This story first appeared in the November/December 2017 issue of New York Tennis Magazine.
Three years ago, Catherine Cartan "CiCi" Bellis captured the hearts of New Yorkers and tennis fans everywhere when the 1,208th-ranked teenager, playing in only her 13th professional match, defeated 12th-seeded Dominika Cibulkova in the first round of the 2014 U.S. Open. She became the youngest player to win a match at the U.S. Open since Anna Kournikova did so in 1996.
“I love playing here. The crowd supports me so much,” Bellis said of playing in Flushing Meadows, a place that will always hold a special place in her heart. “I remember my first year playing here, I was a junior, and no one knew who I was, but they would come out and support America. They loved seeing Americans doing well and that was the best part about it.”
Now 18-years-old and a year into her pro career, the girl from San Francisco has moved on from that unexpected victory.
And she wants you to do the same.
When asked if she gets tired of being asked about that victory three years ago, she replied unambiguously, “Yes!”
“It was crazy, but it’s just something I’ve moved on from, and has nothing to do with my game now, and who I am now,” Bellis added. “It did show me that when playing my best, I could play with top players, even at that age. It was a good start for me. Obviously I have matured a lot as a player since then.”
Bellis turned pro in 2016 after initially committing verbally to play collegiate tennis at Stanford. It was not an easy decision for her, but strong play in the second half of 2016 provided her with the confidence to begin her professional career.
“I’ve been working really hard, and all my hard work is beginning to pay off,” Bellis said. “But I think I can do whatever I want to in the sport of tennis. If I keep working hard, I think I can be one of the best players in the world.”
In the year since turning pro, Bellis has no regrets about her decision, and she has quickly shot up the world rankings as one of the brightest young stars in the game. In her first tournament as a professional last year, Bellis reached the Quebec quarterfinals, the second WTA quarterfinal showing of her career.
Her play heated up as 2016 concluded, capturing titles in the last three tournaments she played in, including two ITF 50Ks in Saguenay and Toronto before heading to Honolulu to take home her first WTA title, the Hawaii Tennis Open in November, where she defeated Shuai Zhang in the finals, 6-4, 6-2.
“I think the way I finished last year and have been playing definitely validates my decision,” Bellis said. “It was a big decision for me, and at the time, I didn’t know if it was the right one or not. I guess it turned out to be right.”
She headed into 2017 with tons of momentum and ready to make a splash on the WTA Tour, but the year got off to a rocky start due to a hamstring injury which kept her off the court for all of January.
Her season began in Doha, where she would fall in the second round of the qualifiers, but responded in a huge way the following week in Dubai. Bellis defeated 17th-seed Yulia Putintseva in the opening round, and after knocking off Laura Siegemund, she took out former champion and fourth-seeded Agnieszka Radwanska to reach the quarterfinals.
“It’s definitely the biggest win of my career,” Bellis said after the win. “And probably one of the best days of my life.”
While she would lose in the Dubai quarterfinals to Caroline Wozniacki, the monster win was a huge stepping stone for the young American. Not only did she belong on the WTA Tour, but she had the ability to play against the very best in the world, further proven with the win over Radwanska.
The Dubai run moved her up 15 spots in the WTA Women’s Singles Rankings as her steady and gradual climb continued. She would win two matches in the main draw of the 2017 French Open, but was dealt a tough draw against two-time Grand Slam champion Victoria Azarenka in the opening round of Wimbledon. She would win the first set, but Azarenka came back to win the final two sets and the match.
Her best showing so far this season was at her home tournament in Stanford, Calif., the 2017 Bank of the West Classic. Seeded eighth, she powered into the semifinals, highlighted by a win over the second-seeded Petra Kvitova in the quarterfinals, and followed it up the next week by reaching the final 16 in Toronto to rise to 36th in the world.
“I’ve been so impressed by her maturity and self-reliance,” Chris Evert told the New York Times earlier this year. “And just the hunger she has to learn.”
That maturity and self-reliance, as described by the Hall of Famer Evert, may be Bellis’ most impressive qualities. She is an extremely talented player, but her maturity and demeanor on the court and as a professional have allowed her to be undeterred by any moment.
She was tripped up in the first round of the 2017 U.S. Open, falling to Japan’s Nao Hibino, 3-6, 6-4, 5-7, but it was just one bad match in an overall fantastic 2017 season.
“It definitely wasn’t my best match. I prepared really well for the tournament. It just wasn’t a good day for me,” she said afterwards. “I had a really good summer, so I am definitely not too bummed about it. Obviously I am bummed because this is one of my favorite tournaments, but you cannot control those types of things. I’m definitely happy with my overall improvement this year.”
That improvement led to her being named the WTA Newcomer of the Year for 2017. She showed success on different court surfaces and in tournaments on American soil and outside of the United States, finishing the year ranked 42nd in the world, 48 spots higher than when the year began.
The state of American women’s tennis is in great shape, especially considering the U.S. Open featured four semifinalists from the United States, three of whom are still under the age of 30. But the future of women’s tennis will be led by the California girl with the swinging pony tail who is still a teenager for another year. She has already reached the third round at two different majors, has won a WTA title and has scored two wins over top 10 players. She is not worried about expectations, in fact, she embraces them, and as she continues to grow, Bellis will be a perennial force to be reckoned with on the WTA Tour for years to come.
CiCi Bellis competing during the 2017 U.S. Open. (Credit photo to Brian Coleman)
“I love it,” said Bellis about high expectations. “It gives me more motivation to build upon what I’ve accomplished. My goal is to just keep improving each day, and hopefully one day, I’ll be one of the top Americans.”
Brian Coleman is the Senior Editor for New York Tennis Magazine. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org