Coco Gauff has been making headlines since last year, and for good reason. She’s been regularly challenging the best players in the world at the highest of stages, displaying a combination of athleticism and gumption that would put even veterans to shame. How often do you see a 15-year-old punch above her weight the way Gauff has?
That, remarkably, has been asked quite a few times over the course of tennis history. And the last person before Gauff to make us question everything we know about player development and maturity was Catherine Bellis, better known as ‘CiCi’.
On Thursday, Bellis upset 20th seed Karolina Muchova 6-4, 6-4 in the Australian Open second round, making everyone sit up and take notice of her impressive hands and court sense. But it’s sobering to remember that we’d seen that incredible tennis IQ on the court before – almost a generation ago.
Back in 2014, when Bellis just 15 years old, she made history by entering the US Open and beating 12th seed Dominika Cibulkova (the Australian Open runner-up that year). Bellis was the youngest player in two decades to win a US Open match, which is code for instant media darling. But the prodigy didn’t stop there; over the next couple of years she added the scalps of Petra Kvitova, Karolina Pliskova, Kiki Bertens, Svetlana Kuznetsova and Agnieszka Radwanska to her resume, climbing all the way up to No. 35 in the rankings.
Bellis was leading the youth charge with authority, leaving other players of her generation – including Jelena Ostapenko, Naomi Osaka, Marketa Vondrousova and Bianca Andreescu – trailing in her wake. Then it all fell apart.
In the middle of 2017 Bellis started feeling discomfort in her right arm, which was initially diagnosed to be wrist tendonitis. She continued playing through the pain for a year, which was probably a bad idea in hindsight.
By July 2018 the problem got infinitely more severe, and she had to have surgery on her wrist to repair three tears in it. In November she had another surgery to get a metal plate inserted into the wrist, as her ulna (the bone stretching from the elbow to the little finger) was found to be unnaturally long. In between she also had surgery to fix her fractured elbow; that’s three surgeries in the space of five months for those keeping count.
Just when things seemed to be getting back on track, they went pear-shaped again. The metal plate started causing her irritation and swelling, so in March she underwent another surgery to get it removed. Bellis just couldn’t catch a break, and a few months later she was told by a doctor that she would never play tennis again.
“The hardest things have been hitting and getting close to normality and then just being totally set back,” she had said back in April last year. “There is no way I can do this anymore, but tennis is everything to me.”
That last line encapsulates her love for the sport, and it is also why she didn’t take the first doctor’s grim prediction lying down. She went looking for a second opinion – from not one or two, but three different doctors – and when told that there was a chance she could revive her career, she put every fiber of her body into making a comeback.
Prior to this year’s #AusOpen, Cici Bellis had had:
5 Grand Slam main draw wins
Still only 20-years-old.
Healthy again, and playing her first slam for two years, she’s just beaten 20th seed Karolina Muchova to reach the third round.
— The Tennis Podcast (@TennisPodcast) January 23, 2020
It would be eight months before the comeback became a reality, at the Oracle Challenger Series in Houston last November. Bellis qualified for the main draw before losing in the third round to Kirsten Flipkens, but the important thing was that she could play again. And just as important: she was pain-free.
2020 has been a fresh start for Bellis in more ways than one, and she is making full use of it. She entered the tournaments in Auckland and Hobart, winning one match and losing two, and seemed to be getting better with each outing. But going into the Australian Open – her first Slam in two years – she was ranked No. 600 in the world, so she’d have been forgiven for just showing up on the court.
Merely showing up, however, is not in Bellis’ blood. She demolished her first round opponent Tatjana Maria, dropping just two games the entire match, to set up a suddenly-enticing second rounder against Muchova. This was going to be Bellis’ first big test since returning to the tour, and it was easy to see why it was scheduled on 1573 Arena, the fourth largest court in Melbourne Park.
Muchova is a talented youngster herself, blessed with athleticism and finesse in equal measure. Her win over Karolina Pliskova at Wimbledon last year was a delightful exhibition of nuanced shot-making, and at the start of her match against Bellis it looked like her superiority in firepower would prove decisive. But Bellis didn’t get that memo, and over the course of the next hour and a half she showed again why was considered such a can’t-miss prospect five years ago.
Covering the court like a gazelle, Bellis absorbed everything that Muchova threw at her, and hit back with interest. The American doesn’t have the biggest serve or the biggest groundstrokes, but against Muchova she more than made up for that with her court smarts and feel for the ball.
Bellis took the ball on the rise even while defending, and kept forcing Muchova to come up with difficult shots on the run. The Czech did strike a healthy amount of winners – 24 in two sets – but she also leaked just enough errors (31) to keep her opponent in the ascendancy.
Bellis faced just one break point the entire match, and after jumping out to an early lead in the second set she served it out like a pro. The one weakness she did show – her tentative play at the net – wasn’t exploited enough by Muchova, and by the end of the match there was little doubt who the better player on the court was.
A third round appearance at her first Slam back is more than anyone could have expected of Bellis, and she’s looking good enough for more. Sure, she faces an even sterner challenge on Saturday – a clash against 16th seed and former Australian Open semifinalist Elise Mertens, where Bellis will be the undeniable underdog. But you know the American will be ready – to compete, as well as to enjoy her time on the court.
Still just 20 years old, Bellis has gone through a whole lifetime of ups and downs already. And while the expectations will slowly increase as she plays more and her irresistible talent comes to the fore again, they will be tempered by a sense of joy that she is out there at all.
“I’ve had so much happen to me in the last couple of years and I feel like I have a totally new and fresh perspective on tennis,” she had said after returning to the court in November. “I’m just extremely happy and blessed that I’m able to play tennis at this point. I’m just enjoying every second. Not that I didn’t before, but even more now. Just really happy at all times, for sure.”
Before Coco, there was CiCi. And as it turns out, it’s just as much of a feel-good story.
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Updated Date: Jan 23, 2020 16:39:20 IST