NEW YORK (AP) — Folks waited for hours Thursday to catch a glimpse of the latest tennis sensation, 15-year-old CiCi Bellis, the youngest player to win a match at the U.S. Open since 1996.
Once Bellis’ second-round match began under the lights at Court 17, the overflow crowd cheered raucously for the home-schooled Californian who is ranked 1,208th and was playing in her first tour-level event.
Bellis started nervously, then won seven games in a row during one stretch, but in the end, was beaten 6-3, 0-6, 6-2 by 48th-ranked Zarina Diyas of Kazakhstan.
That did not dampen Bellis’ enthusiasm about the past few days, which included a first-round win against a woman who played in this year’s Australian Open final.
“Like, this whole experience has been unbelievable. Like, mind-blowing,” Bellis said. “It’s been crazy. It’s been, like, the best couple days of my life.”
That makes sense, given her age — and the way she instantly became the sort of made-in-a-minute modern star who collects Twitter followers by the thousands and can’t walk far without having items thrust at her for autographs.
The best thing she heard over the preceding 48-hour whirlwind?
“Just people saying that, like, I’m going to be the future of American tennis,” Bellis said. “I mean, that’s what I’ve wanted to be since, you know, I was a little kid.”
Which amounts to the past eight or so years, she clarified.
After all, she’s still young enough that she is entered in next week’s junior tournament in New York.
“Maybe it didn’t turn out how I wanted it to, but thank you, everybody, for coming out and watching,” Bellis told the wildly supportive crowd in an on-court interview. “It was amazing. I mean, I never thought I’d be here.”
Bellis earned a wild-card invitation from the U.S. Tennis Association by winning the USTA Girls’ 18s National Championship, the youngest to do since Lindsay Davenport also won it at 15 in 1991.
On Tuesday, Bellis grabbed headlines by surprisingly eliminating 12th-seeded Dominika Cibulkova. That made the home-schooled Bellis the youngest player to win in New York since Anna Kournikova, 18 years ago.
“What surprised me,” Bellis said, “is that I could really, like, stay with these pros.”
Thursday’s match was broadcast live on ESPN2, and Bellis did not start well. Heaving deep breaths before hitting serves, she got broken at love to fall behind 2-0 right away.
She was broken at love again to trail 5-3, and dropped that first set.
“In the beginning of the match, I was nervous and I was a little tight,” Bellis acknowledged.
But she began playing more steadily — “freer” is the word she used — as the match went on, and after her shutout in the second set, she went up 1-0 in the third.
That, though, is where things began to unravel.
Bellis double-faulted to get broken and fall behind 2-1 in the final set, and started exhibiting some negative energy, yelling at herself and dropping her racket to the court.
At one point, she asked herself: “How many errors are you making?”
Later, Bellis appeared to hurt her left leg on a stumble, then sat in her changeover chair and clutched at that calf.
Diyas is only 20 years old, but that makes her a veteran by comparison. This was her 10th Grand Slam match, including a fourth-round run at Wimbledon.
“I’m very proud,” said Leo Azevedo, a USTA coach who works with Bellis. “She did very well. I don’t think Diyas can play any better.”