At the 2014 US Open, a young American was beginning to lay down the foundation of her career. Cici Bellis captured the world’s attention as a 14-year-old, when she became the youngest player to win a match at Flushing Meadows since Anna Kournikova.
But as Bellis continued to mature and build momentum, her body would unexpectedly break down. Wrist and elbow injuries sent the then 17-year-old on a detour.
“I started feeling pain in April of 2017, then I played through that whole year, until the pain was too much for me to handle,” Bellis said.
That day in April, Bellis would take a loss to Naomi Broady in Monterrey and attempt to shake off the pain. Instead, she was diagnosed with tendonitis and would begin to take anti-inflammatories for five months. It didn't stop her. She would reach a career high of world No. 35 and would defeat players including Petra Kvitova and Kiki Bertens, all while enduring more and more agony.
Bellis’ story teaches us that when the cards are dealt, we have no control over where they fall, but we can choose to persevere.
Bellis stunned No. 12 seed Dominika Cibulkova, 6-1, 4-6, 6-4, at the 2014 US Open. (Getty Images)
As 2017 was nearing its end, Bellis would begin to crumble; bowing out in four consecutive first-round matches. It was clear, that there was a larger issue at hand. A little rest and recovery from the off-season provided Bellis with a glimpse of hope, and added an extra push to kick off 2018.
But in February in Dubai, she felt a crack in her elbow, followed by a rush of pain that would radiate throughout her arm. Bellis would continue to find a way back to the court, but after being dismissed by Victoria Azarenka in her Miami opener it was too much to bare. After simultaneously enduring and excelling, Bellis would discover three tears in her wrist and would undergo surgery to repair it.
Six months later, Bellis would attempt to play again—only to step off the court in disappointment and discomfort. It took two more surgeries which required cutting the bone in half, shortening it and adding a plate.
"Cici has had a really tough time these past two years; it's been a lot of ups and downs, she had to do a lot of rehab," said Tom Gutteridge, Bellis' coach. "A ton of time off the court, just making sure her body was ready to train again."
During a time of intense physical and mental pain, Bellis could have given up. Instead, she took the road less traveled for a chance to return and play the game she loves.
With headphones on, the now 20-year-old Bellis took a deep breath as she walked onto the court last November to play her opening qualifying-round match in Houston. It was her first match in 20 months.
"I was so nervous walking on court and into my first match. I hadn't played in so long, I didn't know where I was going to stand, and how my arm was going to hold up," Bellis reflected.
The American welcomed the challenge, and it paid off. Bellis defeated Alexa Glatch in straight sets to qualify for the main draw. She didn't stop there, winning two more matches before falling short to Kirsten Flipkens in the third round. There were no signs of pain and she improved with each match. Bellis was back.
"I think she's matured a lot. I feel like now she's taken a little bit of pressure off herself and being able to enjoy just that every moment, good or bad," said Gutteridge.
Bellis will not only be entering 2020 feeling good but with a whole new perspective. She will be ready to face any challenge presented, since she has already overcome her biggest hurdle. In doing so, she will be able to enjoy the game she's tried so desperately to get back to.
At the Australian Open, Bellis was given a wild card into the main draw. Drawn to face Germany's Tatjana Maria in the first round, Bellis won 6-0, 6-2, hitting just five unforced errors.
Although Bellis couldn't control where the cards fell, she has done an excellent job at focusing on the present and persevering, which is ultimately the greatest quality a tennis player can have. In this game of ups and downs, it's critical to always believe. Cici Bellis certainly has.