WHAT HAPPENED: If Catherine “CiCi” Bellis felt any nerves facing No. 12 seed Dominika Cibulkova in just the 13th pro-level match of her career, she didn’t show it in seizing the 6-1, 4-6, 6-4 first-round thriller on Court 6.
“It’s crazy to think that I’m actually here right now with all these other people. I mean, I never thought I would be practicing or sharing a court with, you know, a player that I watch on TV frequently,” she said. “I mean, it’s crazy. But I love it.”
The 15-year-old Californian, who earned a wild card into the event by virtue of her straight-sets drubbing of Tornado Alicia Black in the final of the USTA Girls’ 18s National Championships earlier this month, won the first eight points of her WTA main-draw debut. Her combination of groundstroke winners and forced errors simply prevented her Slovakian opponent, the 2014 Australian Open finalist who is 10 years her elder, from finding any rhythm.
To resounding roars from the approving crowd, the world No. 1,208 broke Cibulkova’s serve in three out of her first four opportunities, claiming the first set with a return winner. But Cibulkova cut down on her errors in the second set, taking Bellis’ opening service game.
Bellis returned the favor in the eighth game, but then nerves seemed to set in. The No. 2-ranked junior in the world sent an over-anxious forehand and return long and then added a double fault to hand the advantage to Cibulkova. The veteran served out the set when Bellis netted her final return.
Even when down, however, Bellis continued to demonstrate maturity of game in mixing topspin drives with sliced backhands and delicate angles. After raising the hopes of the pro-American crowd by fighting off break points to lead 1-0 in the third, she went down 1-3, which she called "kind of a bummer."
“I just kind of told myself, ‘Calm down, don’t think about who you’re playing, who is on the other side of the court. Just be free. You have nothing to lose.'”
Bellis said she drew energy from the crowd with Cibulkova serving down 4-5, blasting three consecutive winners before sending a return long on her first match point. History was written on the very next point, however, as she drew an error from Cibulkova, cementing her status as the youngest player to win a match at the US Open since Anna Kournikova at 15 years, 93 days in 1996. In all, she won 84 points to Cibulkova's 73.
Bellis said she intends to give up the $60,000 second-round payday in order to maintain her amateur status and keep her options open for college. She also intends to play the US Open junior tournament in a few days.
“I’m just going to keep playing my game and not really think about this last match and keep going in the tournament,” she said, “[and] play as well as I can.”
WHAT IT MEANS: Obviously, Bellis is one to watch, as America looks for its next champion to fill the 32-year-old sneakers of world No. 1 Serena Williams. Time is on her side, since at 15 years, 152 days, she is the youngest player in this year’s event by two years.
Cibulkova has reached three finals this year, winning her fourth WTA title at Acapulco, but she has also lost in the opening round nine times. Her best showing at the US Open was a quarterfinal appearance in 2010.
THE QUESTION: Will Bellis avoid a letdown in her second-round match against Ukrainian Lesia Tsurenko?