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CiCi Bellis bursts onto scene at U.S. Open as young American star

Catherine 'CiCi' Bellis captivated audiences with her breakthrough performance at the U.S. Open, but lost Thursday night. Photo: Chris Trotman/Getti Images

Catherine 'CiCi' Bellis captivated audiences with her breakthrough performance at the U.S. Open, but lost Thursday night.

NEW YORK -- The name is spelled “CiCi” but you’d be forgiven for thinking that it’s "SeeSee." In keeping with the annual first-week tradition at the U.S. Open, a little-known American wins a match unexpectedly and suddenly -- with a boost from the media -- becomes a star attraction at this 15-day circus. The younger, the better. The more enticing the back story, the better. Step right up and behold the Next Big Thing, the amalgam of Steffi Graf, Chris Evert and Serena Williams!

This year’s object of hype and fascination is Catherine 'CiCi' Bellis, a 15-year-old from Atherton, California. Bellis scored an impressive, age-belying win, beating Dominika Cibulkova, the 12th seed and Australian Open finalist, in the first round. At odds with the aging field, Bellis’ win recalled an era when teenagers could win main draw matches before they were able to drive the cars advertised on courtside signage. By the time Bellis walked onto Court 17 after 8 p.m. on Thursday night for a clash against Zarina Diyas, there wasn’t a vacant seat. Bellis already had an evening news-style catchphrase: Silicon Valley’s Tennis Startup. An esteemed finance website posed the (ridiculous) question: Will CiCi Bellis have an impact on U.S. Open ticket prices?

A sports radio station called me this morning asking to speak about “this Bellis girl -- and maybe Roger Federer and Serena Williams if there’s time.”

Part of this is our ongoing quest for the Next Big Thing. Part of this is the USTA’s eagerness (desperation?) for demonstrable success stories. Part of this is the American fan base taking a particular interest in a domestic story.

The history of the U.S. Open is littered with hyped prospects who were first week attractions and then never replicated that high. One example among many: five years ago, Melanie Oudin hijacked that half of the tournament. Last weekend, she failed to qualify for the main draw.

In tennis circles and at the USTA Headquarters, Bellis has been a name boldfaced and italicized for a few years now.

"We all knew she was going to be good," said former World No. 1 Tracy Austin. "We just didn’t expect it to come this soon." An interesting twist to this story: Bellis and her team have done little to stoke the hype machine. Unlike others before, Bellis hasn’t appeared on Good Morning America. She hasn’t swaddled herself with agents. She is unlikely to be seduced by prize money. (Her father is a Silicon Valley private equity practitioner; suffice to say she is not burdened by the pressure of being the family ATM.)

For two hours she put on a thrilling showing, presaging what might be to come. Against Diyas, another credible pro, she hung in the rallies and betrayed little awe. After dropping the first set, Bellis crushed her in the second set, 6-0.

Then, it all caught up with her. The weight of the occasion, the surfeit of tennis, all of that running and striking. It was approaching 10 p.m., late for a 15-year-old. Reverting to a junior, she played some loose points, Diyas seized the match and with it, ended the show.

Bellis, justifiably, left to applause from the crowd. You have to believe there are more to come. But for now, let's unplug the hype machine. Let's hope she continues to improve, continues to be a level-headed teenager and continues to grow.

She was a fun attraction. But let's move away now. Please disburse, folks. For a while, anyway, there's nothing here to See See. 

Mailbag

I recently read that Martina Navratilova would be interested in coaching if the right opportunity came up. I would love to see her coach Caroline Wozniacki because I think she could benefit from her insight. Is there any chance these two could work together?
-- Eric Bukzin, Manorville, NY

• It’s not the first combo that comes to mind. I suspect Navratilova might struggle with the, um, parental propinquity in the Wozniacki camp. While they’re both lovely people, if this were match.com, I’m not sure there would be much on the way of compatibility scores. But Wozniacki does need someone to implore her to unleash some aggression and stop playing so much damn defense. “You’ve mastered first and second gears; let’s see fourth and fifth.” Navratilova would be great for imparting this message.

With U.S. Open Live, I've been able to watch a lot of the warm-ups and I’ve seen an many of the women regularly returning their opponent's warm-up serves. It seems like doing so has become an accepted part of things. Why? Does it help warm up the reflexes and muscles? Or is it more to gain a tactical advantage or a head-start on reading the opponent's serve? Why hasn't it become commonplace on the men's side?
-- Janessa

• Interesting. This is totally speculative, but there is a mental warfare element to this: "Really, that’s all you’ve got?" I always thought there was something strange about NOT practicing returns in warm-up. Players often hit more overheads in warm-ups than in matches. Yet they are obligated to hit returns every other game and often hit zero during warm-ups.

​​While I enjoyed watching some of CiCi Bellis' match, I could not help thinking back a few years ago to when Melanie Oudin made a big splash at the Open and her career never lived up to the media stampede that resulted from her quarterfinal appearance. I believe Lindsay Davenport was one of the few that questioned Melanie's future because of her size. It's early, but what are your thoughts on Bellis' future, particularly if she doesn't have a growth spurt in the next couple of years?
-- Sharon Newell, Houston, Texas

• That’s a concern, though Bellis is still growing. It’s also a concern with Noah Rubin, who has tailored his game to maximize his assets (speed and smarts) and minimize his liabilities (height and BMI.) There are examples of undersized players who made nice careers for themselves. Ironically, Bellis beat one of them the other day -- Dominika Cibulkova -- who’s built like a fire hydrant (we mean this in the most flattering way). Yet walk through the lounge and you could be forgiven for thinking you’d stumbled into a WNBA locker room. As the game becomes increasingly physical, it will become increasingly harder for players who aren’t on the edge of the growth curve to make it.

Did you see the New York Times article on the towel? I was at the practice day yesterday and there wasn't too much towel action going on, except Ernests Gulbis who was one hot mess. Does that make it a breakable habit? Unfortunately the women's shrieks and grunting happens at practice -- because that needs fine-tuning.
-- Diane Hill

• The terrycloth security blankets? You know those scuff marks on the Wimbledon courts where the players trod so much the grass gets tuned into a sandlot. Next year look for this: the grass at the ballkid stations is chewed up as well, an offshoot of the players constantly requesting towels. Here in New York, it’s understandable. On a stinking hot day like Wednesday, fans in the stands were sweating so much they needed pool permits. But at other events, it seems like a habit -- or, less charitably, an affectation -- that needs to be broken.

We have an official Steve Darcis sighting!
-- James

• There was. And, sadly, in his first Grand Slam match since beating Rafael Nadal in Wimbledon, he fell in five sets -- leading in three of them -- to Martin Klizan.

Shots, miscellany

• Keep an eye out for a documentary on Arthur Ashe debuting on Tennis Channel.

• Today’s read, from the New York Times: A U.S. Open to remember: Navratilova and Evert look back

• Ivan Himanen of Brooklyn, N.Y., has Thursday’s Long Lost Siblings -- Thomaz Bellucci and Julian Casablancas, of The Strokes:

Thomaz Bellucci and Julian Casablancas

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