NEW YORK—CiCi Bellis bellowed. The 16-year-old from Atherton, California had just watched gleefully as Kimiko Date-Krumm’s final backhand sailed long, giving her a 4-6, 6-1, 6-4 victory in the first round of the U.S. Open qualifying tournament. She turned toward the baseline corner seats, shook her fists at her coach, family and friends, and danced to the net to shake her 44-year-old opponent’s hand.
“My mom and I were talking about how incredible it is that [Date-Krumm] is still playing at her age,” said Bellis after the win. “She is extremely fast for how old she is. She hits the ball so low over the net that you have to practically be in the ground to return it. She’s such an inspiring player. You could have said that 10 years ago when she was 35. I can’t even imagine that I’ll be playing when I’m 40.”
Date-Krumm, who turns 45 years old in a few weeks and is just three years younger than Bellis’ mother, Lori, is the oldest woman to compete in the U.S. Open women’s singles tournament since Renee Richards reached the third round in 1979, just after her 45th birthday. (Martina Navratilova played her last U.S. Open singles match in 1993 at age 36, then returned in 2006 to claim the mixed doubles title with Bob Bryan a month shy of her 50th birthday.) She quit the tour just before her 26th birthday, only to return 12 years later in 2008, better, faster, with greater agility and more determined than ever to succeed. In 2009, she won a tournament in Seoul, South Korea, becoming the second oldest player, behind Billie Jean King, to win a WTA singles title.
With Date-Krumm serving at 4-4 in the third set, as on-court temperatures soared above 90 degrees and stifling humidity hovered over the USTA Billie Jean National Tennis Center, she suddenly halted play at 0-15 and called for the trainer to massage her back, shoulders, and upper arms.
Two points following the medical time-out, Date-Krumm was forced deep into her backhand corner, yelping when she failed to negotiate a return from Bellis. Though it didn’t seem logical, Date-Krumm was deemed by the chair umpire of hindering play and the point was awarded to Bellis, giving her two break points. She converted on the first when Date-Krumm, clearly unnerved, smacked a forehand long. Bellis dropped just one point in the final game.
“The same thing happened to me once too,” said Bellis. “But it was in the juniors, in, like, the 12s.
“I think I said, ‘Come on’ before the point was over. But they didn’t take the point away. They just told me to watch it the next time.”
The last time Bellis played on Court 17, a four-year-old, 2,800-seat sunken stadium with the intimacy of cozy living room, was in a three-set, second-round loss to Zarina Diyas in the women’s main draw a year ago. That match was played at dusk just days after Bellis, who had received a wild card into the tournament by virtue of winning the USTA Girls’ 18 Nationals, upset Dominika Cibulkova—the 12th seed and reigning Australian Open finalist—to become the youngest woman to win a match at the U.S. Open since 15-year-old Anna Kournikova reached the round of 16 in 1996.
Bellis created such a sensation last year that lines of fans snaked around the entryways to Court 17 hours before the then-15-year-old took the court. Diyas should have used sound-proof headphones to block out the squeals of support for her opponent.
One year later, Bellis—who has added a bit of height and a tad more muscle, not to mention a streak of blue hair dye—possesses the poise of an MBA student and the giddiness of a grade schooler. In June, she was named the ITF’s World Junior Champion based on her year-end No. 1 ranking in 2014, and she reached the semifinals at the junior French Open.
Due to her age, she still is not allowed to play more than a dozen WTA events a year. Bellis has predominantly competed on the USTA Pro Circuit this season, and she won a $25,000 Challenger event in Rancho Santa Fe, California, in February. When she dabbled in the WTA waters at the Miami Open, she reached the third round—beating Diyas along the way, 6-2, 6-1—before being pummeled by Serena Williams 6-1, 6-1 in 41 minutes. She has not yet turned pro and is still considering the possibility of going to college, taking an unofficial visit to Stanford earlier this year.
At Flushing Meadows, Court 17 is still Bellis’ personal playground. More than half-filled with a record number of fans enjoying a free day of qualifying matches and practice sessions among top players, Bellis commanded the most attention, even against a player who continues to defy all odds and rationale.
“When I saw that I was playing on Court 17 again I got really excited,” said Bellis, “I was thinking that maybe I could get my revenge and win on that court this time.”
Currently ranked No. 161 in the world, Bellis said that she never expected the USTA to award her a wild card into the main draw this year based on her unlikely success a year ago. There were far more deserving players, she said, especially since she has struggled of late, suffering four first-round losses and going just 2-5 since Miami in March.
Besides, the teenager said, she is grateful to have the chance to get some matches under her belt and try to play her way into this year’s tournament.
“It’s been really emotional for me to come back here,” said Bellis, who next faces a tough test in No. 22 seed Romina Oprandi, who was ranked as high as No. 32 in the world two years ago. “Just driving in brought back such incredible memories.”