Late Summer Lightning

by: Steve Tignor | August 29, 2014

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Photos by Anita Aguilar

NEW YORK—“CiCi Bellis is the night session,” tweeted one American tennis pro on Thursday evening. As unlikely as that sounded, it was true: Even as Andy Murray, the 2012 U.S. Open champion, was playing his subtle tricks inside Arthur Ashe Stadium, most fans were running—yes, running—in the other direction, toward far Court 17, to see a 15-year-old girl play a second-round match.

The scene inside 17 was a heady mix of anticipation, hope, patriotism, alcohol, the Hamptons, and, in the end, an irrational sense of disappointment that the magic show was over so soon. It was exactly the same frothy brew that had been whipped up one year earlier on the same court when another American girl, 17-year-old Victoria Duval, played her second-round match after upsetting Sam Stosur. Looking back a little further, we can see it was also reminiscent of the explosive anticipation surrounding early-round matches played by 17-year-old Melanie Oudin in 2009, and 18-year-old Ryan Harrison in 2010. There are probably a couple of others in recent years that I’m forgetting.

As with those matches, Bellis' was, more than anything else, a lot of fun. We were treated to the first of what U.S. fans hope will be many looks at an exciting, raw talent; Bellis, for someone who likely tips the scales in the double digits, puts a loose-wristed wallop on the ball. And we had a chance to see a rare site in professional sports: Someone learning what the big time is like, and embracing it, before our eyes.

Bellis walked to the back of the court to pick up her own towel, forgetting that she could tell a ball person to go get it for her. She strode enthusiastically from one point right into the next, in about eight seconds flat, before being gently told by the chair umpire, “We’re going to slow it down now, CiCi.” When the crowd began chanting “Let’s go, CiCi!” she laughed so hard her body started to bounce up and down. And when she missed a backhand long in the second game, she yelled, “Jee-zus!” as if she’d never missed a backhand before.

Afterward, Bellis said that her three days of fame were “mind-blowing.” Now that’s she out of the tournament, the talk will shift to whether she's the “real thing” or not. One of the hosts of the popular ESPN sports-talk show Pardon the Interruption was of the opinion that Bellis’ first-round win wouldn’t mean much if she didn’t back it up the way Chris Evert did when she reached the semis of the Open at age 16 in 1971. Those are unrealistic expectations, of course, but the general concern is valid.

At the start of this year’s Open, I caught a glimpse of Oudin practicing, unrecognized, on a deep side court; she’s currently ranked No. 134. Harrison, who is ranked No. 184, went out on Wednesday in straight sets to the man who did become the next big thing, Grigor Dimitrov. When Harrison lost the second set after having a lead, much of the pro-American crowd headed for the exits. Watching them go, Harrison told someone in the front row, “Those people don’t have too much faith in me, do they?” (Much sadder than that, of course, is the unfortunate fact that Vicky Duval was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma this spring.)

So the perils of early success and hype in New York are real. The U.S. is obviously starved for tennis success, and these days the Open is the one time of the year when the sport makes a dent in the public consciousness. Beyond that, there’s the enduring appeal of all things new and youthful in this country; as my colleague Chris Clarey of the New York Times reminded me yesterday, the “teenager” is an American invention—it began as a marketing category in the 1950s. Put all of that together in the Big Apple and you have the makings of CiCi hysteria. But it has been going on all over the world for a long time. The fabled "Match of the Century" between Helen Wills and Suzanne Lenglen in 1926 was a similar moment of global media mania.

Is this a bad thing? Could Bellis’ development be hurt by the early attention? The pressure of expectations can be wearing, and Bellis' fellow juniors will be gunning for her. But to answer that question, you would have to know whether Oudin or Harrison would be ranked higher now if they hadn’t once commanded the attention of the New York media. With Oudin, it might have made a difference in the short term, but plenty of teenagers, from Evert to Monica Seles to Roger Federer to Grigor Dimitrov to Belinda Bencic today, have felt the burden of their potential and risen to meet it. Whether Bellis turns out to be a Top 10 player or a Top 200 player won’t depend on how she did here, or even how she reacts in the immediate aftermath—at 15, she has more time on her side than any of the players I just mentioned. If she’s destined to be good, she’ll beat her junior opponents, whether they’re gunning for her or not.

Whether our evening with CiCi on Court 17 leads to anything in the long term, it was a moment to be enjoyed for its evanescent excitement alone—her run was like a bolt of late-summer lightning. That's what the U.S. Open is good for in the end, and the most any tennis tournament can aim to be.

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