American teenager CiCi Bellis became the belle of the US Open after upsetting No. 12 seed Dominika Cibulkova in a first-round match on Tuesday. But 48 hours after becoming a trending topic on Twitter and the most sought-after player on the grounds of the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center, the biggest question is how the 15-year-old will handle her newfound fame.
Bellis plays Zarina Diyas of Kazakhstan in a second-round match on Thursday. At 20 years old, Diyas is thought of as one of the most promising young players on tour, but Bellis is still a full five years younger.
And while TV cameras clamored for room among fans when Bellis defeated Cibulkova because the match was on a non-televised court, her second-round tilt is moving up to Court 17, where she and Diyas will be the last match on. Even the native of Atherton, Calif., admitted that her debut Grand Slam has been nothing short of a surreal experience.
“It’s crazy to think that I'm actually here right now with all these other players. I never thought I would be practicing or sharing a court with a player that I watch on TV frequently,” she said after her win on Tuesday. “I mean, it's crazy. But I love it.”
The US Open has produced plenty of American dream teen stories over the years. Chris Evert reached the semifinals of her debut US Open in 1971 after saving six match points against fellow American Mary Ann Eisel in the second round. In 1976, a 14-year-old Tracy Austin defeated No. 4 seed Sue Barker in the third round and advanced on to the quarterfinals, prompting a phone call from President Jimmy Carter.
In recent years, Venus Williams reached the finals in her debut US Open as a 17-year-old in 1997. Melanie Oudin captivated the American public as a 17-year-old with her quarterfinal showing in 2009, a run that included a second-round defeat of No. 4 seed Elena Dementieva and a shocking win over former US Open champion Maria Sharapova just two days later. But in reality, most struggle to back up their big wins – at least right away. Last year, for instance, 17-year-old Victoria Duval made headlines by defeating former US Open champion Samantha Stosur in the opening round but fell in the next to former Top 5 player Daniela Hantuchova of Slovakia.
Bellis seems to understand as well as anyone that success on the pro tour is a process rather than an overnight reality. It’s largely why she has decided to maintain her amateur status and leave the door open for college even after beating Cibulkova. The decision means that she will be unable to collect any of the $60,420 she earned for reaching the second round.
“I’m definitely going to stay an amateur and keep my options for college in case an injury or something happens. But I’d love to be a pro one day,” she said. “I don’t really think about [the money]. I just try to focus on the tennis rather than … what’s on the line for the match.”
On the heels of a single win over Cibulkova, Bellis’ pro ranking will rise from No. 1,208 to around No. 450, even if she loses against Diyas. But despite the win over this year's Australian Open finalist, Bellis is planning to build her career slowly, playing in a series of $10,000 and $25,000 events this fall on the USTA Pro Circuit, in which the top seed is typically ranked between No. 150 and No. 250.
But don't let Bellis' preternatural maturity fool you. She's still only 15. She appeared horrified when a reporter asked her about her love of Justin Bieber, declaring that she was into the Canadian singer “when I was younger, a couple of years ago,” but has since outgrown him.
Bellis doesn’t appear to have moved beyond the feeling of winning, though, and she will look to keep her dream run going on Thursday.