On the 14th of September 2015 the future of US women's tennis looked a little bleak. The new rankings had just been released following the US Open, where Serena Williams had missed the opportunity to complete the calendar Grand Slam by losing to Roberta Vinci in the Semi Finals. The tennis world, for the first time, was realising that Serena would not last forever and that perhaps her dominance was coming to an end. US tennis fans would surely now start to be looking to the future and at who would be the next American great to step up to the plate.
Following that remarkable 2015 US Open which was eventually won by Flavia Pennetta, the US had 12 women ranked inside the top 100. That is certainly a healthy amount of players and so surely if Serena were to retire, then there would be someone else to quickly take over from her. The problem was that of those 12 women, seven of them were aged 25 and above and only one other player, Madison Keys, was ranked in the top 20. Luckily she was one of the five younger players.
Keys looks the most likely to step up in the immediate future. She has made the position of American number two her own over the past year or so and has also become a top 10 player. Still just 21 years of age there are many titles ahead for Keys and a Grand Slam or two should also be a real possibility in the next two or three years. Apart from Keys, the WTA rankings in September 2015 were not a great picture for the US. Sloane Stephens is another strong young player but does she have the ability to win Grand Slams? Of the three other women aged 24 or below at that time, Coco Vandeweghe, Christina Mchale and Lauren Davis would probably cause me to have a heart attack should any of them ever win a Grand Slam singles title.
At that same time however, there was one player who had been slowly making a name for herself and turning a few heads. That was CiCi Bellis who was ranked 176 and aged just 16. To fully understand the Bellis story you have to go back a little further than that September 2015 date I have been quoting so far. The young American hasn't just burst onto the scene thanks to one amazing tournament, her rise up the rankings has been gradual and impressing people every step of the way.
Bellis perhaps first came to prominence in the US when she won the USTA Girls 18's National Championship, defeating the incredibly named Tornado Alicia Black, in the final. She was just 15 years and 4 months when she won this title making her the youngest winner since a certain Lindsay Davenport. Bellis didn't stop there and was able to enter the 2014 US Open main draw, despite being ranked outside the WTA top 1000 (yes that says one thousand), thanks to that title win. As if being 15 years old and playing in her home Slam wasn't enough to make her nervous, drawing the 12th seed, Dominika Cibulkova, may well have kept her up at night. Rankings didn't matter and Bellis defeated Cibulkova in three sets. An astounding achievement that made the whole tennis world pay attention.
Her 2014 run at Flushing Meadows came to an end in round two when she lost to the Kazakh player, Zarina Diyas in three sets (Bellis notably won the 2nd set 6-0). Clearly confident and playing without fear, Bellis finished 2014 by winning two ITF $25k titles in a row, dropping just three sets in her ten matches. 2015 also began strongly as she won yet another $25k ITF tournament before turning up in Miami to play at the WTA Premier event. Bellis surprised people again and beat Indy De Vroome in round one before defeating Diyas, who had beaten her at the US Open, in round two. She would meet Serena Williams in round three.
Her meeting with the American great lasted just 41 minutes and resulted in a 6-1 6-1 defeat as Bellis admitted to being overcome with nerves at playing the woman she described as 'the best of all time'. Despite the loss Bellis gained some valuable experience and enough ranking points from her exploits in Miami to see her reach the WTA top 200 just before her 16th birthday.
Back in the present day and the 18 months or so that have followed that match against Serena have seen Bellis rise to a world ranking of 90, at the time of writing. Victories over the likes of Jelena Ostapenko, Tatjana Maria and Shelby Rogers have shown further signs that Bellis, now 17, is improving all the time. With a third round appearance at the US Open and two ITF $50k titles in recent weeks, she seems to be in the form of her life.
So should Americans be excited about CiCi Bellis? I think they should. Her progression has been encouraging and her ranking has been steadily climbing for over two years now which makes me think she is extremely dedicated and eager to improve. In September 2016, she chose not to enroll at Stanford University and instead turned professional. Whether or not college is a good idea for US tennis players has been discussed on The Sporting Voice here but for Bellis I certainly think that deciding against going to college is the correct decision. It is worth noting that her two $50k titles came after her decision to turn professional, which as well as bagging her over $15,000 in prize money, is also an indication that she can perform under the pressure of being a pro.
Many will point to the height of Bellis as a reason why she cannot succeed at the very top but that would be naïve. At just 5ft 7in she is relatively short by modern standards but she, and her coaches, will know this and will no doubt work on her game to ensure that she is a difficult opponent that can utilise her strengths. Height is definitely not enough to rule someone out, Simona Halep is only 5ft 6in whilst Carla Suarez Navarro and Roberta Vinci are just 5ft 4in and we all remember who Vinci beat in September 2015. Even current world number one, Angelique Kerber is only an inch taller than Bellis and so anyone who tells her she is too small to succeed will likely be laughed out of the room.
Of course nothing is guaranteed, the beauty of the ranking system is that it rewards consistency and staying at the top requires that consistency to be upheld year after year. One good year in tennis can quickly be undone and your ranking can tumble the next year. Who once was the future of tennis can soon become just another top 50 player, just ask Eugenie Bouchard! The competition is fierce and when Serena and Venus do decide to hang up their rackets and move onto new ventures away from the court, the US fans need someone else to cheer. It has been 13 years since an American man won a Grand Slam singles title and perhaps Taylor Fritz aside, none of their current crop look to have what it takes to repeat the success of Andy Roddick in 2003. It looks like it will have to be the women that continue to provide the glory.
Madison Keys and CiCi Bellis could well be the future of US Tennis for the next 5-10 years and how many titles they can win will be up to them. I hope the American fans don't hold them to the standard that the Williams sisters have set because that will perhaps never happen for them again. Sure, the career of Bellis could take a turn for the worse, she could be plagued by injury like Del Potro or Robson or she may just never hit the heights that her potential suggests she is capable of. All we have to go on at this point is the first two years or so of her career. She has beaten big names, got to the third round of a Grand Slam, won six ITF singles titles and she has reached the WTA top 100 all before being old enough to vote in that recent high profile US election. If I was to have a tennis career, I'd want it to start just like that.
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