Meet CiCi Bellis, the 15-Year-Old Tennis Phenom Breaking Out at the 2014 US Open

Art SpanderFeatured ColumnistAugust 27, 2014

Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

NEW YORK — The lyrics are oh so true. If you can make it here, you can make it anywhere. And in a few sparkling hours, Catherine Cartan Bellis—best known as CiCi—made it big here. To borrow another very New York label, she’s an overnight success.

They love their new stars. On stage. In sports. But who doesn’t? Especially when that newest star, Mademoiselle Bellis, is a teenager, American and pulled off one of the great surprises in tennis.

Oh, those gifted young ladies. A couple of weeks ago, it was Mo’ne Davis, 13, who became the Sports Illustrated cover girl in some sections of the land for her pitching performances in the Little League World Series.

Now along comes Bellis, 15, to knock off No. 12 seed Dominika Cibulkova in the U.S. Open and grab headlines and get mentions on television news shows from Seattle to Saratoga.

Bellis’ courageous, 6-1, 4-6, 6-4 victory Tuesday in the first round made her the youngest person to record an Open match triumph in almost a generation, since Anna Kournikova, also 15, won in 1996.

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Stuck out on Court 6, initially without television coverage until ESPN brought over cameras, Bellis will have a better locale, Court 17, for her second-round match Thursday against Zarina Diyas of Kazakhstan.

She’ll also have additional support in the form of praise from multi-time Grand Slam champ Chris Evert.

"(Bellis) has charisma and composure," Evert said in her role as an ESPN commentator. "She's not a big girl, but she has a big game for somebody that young, with great feel for her shots. The way she reacted to the pressureshe's out there loving every minute of it. No intimidation whatsoever."

U.S. women’s tennis had been in the shallows, other than Serena Williams, who in one of the featured night matches Tuesday defeated Taylor Townsend, another upcoming young American woman. Now along comes Bellis to join Townsend, Sloane Stephens, Madison Keys, Tornado Alicia Black and Coco Vandeweghe, and the future is more encouraging.

Bellis was born in San Francisco, where her father, Gordon, works at a private equity fund. Her mother, Lori, played tennis at Indiana U. The family lives in Atherton, a posh Bay Area suburb near Stanford, and CiCi, a sophomore in high school, is home schooled. She and her pals “hang out” at Stanford Shopping Center, she said when asked what a budding star does in her spare time.

Although the win was quite unexpected, even by Bellis, who said the best she hoped for was “a great experience,” she does have a champion’s background, having competed in juniors at the French Open and Wimbledon and beaten Black in the final of the U.S. Tennis Association Juniors, earning her place in the Open.

NEW YORK, NY - AUGUST 26:  Catherine Bellis of the United States celebrates after defeating Dominika Cibulkova of Slovakia during their women's singles first round match on Day Two of the 2014 US Open at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center on
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“I’m still speechless,” she said after the match, disproving that contention. “I’m feeling amazing.” So are the people in charge of U.S. tennis. Although some purists insist nationality doesn’t matter, it certainly does. Greatness from whatever country is admired everywhere, but it helps to have one or two of your own out there, particularly Americans when it comes to television and tournament attendance.

Bellis is far away from the summit, ranking just 1,208th in the world, but now she’s a name. And tennis, as in golf, where there is no team loyalty, is dependent on names.

Lori Bellis was so nervous, fearing CiCi would get double-bagled (lose 6-0, 6-0) that she didn’t even come to the Billie Jean King Center, choosing to stay at the hotel and watch on TV. Which, fortunately, she and the rest of the nation were able to do when ESPN arrived.

Gordon Bellis said, “My wife plays. I carry bags and pick up balls. My daughter wanted to be like my wife and play like her.”

Soon, Lori Bellis will be wishing she played like that daughter of hers.

“I’m just going to keep playing my game,” said CiCi, “and not really think about the last match. I’m going to keep going in the tournament as far as I can.”

Until about age 10, she split her time between soccer and tennis, then gave up soccer. She seems to have made the proper decision.

“It’s crazy to think that I’m here right now with all these other people,” she said. “I never thought I’d be practicing or sharing a court with a player I watch on TV frequently. I mean, it’s crazy. But I love it.”

As she should. And America may be falling in love with Bellis.

“Believing was the No. 1 thing I had to do,” she said. “That’s what my coach told me before the match. I mean, if you play well, you can believe in it. If you don’t believe, there’s one option. 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.”

It could be time for U.S. tennis to believe in CiCi Bellis, for a day, at least, the heroine of the Open.

Art Spander, an award-winning columnist, has covered more than 50 Grand Slams in his career. Unless otherwise noted, all quotes were obtained firsthand.