Told she'd never play again, CiCi Bellis responds with third-round run

Told she'd never play again, CiCi Bellis responds with third-round run

The 20-year-old's win over No. 20 seed Karolina Muchova is validation of her efforts to return to the game after a series of surgeries.

MELBOURNE—Henry David Thoreau died before lawn tennis was invented. But he might well have had a fellow American, CiCi Bellis, in mind when he uttered these words: “The meeting of two eternities, the past and future . . . is precisely the present moment.”

Present was also the fitting word to describe Bellis’ 6-4, 6-4 second-round win on Thursday over 20th seed Karolina Muchova. Moment to moment, shot to shot, point to point, game to game, set to set, Bellis’ focus was unwavering. So intense was Bellis, so engaged was she in earning this win, that the 3,000 fans packed into the Australian Open's 1573 Arena found themselves thoroughly enthralled.

The backstory explains part—but only part—of Bellis’ intensity. At the 2014 US Open, she played the role of Coco Gauff, defeating No. 12 seed Dominika Cibulkova at age 15. The famous upset made Bellis the youngest player to ever win a match at Flushing Meadows. Bellis made her way to 35th in the world in 2017, just before injury would change her nascent career.

Last fall, having suffered a painful right arm and elbow injury that took her away from tennis for more than 18 months, Bellis was told by a doctor that she would never play tennis again. This was an unacceptable prognosis. An MRI and a go-ahead from three other doctors brought Bellis back to tennis life. But with one Oracle Challenger event and only three WTA matches under her belt heading into Melbourne, it was uncertain how well Bellis would perform. (Ranked No. 600, she got into the main draw with an injury protected ranking.)

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In theory, Muchova figured to be a tough match-up for Bellis. Over the course of 2019, the 23-year-old Czech had made soared up the ranks, from No. 141 to No. 21. Most impressive had been her play at Wimbledon, where she’d reached the quarterfinals, a run highlighted by a 4-6, 7-5, 13-11 win over third-seeded Karolina Pliskova. An inch short of six feet tall, Muchova’s playing style was also a breath of fresh air, permeated with a nice range of spin, shape and forward movement.

Versus Bellis, though, Muchova was curiously listless, the tone set in the first game, when she missed four of six first serves and double-faulted at break point down. Even though she broke back to level the set at 3-all, Muchova remained distraught. 

The slightly blustery conditions favored Bellis. Akin to such wind geniuses as Rafael Nadal and Lleyton Hewitt, Bellis’ feet churned like pistons as she continually forced Muchova to constantly hit yet one more ball. Perhaps the versatile Muchova possesses more of the temperament of an artist than a warrior.   

With Muchova serving at 4-4, 30-love, Bellis closed out an eight-ball rally with a Djokovic-esque backhand struck early and down the line. On the next point, Muchova lazily sprayed a forehand long, one of 31 unforced errors she would make in this match. At 30-all, Muchova double-faulted and then overhit a forehand approach shot. Bellis then served out the set at 30. 

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And yet, given Bellis’ ceaseless presence, what is an unforced error?  Over the course of this 83-minute lockdown, Bellis applied pressure with such intent that in rally after rally, Muchova frequently blinked. Even though Muchova was a superb 18 of 24 at the net, her own ability to disrupt Bellis was futile. 

Time away has aided Bellis’ technique. Previously, she seemed to be snatching at the ball, her wrists and forearms rolling excessively, often appearing to be making contact late—perhaps factors that contributed to her injuries. This was all gone today, Bellis a model of technical efficiency. To be sure, she is still only 20 years old and does not hit the ball particularly hard. But with this improved foundation, the possibilities are much greater.

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The second set was quite similar to the first. Once again, Bellis seized the day. She broke Muchova at 1-all and, like her beloved, Super Bowl-bound San Francisco ‘49ers, kept moving the chains with a smart mix of patience and aggression. If Muchova’s senses had seemingly vanished, Bellis’ were on fire. Serving at 4-3, 30-15, Bellis struck a deep second serve. Muchova hit it well out of the court, at which point Bellis said, “Come on, right here, right here.” Yes, she could smell the finish line. 

Crossing it was surprisingly easy. In the blink of an eye, Bellis went ahead 40-love and won it on her second match point. Muchova had been wrapped up and shipped off. Certainly, she will many more better days. But today, Muchova was merely the hitter. Bellis was the player. An intense one, too, and for good reason.