in her game, we come running here."

CiCi, who also excelled in soccer, showed early promise on the court and gravitated toward tennis because "when you win you can take all the credit," she says. The family eschewed the academy route—an only child, CiCi has been home-schooled since fifth grade.

"When she chose tennis I was like, 'Ugh!'" chirps Lori, explaining that she and her husband, Gordon, put her in lessons as a kind of pseudo-babysitting gig. "I knew what it would entail and I encouraged her to continue to play soccer."

A stellar junior career earned her a wild card into the US Open, but as with most young players CiCi struggled at times in the months since her breakthrough. She felt the weight of expectations. She got injured. The family continues to scramble for adequate hitting partners and cobble together an on- and off-court workout regime that will test but not tax her young body.

In between her double indoor practice sessions, CiCi copped to feeling overwhelmed at her first tournament following the U.S. Open, a $75,000 ITF event in Albuquerque where she lost in the second round of qualifying to a Canadian ranked No. 296. "It wasn’t even that big of a crowd, like 50 or 100 people, but oh god, that was awful," she recalls. "They wanted to see me win. Just thinking about it…." She trailed off.

Like most things in a teenager’s life, especially one as resilient as CiCi, the mood didn’t last. CiCi says a heart-to-heart with U.S. Junior Fed Cup captain Kathy Rinaldi, coupled with some internal processing, allowed her to "swing freely" again. In October, she ripped through successive $25,000-purse ITF events in Rock Hill and Florence, SC, winning both and pushing her ranking inside the Top 300.

"It showed the U.S. Open wasn’t just a fluke," says the upbeat CiCi in a rare moment of defensiveness. "I hate when people say, 'Cibulkova played bad that day,' or something like that. No, I played really well that day." The teenager won her first title of 2015 at the $25,000 ITF in Rancho Sante Fe, CA, taking out Maria Sanchez, 6-0, 6-2 in the final. 

For now, Bellis will remain based in Northern California, hit with local players, and occasionally train with USTA coaches at their national facilities. Aware of the physical rigors ahead, the family hired former WTA Tour trainer Nadine Waeghe, who worked with now-retired ex-Stanford standout Mallory Burdette, to oversee her off-court strength training and conditioning. While Lori serves as teacher, coach, scheduler and buffer, CiCi’s father, a financial investor who works for himself, will continue to do the bulk of the
tournament travel, which CiCi prefers. "No offense, Mom," CiCi says in Lori’s direction, "but he’s more chill."

But Lori is the linchpin. Besides being a constant companion, she serves as gatekeeper extraordinaire for all sorts of influences. "I’m not Type A, I’m Type AAA," says Lori. "We’re psycho-prepared people."

There is work ahead. At 5-foot-6 and 115 pounds, CiCi is not physically imposing (but perhaps still growing, says her mother). Her serve is attackable and she can be overpowered. Her gifts are footwork, court awareness, mental toughness, self-belief and a draw-blood-first style of play.

"If I was a grinder, some of the bigger girls would just kill me," says CiCi, whose forehand is her stronger wing. "Being aggressive, controlling the point, taking the ball early—those are my best qualities."

Her moxie was on full display when she rallied from a break down in the final set against Cibulkova at the U.S. Open. "She was fearless to finish the match out," says Tennis Channel commentator Austin. "She’s got a good head on her shoulders and she’s a super nice young woman," adds former Top-10 player Rinaldi, who says CiCi wrote her a hand-written thank you note after she led the USA to a junior Fed Cup victory in Mexico last fall.

CiCi describes herself as outgoing, single-minded and at times self-critical. She has tunnel vision about where her future lies. "I couldn’t think of myself as doing anything else," she says of a pro career. Competition is her oxygen, and every setting is a new chance to battle, be it board games or baking. Lori describes how she recently whipped up some pre-Christmas sugar cookies only to have CiCi outperform her by making caramel blondies, gingerbread cookies and pumpkin muffins. "I was like, 'You had to beat me at baking?'" says Lori. "Cooking is the only thing I’m good at."

CiCi appears committed to tennis. She is talented and loves to play. Her parents are marshaling resources and monitoring her development. Another positive sign, according to Austin: The two titles she won in the fall after the US Open excitement had died down. "Finishing on the Sunday with the trophy shows you’re going up the rungs of the ladder," she says. "Give her time, room, space to mature," says Austin. "She’s 15 years old. She’s a little peanut."

Besides an unflinching work ethic, CiCi’s best quality might be her joie de play. "Many kids love tennis because of what it can bring them, but don’t want to do all the work," says USTA coach Leo Azevedo, who has worked with CiCi both at the national training site in Carson, CA, and at their home in Atherton. "It’s not normal we find somebody this age with this kind of love for the sport."