NEW YORK—The unspoken but palpable hope that a 15-year-old, coltish girl from northern California could emerge overnight to help lead U.S. tennis back into the land of milk and honey at a time when its leading lights have either been extinguished or are beginning to fade was gently put to rest Thursday night.
Zarina Diyas, a poker-faced 20-year-old from Kazakhstan, ended the Cinderella story being written about CiCi Bellis in a twilight U.S. Open clash on Court 17. The score in the savage, one-hour and 56-minute battle waged almost exclusively from either baseline was 6-3, 0-6, 6-2. A good time was had by all, including the teenager who created a sensation with her first-round upset of No. 12 seed Dominika Cibulkova.
“Unbelievable,” is the world Bellis used to describe the past few days. “This whole experience has been unbelievable, like mind-blowing. It's been crazy. It's been like the best couple days of my life.”
“Understandable,” was the word others used to describe a match in which the youngster tired visibly in the critical third set, even as Diyas subtly demonstrated the value of remaining resilient, pacing herself and remaining serene even as she battled Bellis—along with the emotional wave of support that helped carry the American wild card along through the first two sets.
Diyas held to open the match and promptly broke Bellis in the second game. The next three games were breaks as well, played in a manner that foreshadowed that this was to be a fierce and highly entertaining hitting contest, one that more than once made me think of those Rafael Nadal vs. Novak Djokovic tugs-of-war.
There were 24 break points in this match; that’s how close it was. (With 16, Diyas had twice as many break chances, although they each converted five.) This is what you get when the average first-serve speed of one player, Diyas, was 90 M.P.H., and that of the other a mere 85. That’s as good a template as you can ask if you’re looking to see a hitting contest.
Bellis seemed to float in her shoes in the early going. On the changeover after she broke Diyas to stay even at 2-3, the crowd began to chant, “Here we go, Cici, here we go!” She sat there beaming, nodding and catching the eye of her father, who sat alongside USTA director of coaching Jose Higueras, close to the sideline across the court.
Bellis lost that set, mainly because Diyas found her range with crisp, precise, flat groundstrokes. But the 15-year-old remained poised and belted her way to a strong hold to start the second set. She followed up with a break, and in the blink of an eye it was 3-0.
When Bellis made a forehand volley error to start the next game, she squealed as if she’d seen a mouse run across the court. A few points later, when she missed a break-point opportunity, she flung her hands over her head as if in shame. She was having a ball, and when she reached break point again, a spectator—presumably goaded on by Mr. Heineken—bellowed, “New York! What time is it?” The crowd replied with a lusty, “Break time!” Bellis couldn’t help but smile.
Although Bellis rolled through that shutout set and Diyas appeared to be rattled, the Kazakh regained her composure and held for 1-all in the final set. Bellis lost the first point of her next service game, then committed a backhand error. “How many errors are you making?” she audibly asked herself. More, was the answer. She double-faulted to give up the next game and bounced her racquet on the court.
The fan sitting behind me had demonstrated his command of the English language by declaring “Wow!” after pretty much every shot Bellis hit. But even he ran out of words—or, word—when Bellis was broken and Diyas powered to a strong hold without the loss of a point for 3-1. This was the turning point of the match, for it showed that Bellis was tiring.
Bellis gamely fought to stay in the next game, but she was floundering. Sensing an opportunity to knock out the woozy junior, Diyas now was up on her toes as she crouched to receive serve. Bellis fought off two break points, but on the third one Diyas hit a forehand that smacked the tape, jumped up, and just sat there, waiting to be punished. Overeager, Bellis drilled a forehand into the net. That made it 4-1, and Diyas would not relinquish the advantage.
“Yeah, I got a little tired,” Bellis said later. “But I think definitely I could have made more balls in the court. I made a few too many errors in the end.”
Lost in all the hubbub about Bellis was the impressive performance of Diyas. Dressed in an almost severe white frock of a tennis dress, content to drink in the atmosphere as she sat on the changeovers carefully rearranging the pins in her dark hair, she was a model of composure. Undemonstrative but unceasingly attentive, she handled her role as second fiddle with great poise—even when some louts in the crowd got on her for catching an errant toss.
On Tuesday, Bellis defeated the Australian Open runner-up and 13th-ranked player in the world. Today, she lost to the 20-year-old WTA No. 48 who hadn’t played a Grand Slam event until this year. What did this tell Bellis?
“Yeah, I think ranking really doesn't matter,” said Belllis, who herself is ranked No. 1,208. “Anybody can beat anybody on any given day. I think definitely ranking has no bearing on the match. Whoever comes out and plays better that day is going to win, for sure.”
In some ways, this loss may have been the best thing that could have happened to Bellis. I’d say that her competitive instincts and abilities are those of a woman well beyond her years—if those attributes had anything at all to do with age. Like Eugenie Bouchard, Bellis seems a natural, a confident player who feels comfortable and secure under the intense pressure of competition, and she’s anything but shy about it. “It was great,” she said of the atmosphere at the match. “I mean, I love when people watch me and support me like that.”
Bellis whales on the ball, no doubt about it. Her rally shots are terrific, her mobility impressive, and her racquet speed is outstanding. But, as we saw, she needs to be stronger, and her serve needs to be better if she wants to compete at the highest level. These are things she knows. As she said when asked what she wants to work on when she gets home: “Just definitely being a little bit more solid off the ground, and trying to make my serve a little bit more of a weapon.”
Before she returns to Atherton, Calif., however, there’s this little matter of the junior event, which was the main focus of her tournament until Tuesday’s improbable, first-round win over Cibulkova. She might find it hard to hold her horses, given what people have been saying about her. The comments she found most satisfying?
“I think just people saying that, like, I'm going to be the future of American tennis. I mean, that's what I've wanted to be since I was a little kid. I think that definitely makes me want to work really hard and try to become that.”
Well, Bellis is a kid no more. And as talented as she is, the road leading to where she wants to go is a long one. But you know what they say—even the longest of journeys begins with a first step. She may have taken it this week.