Catherine “CiCi” Bellis is worth the hype

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Catherine “CiCi” Bellis

Elina Svitolina won the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships. The Ukranian deserved it. She beat Angelique Kerber and Caroline Wozniacki, and is now on a 12 match win streak. But the woman that stood out to me this week was American teenager CiCi Bellis.

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“Please keep going. Don’t Bouchard!”

That was a comment left on Catherine “CiCi” Bellis’ latest Instagram post – one that the 17-year-old uploaded after a sparkling week in Dubai that saw her reach the quarterfinals. The run – during which Bellis claimed a stunning upset of world no. 3 Agnieszka Radwanska, one of the most perplexing tennis players – was not the first time the young American had made waves on tour. At the tender age of 15 – younger than most girls competing at junior Grand Slams – the youngster commanded attention by upending no. 12 seed Dominika Cibulkova in the first round of her home Grand Slam: the US Open.

Belinda Bencic was doing things as a 17-year-old, and recent times have seen more rising stars in the WTA game than there have been for some time. Naomi Osaka, Daria Kasatkina, Ana Konjuh and more feature on a lengthy list. Nevertheless, the fact that Bellis was basically still a child in New York in 2014 meant that the hype was immediate – and immense.

Always skeptic until I have witnessed enough tennis for myself, I wasn’t ready to jump on the bandwagon. And just days later, the teen went out to unseeded Zarina Diyas in the second round of the Open. As she bypassed the opportunity to turn pro, the tennis world heard little of her in the months that followed. But despite the overreaction that is the aftermath of any teenage girl winning a WTA match, I did not forget about Catherine Bellis.

Last season, I watched her play again for the first time in some months at the 2016 US Open. While vaguely curious, the annoying hype that had bubbled over after her 2014 heroics meant that I didn’t have that much enthusiasm to tune into her clash second round Flushing Meadows clash with Shelby Rogers.

But I’m glad I did.

The energy and the passion from the youngster – who thrived on the tense atmosphere and big stage – impressed me immediately. But what I loved most about her performance against world no. 49 Rogers – who was far from the most accomplished player on tour, but was in good form after capturing some noteworthy recent upsets – was how Bellis went for everything. This was a girl who was born with the God-given talent, concentration and understanding for tennis. She read every point to its minutest detail. She kept her head in the game, even in the few moments she fluffed up. And most importantly – with her flat, swift, slick groundstrokes that can already do much damage – she targeted the lines from the get-go. And she stepped up to finish things off if she saw even half an opportunity.

She played with the game plan and zoned-in, aggressive precision that is custom-made to thrive on the current WTA tour – a place where the vast majority are slugging it out at the baseline. And it was this same game that Bellis brought to Dubai.

Despite it only being the American’s second match back on tour after injury, I was predicting Bellis to upset Radwanska – even though I had momentarily forgotten that she had ended 2016 on a 15 match win streak, sweeping three titles. And losing the middle set to the Pole only made the right-hander’s eventual triumph – one she dubbed “the biggest win of my career so far” – even more outstanding. Instead of waking up to the situation, Bellis remained poised and energised – a strong, determined current underneath an unrippling surface. Her all-out attack found the sidelines every chance she got – and when there did not seem to be a chance, she manufactured one anyway. “CiCi” had many more unforced errors than winners at the end of the 6-4 2-6 6-2 upset, but it was all because of the all-or-nothing tactics that the unflinching teen brought to the table. Radwanska’s game is built on craft, and the Pole possesses little to no power in her game. For much of this match, Bellis annihilated her efforts in a fashion that the rest of the tour should watch and learn from. Even when she wasn’t hitting winners, her ice cool presence in every point saw her strike from side to side, side to side, until Radwanska simply could not cope with her inch-perfect consistency.

Although she lost to Caroline Wozniacki in the quarterfinals – a good start fading away as the American no doubt felt the fatigue of her mammoth win the previous day – one thing is certain for CiCi Bellis. Her tactics, her mindset and her alertness are going to take her much higher than world no. 70 in the rankings very soon.

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During one of Bellis’ Dubai clashes, I tuned in just in time to hear the commentator comparing her backhand to Eugenie Bouchard’s. The aforementioned Canadian who made her first deep Grand Slam run as a teenager, but has been nowhere since her breakout season. And the Instagram comment that opened this piece brought this back to mind.

Giving it thought, it is evident why people might draw comparisons between the games of the upcoming teenager and the woman who turned 23 on Saturday. Both have a game plan founded an aggressive groundstroke game, and both have been really solid off the backhand wing in times gone by. Nevertheless, there is a strong argument that Bouchard falls short of Bellis – rewinding a few years – in every aspect. Bellis strikes with a slimmer margin. Her serve – especially the second serve – has more thought and danger to it, even at this stage. And it makes sense. Bouchard did, after all, play on the junior circuit until she was a few months shy of 19 years old. CiCi, meanwhile, is already swimming in the big league at 17, and staying very much afloat.

As time goes on, and as the tour gets to know her, Bellis is going to have to bulk up her repertoire. After all, half of Bouchard’s problem is that she has never possessed anything beyond a Plan A. Still more service variation, and a sharp, consistent backhand slice would not go amiss in the coming years.

But as far as current talent goes, Bellis is incredibly athletic. Her enthusiasm and focus seem to override nerves or any other sensation she may feel during an initial big match. And most importantly, she has a raw talent for one of the toughest sports going.

I’m not one to hype young players up. But if injury does not prevent her, I’m predicting that CiCi Bellis reaches the heights of professional tennis. And she might even push the ceiling.

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Thanks for reading! What do you make of CiCi Bellis? Let me know in the comments section!

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