When 15-year-old American Catherine Bellis, better known as CiCi, went out to Court 6 for her match against No. 12 seed Dominika Cibulkova of Slovakia, she said she just wanted to just go out and enjoy the experience.
She did far more than that.
In the first grand upset of this year's US Open, the youngest player in the draw displayed poise and game well beyond her years. Belting three consecutive winners with Cibulkova serving to stay in the match at 4-5, an unforced error from this year’s Australian Open finalist on match point brought Bellis to her knees and the crowd to their feet as she pulled out the win, 6-1, 4-6, 6-4.
There were plenty of hugs for family and friends afterward as Bellis herself appeared to be in disbelief about her accomplishment. She became the youngest player to win a main draw match at the US Open since Anna Kournikova in 1996, when the Russian reached the fourth round as a qualifier. Bellis now plays Zarina Diyas of Kazakhstan in the second round.
“Believing was the number one thing that I had to do today. Just go out there and believe that you can win,” she said. “If you do believe, there's two options. You can either believe and lose or believe and win, but if you don't believe you're going to lose anyway.”
Bellis, who earned a wild card into the women's draw by virtue of winning the USTA Girls’ 18s National Championship earlier this month, hardly looked like a player ranked No. 1,208 in the world. Standing inside the baseline to hit Cibulkova’s second serve and feeding off the pace of her opponent, she got the crowd into the match with her winners and kept them there with animated fist pumps and displays of emotion.
But when Cibulkova won the second set and went 3-1 in the final set, one could be forgiven for thinking that Bellis had awakened a sleeping giant (or some variation of that, in the case of the 5'3" Cibulkova). Rather than chalking up the match to an experience, Bellis dug deep and actually managed to relax more when it appeared to many that the match was slipping away from her.
“When I was down 3-1, I just kind of relaxed,” she explained. “It obviously doesn't matter if I lose today. She's obviously 12 in the world, so it doesn't matter. I just started playing a lot freer and better.”
That mental toughness is why it's been clear to junior tennis fans this year that Bellis had plenty of promise to do well in the pros. The native of Atherton, Calif., who recently was honored with 2014 US Open Junior Sportsmanship Award, is currently the No. 2 junior in the world. She started the year on a 30-1 tear in the juniors and soared up the rankings after winning two of the most prestigious junior events held in the U.S.: the International Spring Championships (two days before her 15th birthday) and the Easter Bowl (five days afterward).
And in an age where players seem to be getting bigger and taller, Bellis shows that there’s room for non-Amazons in the tennis world. Her movement around the court is a major weapon and her defense is world class, but it’s her forehand that stands out most in her game. Able to hit the ball seemingly anywhere in the court off that wing, many of her down-the-line winners on the run elicited gasps from the crowd.
It's perhaps not surprising given her athletic style of play that she looked up most to Serena Williams and Kim Clijsters when she first learned to play tennis.
“I just think [Serena is] such a great person for American tennis and a player for America. She has done so much for tennis here. So I love watching her,” said Bellis. “And everything about [Kim]. Her confidence on the court, the way she carried herself, her game. The fact that she had kids, then came back to win the US Open. That's amazing."
Bellis’ rise up the ranks will be limited by her age; as a 15-year-old, she is only eligible to compete in 10 tournaments until her 16th birthday next April. But the 70 points she earned from today’s win will see her soar up the rankings – and it’s a safe bet that American tournaments will be eager to give her wild cards in the coming months.
For now, the 15-year-old will be eager to make the most of her current wild card opportunity and keep her debut run going at this year’s US Open.