The US Open has a habit of throwing up a good old underdog story. Last year it was Roberta Vinci felling Serena Williams in the semi-finals, followed by Flavia Pennetta taking the title in her career finale; two years ago it was Marin Cilic’s unexpected charge to Grand Slam glory. But few underdog stories can compete with that of Catherine Cartan Bellis. And yet, at #158 in the world and just a humble speck in tennis’ hall of fame, CiCi Bellis could be about to contest US tennis’ biggest match for a generation.
The hallmark of a true underdog is some quirky story attributed to them, one that is so absurdly yet wonderfully incongruous with the million dollar sponsorship deals and dozen-strong coaching teams of tennis’ heavyweights. A good example would be Dustin Brown traveling the circuit in his battered Volkswagen camper van. For CiCi Bellis, it is that the 17-year-old must forfeit her hard-earned $140,000 third round prize money to retain her college eligibility. The fact that she is burdened by such an obligation is a charming reminder of her youthfulness and, more importantly, that the American public can identify so closely with her. At a certain point, an underdog story can become more than just a sentimental indulgence for the media. It can intensify a nation’s passion for tennis.
Evidence of Bellis’ potential to put butts in seats can be found in the 2014 US Open. When the then 15-year-old won her first round match, becoming the youngest female to do so for nearly two decades, Bellis became an instant sensation, with fans queuing for hours to witness her second round clash.
Fast forward to 2016, and the Californian has set up the ultimate David and Goliath encounter. If she defeated Angelique Kerber, the hysteria surrounding Flushing Meadows would be phenomenal. Tennis participation may have swelled to 17.9 million in 2015, but the Tennis Industry Association has identified that “core player” participation in the US (those who play 10 or more times a year) has dropped. With the Williams sisters entering the twilight of their elite careers, it is critical that the public’s attention is held by the arrival of another tennis sensation–held enough for all those 17.9 million to feel inspired to go back to a tennis court week-in, week-out.
Even at this early stage of her career, CiCi Bellis has attracted the unstinting support of a contingent of loyalists ever since the opening round of qualifying nine days ago. “I think they’re from Rhode Island. I think I read that in one of their Instagram bios,” Bellis laughed. “I don’t know much about them at all.” As a gesture of appreciation, she put the group in her box for her second round clash with Shelby Rogers.
But Bellis is more than just a great story for the media to swarm over at this year’s US Open. She undeniably possesses a formidable game. What she lacks in penetration on her serve, she makes up for in the unrelenting energy of her baseline game. Against Rogers, she was not afraid to extend their baseline exchanges and capitalize when her opponent began to labour. Whether this game plan will work against Kerber remains to be seen. The German is undoubtedly one of the fittest players on the tour.
Bellis’ response to the possibility of playing on Arthur Ashe epitomized her refreshingly carefree attitude. “I never played on Ashe before,” she said. “I think it would just be even better for me, more fun for me.” Victory or not, let’s hope that this placid attitude remains on Friday when she faces Angelique Kerber. For if CiCi Bellis can endear herself to the American public, they may begin to invest themselves in her story as they did the Williams sisters’. US tennis can only profit.