What happened to CiCi Bellis?

CiCi Bellis in action at the Top Seed Open in Lexington

Catherine ‘CiCi’ Bellis announced her arrival onto the world stage at the age of just 15 by beating Dominika Cibulkova, then ranked inside the world’s top 20, at the US Open in 2014. She then went on to reach a career-high ranking of world #35. But Bellis’ path forward since has been anything but straightforward and she currently finds herself ranked 249th in the world. Which begs the question: what happened to Bellis?

US Open Breakthrough

Bellis’ breakthrough win at the US Open did not come out of nowhere. The American was an accomplished junior player and just weeks before the action began in Flushing Meadows, Bellis had won the USTA National Junior Championships, making her the youngest champion since Lindsay Davenport in 1991. That had earned her a wildcard into the US Open, but few had expected much of the 15-year-old when the draw pitted her against the 12th seed Cibulkova in the first round.

After all, the American was ranked 1208th in the world and had just two professional wins to her name. Cibulkova, in contrast, had reached the Australian Open final earlier that year and was also a former-US Open quarterfinalist. But Bellis came out firing and took the first set 6-1. The Slovakian battled back in the second set, taking it 6-4, but Bellis was not to be denied. She held her nerve in the decider to seal a famous 6-1 4-6 6-4 win.
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Her victory saw her become the youngest player to reach the second round in New York since Anna Kournikova in 1996. Bellis proved unable to advance further, falling in three sets to Zarina Diyas of Kazakhstan in the second round despite a spirited performance. But unsurprisingly her brief cameo at the US Open attracted plenty of media attention and cemented the belief that she was destined to reach the top of the game.

And whilst 2015 proved to be a year of consolidation for the teenager, it was not without its successes. For the most part, Bellis played at ITF-level, winning a 25k event in Rancho Santa Fe in her native California. But the highlight of her year surely came at the Miami Open. Awarded a wildcard, she made her Premier Mandatory debut by avenging her defeat to Diyas and went on to reach the third round where she lost to the great Serena Williams in straight-sets.

Despite that defeat, she skyrocketed up the WTA rankings after her efforts in Miami, breaking into the top 200 for the first time. Perhaps as a result, Bellis made the decision to end her junior career just months later after reaching the semifinals at the French Open. And there were more momentous decisions still to come for Bellis in the coming months, not least turning down a scholarship at Stanford University in order to turn professional.

Sustained Success for CiCi Bellis

Bellis has always maintained that this was one of the hardest decision she has ever had to make, but it appeared to be the right one after an excellent summer for Bellis. It began with a superb debut at the Bank of the West Classic in Stanford. Awarded a wildcard, Bellis began her campaign with a 6-4 6-4 win over the sixth seed Jelena Ostapenko, who would go on to win the French Open a year later, before rallying from a set down to beat the qualifier Sachia Vickery.

That saw her reach her first WTA-level quarterfinal where she faced the top seed Venus Williams. Ultimately, however, the veteran Williams was far too strong for Bellis, handing her a chastening 4-6 1-6 defeat. But Bellis’ run in Stanford was still enough for her to re-enter the top 200, with her ranking crucially high enough for her to gain direct entrance to the US Open qualifying. And Bellis took full advantage.

She stormed into the main draw, losing just one set in the process, before dismissing Viktorija Golubic in straight-sets to reach the second round. She backed that win up by beating her compatriot Shelby Rogers, 2-6 6-2 6-2, to set up a third-round clash with Angelique Kerber. It proved to be a mismatch, with Bellis winning just two games against the eventual champion, but Bellis announced after the match that she was turning professional and turning down a scholarship to Stanford.
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And if her defeat at Kerber’s hands had knocked her confidence that was far from immediately apparent. Instead, Bellis ended her season by embarking on a 15-match winning streak, highlighted by winning the biggest tournament of her career at the Hawaii Open in Honolulu, a WTA 125k event. Her win demonstrated her growing prowess, with Bellis beating Zhang Shuai, then ranked 23rd in the world, in the final in straight-sets.

That saw Bellis begin the 2017 season at a career-high ranking of world #75, making her the only player under the age of 18 to be ranked inside the top 100. And she was not slow to improve on that ranking. Although she did not appear at the Australian Open, she impressed at the Dubai Tennis Championships, reaching the quarterfinals at a Premier Five tournament for the first time after claiming her first top-ten win by beating Agnieszka Radwanska in three sets.

Later that the year, Bellis made her debut on clay at WTA-level in Rabat, beating defending champion Timea Bacsinszky en route to the quarterfinals. She then reached the second round in both Madrid and Rome, which saw her break into the top 50 ahead of her first appearance at Roland Garros. Not for the first time, Bellis made an impressive impact on her debut in Paris, upsetting the experienced clay-court specialist Kiki Bertens in straight sets in the second round.

In the third round, she lost narrowly to Caroline Wozniacki in three sets after an unfortunate rain delay had derailed her momentum. But she bounced back quickly, making her first WTA semifinal in Mallorca. Although she then lost in the first round in singles at the All England Club to Victoria Azarenka after an epic three-set battle on Court One, she made the quarterfinals in doubles playing alongside her good friend Marketa Vondrousova.

She continued to impress during the North American summer hard-court swing, reaching the semifinals in Stanford before beating Svetlana Kuznetsova at the Rogers Cup to claim the second top-ten win of her career. That run of success saw Bellis reach her career-high ranking of world #35, but it also proved to be the high watermark of her season. She lost her next four matches and then called time on her season after the Wuhan Open due to a lingering wrist injury.

Battling Injuries

Much was expected of Bellis in 2018 after such an impressive 2017 season. But despite beating Karolina Pliskova in Doha to post her first top-five win, she was to play only five tournaments, with Bellis ending her season in Miami after losing to Azarenka in the first round with noticeably heavy taping on her right wrist. Four surgeries on her wrist and elbow followed as Bellis disappeared from view, losing her WTA ranking and facing the prospect of retirement, all before her 21st birthday.

But Bellis was undeterred. She fought to return to fitness, finally making her return in November 2019 at the WTA 125k Oracle Challenger Series – Houston, 20 months after she had last played competitive tennis. She reached the third round after coming through the qualifying before falling to eventual champion Kirsten Flipkens. That set her up to make a return to the WTA Tour in 2020 for the Oceanian summer, with Bellis committing to play in Auckland, Hobart and at the Australian Open.

She didn’t make the best start to 2020, losing to Jessica Pegula in the first round in Auckland in straight sets. However, Bellis rebounded to beat Marie Bouzkova in the first round in Hobart, rallying from a set and a double break down, even saving a match point, as she claimed a hard-fought 3-6 7-6 6-3 win. She was unable to back that win up, losing in straight-sets to the fifth seed Veronika Kudermetova, but it was an encouraging performance nonetheless.
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And Bellis carried that encouragement into the Australian Open. After thrashing Tatjana Maria in the first round, she scored her first top-25 win since the 2018 Dubai Tennis Championships by beating Karolina Muchova on the 1573 Arena. But she fell just short against 2018 semifinalist Elise Mertens in the third round after a thrilling three-set duel. And then, just as she was picking up real momentum, the season was brought to a halt by the coronavirus pandemic.

But when play resumed in Lexington earlier this month, Bellis impressed. She hammered Francesca Di Lorenzo, before upsetting the in-form Pegula, avenging her Auckland defeat in the process, before losing to eventual finalist Jil Teichmann in straight sets in the last eight. Still, her efforts have been enough to gain her a wildcard into the Cincinnati qualifying and the US Open main draw, both of which will be held at the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center in New York.

There is no escaping that Bellis has lost a lot of time and with it ground on her rivals. The likes of Bianca Andreescu, Naomi Osaka and teen phenom Coco Gauff have displaced her as the leading lights of the next generation of WTA stars. But Bellis is still just 21 and still possesses a fine all-round game, with her forehand the pick of her shots. It has been a long and hard road back for the Californian and she still has a fair distance to travel. But once again, the future looks bright for Bellis.

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