NEW YORK -- There will be no Cinderella story for CiCi Bellis. The 15-year-old star of the first week couldn't follow up her big upset of 12th seed Dominika Cibulkova in the first round, losing 6-3, 0-6, 6-2 to Zarina Diyas at the U.S. Open.
On paper this was a more winnable match than her big first round upset. Diyas, 20, is ranked No. 48 and just like Bellis, she too was making her U.S. Open debut. Bellis doesn't shy from the big stage or the big crowds. She showed that on Tuesday against Cibulkova, when her play simply got better as the crowd got bigger. The crowd burgeoned on Thursday night. Court 17 was packed to the rafters, as many sat through a five-set win by Tommy Robredo to get seats. Diyas must have felt like the world was against her. And for two sets that's precisely how she played. Even as she won the first set 6-3, Diyas looked unsure of herself and of the situation. Her best career result was making the fourth round of Wimbledon just two months ago, losing easily to Simona Halep. This felt markedly different.
So to be a player who normally earns her money and ranking points on the outer courts, Diyas took the court to 3,000 tennis fans who desperately wanted her to lose against a player she knew nothing about. None of us knew much about Bellis before this week. The No. 2 junior from Atherton, California is ranked outside the top 1000 but earned her wildcard by winning the Girls 18s National Championships earlier this month. Stunning a Grand Slam finalist is an incredible effort, though Cibulkova has been slumping since the spring.
Backing it up is just as important. Was her first round win just lightning in a bottle or a glimpse of what's to come? After getting a closer look at her game tonight, it's a little of both.
What we've learned over two elite-level matches is that Bellis' strongest quality is her fight. After struggling to hold her serve in the first set and letting it slip away quickly, Bellis bounced back to win the second set 6-0 by winning three protracted deuce games, all back to back. After holding her serve for a 1-0 lead, Bellis broke to 2-0 after a six deuce game, held to 3-0 after a four deuce game, and broke again to 4-0 on a six deuce game. That's impressive work from a youngster and the building blocks of a player who enjoys the battle.
So she's good between the ears, but what about between the lines? You can see the direction women's tennis is going in Bellis' game. Her stroke production is beautiful on both wings off the baseline, she's not afraid to come to the net, and she's at her best when she can step in and take the ball very early. While undersized and less physically mature than her opponent, Bellis had an eye towards dictating play. She finished the match with 21 winners to 54 unforced errors, while Diyas hit 19 winners to 37 unforced errors. The error count is alarming, but not if you consider the stage and the moment. She tried to take her game to Diyas. She just struggled to execute.
The most glaring hole in Bellis' game is her serve. She was broken five times in the match with a serve topping out at 99 mph. Again, not surprising that at 15-year-old's serve would get manhandled by anyone ranked inside the top 100 on the WTA level. But it has it's own technical glitches that need to be sorted out. She drops her head through the swing and relies too much on her arm.
It's always dangerous to prognosticate when it comes to younger players. So much of it depends on their own physical development over the next few years. In many ways, Bellis' loss may have been a blessing. We've seen these ingenue runs in New York before, most recently coming from 17-year-old Melanie Oudin, who made a run to the quarterfinals in 2009. Oudin, an undersized battler herself, never reached such heights again. She topped off at No. 31 in the rankings and now sits at No. 134. Had Bellis won, the hype machine would have been in overdrive. And who knows how that would have affected her career.
In the end it was Diyas' experience and possibly her fitness that go her through in the third set. The Kazakh played her best and most inspired tennis in the final set, while Bellis couldn't maintain her momentum and gave away far too many errors. Diyas will play 17th seed Ekaterina Makarova in the third round in a bid to make her second consecutive fourth round at a major. As for Bellis, her U.S. Open isn't over. She's still playing the junior tournament as the top seed.