Bellis skipped college, but she’s proven to be a fast learner on tour

by: Steve Tignor | August 08, 2017

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Ranked outside the Top 200 last year, she’s up to No. 36 now. (AP)

After winning the second set of her match in Toronto on Tuesday, CiCi Bellis called her coach, Anibal Aranda, onto the court. But it was Bellis who did most of the talking during the changeover.

First, she expressed astonishment at the slow pace of the Canadian courts.

“You have to hit it, like, so hard, every ball.”

Then she said how amazed she was by a brilliant shot from her opponent, Julia Goerges.

“That one that she hit, I was like—unreal,”

Finally, she assessed what had worked in the second set.

“When I return deep, it’s, like, hard for her.”

Bellis talks like the hybrid that she is. On the one hand, she’s a California teen who, until recently, was preparing for her freshman year at Stanford. On the other hand, she’s a heady, world-traveling professional who is among the most improved players of 2017. Ranked outside the Top 200 last year, she’s up to No. 36 now. At 18, she’s the youngest player in the WTA Top 50, and one of just three teenagers in the Top 100.

Her ranking should, theoretically, keep rising over the next month, when she’ll be on hard courts and feeling the home-crowd love in Cincinnati and New York. But Bellis has shown that she’s not afraid to hit the road and learn the ropes on surfaces that are foreign to most Californians. This spring, she put in a lot of hard yards on clay in Rabat, Madrid, Rome and Paris, where she made the round of 32. And she made a smooth transition to grass, reaching the semifinals in Mallorca and pushing Victoria Azarenka to three sets at Wimbledon. Bellis is skipping college, but she’s still a student of the game.

“I’ve been so impressed by her maturity and self-reliance, and just the hunger she has to learn,” Chris Evert told The New York Times this spring. Evert predicted that Bellis could be in the Top 20 by the end of 2017. What sounded far-fetched at the time looks prescient now.

Bellis recorded her most impressive win last week in Stanford when she befuddled two-time Wimbledon champ Petra Kvitova, 6-2, 6-0. In that match, Bellis showed off one of her traditional strengths, an ability to anticipate serves and return them with depth, and to absorb her opponent’s ground-stroke power and punch back with her own. Bellis is rarely out of position, even against big hitters, and she measures her down-the-line strokes beautifully. Most surprising is Bellis’ serve. At 5’7” and 120 pounds, she’s never going to have a cannon, but she has learned to move it around the box effectively and avoid lollipop second serves.

I once imagined that Bellis’ serve would be a fatal liability, but when she needed a point against Georges on Tuesday, it was there for her. By the end of her 4-6, 6-3, 6-2 win over the German, who has been one of the tour’s hottest players, Bellis had showed a little of everything that has lifted her up the rankings this year: the deep returns, the measured forehands, the volleys honed by doubles play on tour, the intelligent serving and, most of all, the ability to recognize what wasn’t working and turn it into something that was.

As she may have said herself afterward, it was, like, classic CiCi.

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