First Ball In, 8/26: Playing on Air

Tuesday, August 26, 2014 /by

NEW YORK—It was only a matter of time before the new Court 6 at Flushing Meadows was christened with an old-fashioned U.S. Open mob scene. But few, if any, expected that it would happen when it did on Tuesday. By the late afternoon, you could hear the tell-tale Open roar from halfway across the grounds, and people began to gather in the blinding low sun to see what was the ruckus was all about. People bent down in stairwells, stood three-deep on the cement outside the court, climbed up on on the seats in the back rows of the next court over, and watched from bleachers a hundred feet away.

And why not? History, it turned out, was in the making. CiCi Bellis, a skinny 15-year-old girl under a blue visor, was trying to become the youngest player to win a match at the U.S. Open since Anna Kournikova did it at the same age in 1996. Bellis was also trying to pull off one of the all-time upsets: Her opponent, Dominika Cibulkova, is ranked No. 13; Bellis is, as of this moment, No. 1208. 

Every so often in tennis, youth conquers all. Bellis played in a trance that reminded me of Monica Seles and Rafael Nadal when they were teenagers. She took almost no time between points. On changeovers, she stood up well before the chair umpire called time and waited impatiently at the baseline for the next game to start. And as she closed in on her 6-1, 4-6, 6-4 win, Bellis kept belting the ball with blank-eyed fearlessness. It was like watching the tennis version of levitation. 

Afterward, Bellis, who earned a wild card into the Open by winning the U.S. girls’ national championship, was asked if she was nervous at any point in front of the crowd.

“No,” she said between her trademark hyper-giggles. “It gave me more energy. I love it when people watch me. It gives me more energy and makes me play better. I had like four friends who started some chants. I was like, ‘Oh my God.’ I loved it.”

Like most teen tennis phenoms before her, Bellis, a San Francisco girl whose mother plays tennis, went from steely-eyed competitor on court to typical high-schooler, or in her case home-schooler, off court. 

What's her family background, and where does her last name come from? “You’d have to ask my dad that. I’m not 100 percent sure. He’s right there if you want to ask him.”

Her first U.S. Open memory? “I was watching Sharapova play a match.” (If you like feeling old, Bellis has you covered in a myriad of ways.)

Her favorite meal? “You know, anything that looks good. I mean, I’m pretty hungry right now. I could eat anything right now.”

How did she feel when she was down 1-3 in the third set? “Well, yeah, when I was down 1-3, it was kind of a bummer.”

CiCi—her name is a combination of her first name, Catherine, and her middle, Cartan—is obviously young, so much so that one media member asked, “What's your favorite hobby? You read books or watch cartoons?” 

For the record, Bellis does not watch cartoons. She likes to go to the Stanford Mall, and she says she’s already way past her Justin Bieber phase.

Prepare to hear talk about the next U.S. tennis star for the next few days. I would also prepare to see more of CiCi Bellis in the future. Players who can go into trances are usually pretty good. So are players who can create, and embrace, an old-fashioned U.S. Open mob scene. And so are players who can say this at 15:

"You can either believe and lose or believe and win, but if don't believe, you're going to lose anyway."

*****

Probably Wasn’t (Just) the Shoes

Roger Federer’s opening night in New York had been a perfectly—or peRFectly—choreographed celebrity love fest. Federer was there, of course. Anna Wintour, unsurprisingly, was there. And Michael Jordan was there, to help promote the new “Air Jordan inspired” Nikes that Federer was sporting. The one person who didn’t appear in Federer’s box was his coach, Stefan Edberg. I guess he felt the first round was safe without him. 

Federer appeared to be inspired by the presence of His Airness. He tried, but botched, a jumping overhead, and ran down an out ball just so he could hit a tweener. MJ looked impressed by Federer's accuracy; the ball nailed his opponent in the butt.

Opponent? Yes, Federer’s opponent, Marinko Matosevic, was there, too. Who invited him to the shoe-launch party?

For two sets, the Aussie stuck to the script. Serving at 3-4 in the first set, he hit a second serve kick to Federer’s backhand, and watched as Federer netted the return. For some reason, though, on the next break point, Matosevic sent his second serve hard to Federer’s forehand, and double faulted. Federer held at love for the set.

The pattern was repeated in the second set. At 3-3, down break point, Matosevic mysteriously decided to follow his kick second serve to the net, and was summarily passed. Federer again held at love for the set. 

By the third, the pattern seemed to be set in stone. Serving at 3-3, Matosevic went down 0-40 and dropped four F-bombs in the direction of his coaches. When he shanked an easy smash wide on the final break point, it looked like the match was over.

It looked, if possible, even more over in the next game when Matosevic pointed at Jordan and yelled, “I want to be like Mike!” Jordan laughed, Matosevic loosened up, and Federer seemed a little rattled. The second seed fluttered a backhand into the net to give the break back. 

Matosevic made it a contest for the rest of the set, and finally made the evening feel like more than an exhibition. He even, at times, threatened to steal the show with his comically pessimistic outbursts. After stopping in the middle of a point and watching his mishit forehand drop in, Matosevic said, “I thought it was going out. I usually miss those.” After winning a point in the third-set tiebreaker, he yelled, “Fundamental errors!” Matosevic also complained to the chair umpire that he felt “so rushed” in Federer’s service games. “He plays in, like, five seconds,” he said.

But Matosevic seemed to know there was no beating Federer on a night like this. The Swiss was superb. He hit 41 winners, was 22 of 30 at net, won 88 percent of his first-serve points, and was sharp with his passing shots from both sides. And he even made up for his earlier airmailed overhead. On match point, Federer smashed one home without a problem, and brought the party to an appropriate end.

*****

OOP Analysis

See Wednesday’s Order of Play here.

Finally, on the third day, we come to the end of the first round. You can see from the lineup of matches that things are spread pretty thin by this point. The opening round takes so long to complete, you can forget that some players are still in the tournament.

Sloane Stephens vs. Johanna Larsson

Sloane will open the proceedings on Ashe against the 96th-ranked Larsson. Stephens has shown signs of progress, and even positivity, of late, though Larsson just finished double-bageling Virginie Razzano. Winner: Stephens

Agnieszka Radwanska vs. Shuai Peng

Radwanska has won four of their five meetings, but Peng did beat her at the Open four years ago. Winner: Radwanska

Tomas Berdych vs. Lleyton Hewitt

After all these years on tour together, the 33-year-old Hewitt and the 28-year-old Berdych will face off for just the third time tomorrow. Berdych is ranked seventh, Hewitt 41st, and the Czech has won both of their previous matches. But would anyone be surprised if Ol’ Rusty found a way? Berdych has been in a funk since spring. Winner: Hewitt

Ernests Gulbis vs. Kenny de Schepper

Has Gulbis shaken off his post-Paris hangover yet? He’s sub-500 since then. Playing de Schepper won’t be the easiest way to get back on track. The French lefty beat Gulbis in their only meeting, at Queens this year, and Gulbis has never done much at the Open. Winner: De Schepper

Venus Williams vs. Timea Bacsinszky

Venus will try to win round two against the 78th-ranked Bacsinszky of Switzerland in front of a friendly night crowd. Venus won their only meeting, in 2008. Winner: Williams

Grigor Dimitrov vs. Ryan Harrison

The American continues his tough-draw tradition. These two faced off in the first round at Wimbledon, and Dimitrov won easily. Winner: Dimitrov


All photos, except shot of shoes, by Anita Aguilar.

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