Is 18-year-old CiCi Bellis for real? Despite her youth, will the lithe teen from upscale Atherton be the next big thing?
Who knows? And who knows how to gauge future greatness? Is it a matter of size, strokes, heritage, desire, intelligence, grit, discipline toughness – or all of the above? As for Bellis, we know she is a fierce. focused, unafraid competitor who’s having fun. She lights up when she’s on stage. She’s had two phenomenal US Open runs and took down Aga Radwanska in Doha earlier this year. Her forehand is great, although she doesn’t flash truly big “Wow!” shots.
She’s just 5’6″, and hopes she’s still growing. But she’s limber, a bit mean (in a good way) and moves with quick, cat-like ease. Then again, her life now has the easy fluidity of an upbeat newbie rising. She’s in that intriguing space where she’s no longer a girl but not yet a mature woman. She decided to bypass Stanford and moved to Florida to train with the USTA. Her ranking is soaring. She’s gained a dandy splash of notoriety. She was profiled in the New York Times. On the cusp of fame, she’s just a breakout run from being a big phenom. Beware – the hype machine hovers. Still, after her third-round French Open loss to Caroline Wozniacki, only two US writers showed up to her presser.
But USTA Director of Player Development Martin Blackman is watching. He told IT that Bellis “is one of the best competitors I’ve ever seen. She loves to put it on the line, be challenged and play big matches. She’s very process-focused. She wants to get better and has embraced the challenge of seeing how good she can be. She can hurt you off both sides, has great movement, takes the ball early and is constantly working to add more tools.”
Bellis had a huge breakthrough in 2014 when she beat that year’s Aussie Open finalist, Dominika Cibulkova, to become the youngest US Open match winner in 14 years. CiCi has a win over French Open champ Jelena Ostapenko and in Paris she reached the third round, where she lost in three sets to Wozniacki. America hasn’t had this good a prospect since Madison Keys emerged four years ago. Ultimately, there’s a certain je ne sais quoi about her. She’s so focused. She hits just the right notes. She’s serious, but far from glum. She pushes, but she’s not ahead of herself. She’s happy, but not giddy. “I’m having so much fun,” she says. “I get to travel to all the best places.”
And she knows herself. When asked if she can imagine winning the US Open, she jumps in and says, “Oh 100%. Since I was little I’ve been dreaming about that.” So where does CiCi’s competitiveness come from? She didn’t survive a war, wasn’t raised in a Moscow basement apartment and isn’t from the hard-scrabble inner city. Goodness, she’s the product of one of America’s most affluent suburbs, where the median value of a home is $6 million and Menlo Park’s Circus Club, with its polo field, is just a few lobs away. Maybe she gets her toughness from her great great great grandfather, who survived California’s tumultuous Gold Rush. Almost certainly Bellis will survive the the crush of the hype machine, which may soon descend. After all, CiCi just doesn’t blink. Asked when she will break into the top 10, she says, “It doesn’t matter to me. When my game is ready, I’ll be there.” Exactly! For the girl with the Gold rush heritage, there’s really no rush.