Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Bellis returns to NorCal roots in Challenger win

Third-seeded CiCi Bellis of Atherton beat friend and former
junior rival Karina Kristina Vyrlan, a wild card, in the first
round of the $50,000 FSP Gold River Women's Challenger.
Photo by Paul Bauman
   GOLD RIVER, Calif. -- It was like old times for CiCi Bellis on Tuesday.
   She was playing Karina Kristina Vyrlan again in a Northern California tournament.
   "I played her a bunch in NorCal juniors when I was younger, so it was crazy to see her name in the draw and play her," Bellis said. "I hadn't seen her in a while, either, so it was good to see her. We've been friends for a while."
   This wasn't the juniors, though. This was the $50,000 FSP Gold River Women's Challenger.
   In a matchup of 16-year-old Northern Californians, the third-seeded Bellis dispatched Vyrlan, a wild card, 6-4, 6-1 at the Gold River Racquet Club.
   An even younger Northern Californian, Michaela Gordon of Saratoga in the San Francisco Bay Area, ousted fifth-seeded Jacqueline Cako, a 23-year-old American, 6-2, 6-3 in the final round of qualifying. Gordon, who recently reached the Wimbledon girls quarterfinals for the second straight year, will turn 16 on Sunday.
   The 1,091st-ranked Vyrlan, playing at home in the Sacramento area, led 4-3 in the first set, but Bellis, a resident of Atherton in the Bay Area ranked No. 167, used her punishing forehand to reel off the next seven games and nine of the last 10.
   "I was a little nervous in the beginning," Bellis admitted. "Then I started to relax."
Bellis won the girls 18 title in the NorCal
Junior Sectionals at Sacramento State three
years ago. 2012 photo by Paul Bauman
   Players, especially seeds, often get nervous in the first round as they adjust to new conditions. Bellis, though, faced added pressure after losing to Jovana Jaksic of Serbia in the first round of last week's inaugural Stockton Challenger.
   The Stockton match was Bellis' first in seven weeks because of age restriction rules. She no longer plays junior tournaments.
   Tuesday's victory marked Bellis' first appearance in the Sacramento area since she won the girls 18 title in the NorCal Junior Sectional Championships at Sacramento State three years ago.
   "It feels like yesterday," Bellis said wistfully. "I still remember every single match I played there. It feels like no time has passed."
   Yet so much has happened since then. Bellis had a better year in 2014 than Chevron. In chronological order, she:
   --Won the girls 18 singles title in the prestigious Easter Bowl in Indian Wells.
   --Reached the French Open girls doubles final with Marketa Vondrousova of the Czech Republic.
   --Became the youngest winner of the USTA Girls 18 National Championships since Lindsay Davenport, also 15, in 1991. The title gave Bellis an automatic wild card in the women's main draw of the U.S. Open.
   --Became the youngest player to win a main-draw match in the U.S. Open since Anna Kournikova, also 15, in 1996. And Bellis didn't beat just anyone. She shocked 12th-seeded Dominika Cibulkova, the runner-up in the Australian Open that year.
   --Helped the United States win the Junior Fed Cup in San Luis Potosi, Mexico, in September.
   --Won back-to-back $25,000 Challenger singles crowns in Rock Hill, S.D., and Florence, S.C., in October as an amateur.
   --Ended last year as the No. 1 junior in the world.
Vyrlan, playing at home in the Sacramento area, led 4-3 in the first set
before Bellis reeled off seven straight games and nine of the last 10.
Photo by Paul Bauman
   This year, Bellis won a $25,000 Challenger in Rancho Santa Fe in the San Diego area in February and reached the third round at Miami on the elite WTA tour in March. In Miami, Bellis whipped then-No. 32 Zarina Diyas, who had beaten her in three sets in the second round of the U.S. Open, 6-2, 6-1 in the second round before losing to someone named Serena Williams 6-1, 6-1.
   Beating Cibulkova was a mixed blessing, Bellis revealed.
   "It helped me in a way -- it was my first big match and first big win. But in the tournaments following that, it put more pressure on me. Even after that, the tournaments I won and Miami, it's put me in a place where people expect me to win most of the matches I play. That's one of the down sides of it, but once you get better and better, that always happens, so you just get used to it," Bellis said.
   Playing Williams was "pretty scary," Bellis continued.
   "My coach (Tom Gutteridge) and I were talking today and joking, and I said, 'I'm probably never going to play anyone ever again that's as good as her,' " Bellis said with a laugh. "She's probably the best player to ever pick up a racket. To play her was unbelievable for me and a good experience. I think it will help me to play players like that."
Saratoga's Michaela Gordon, who will turn 16 on Sun-
day, ousted fifth-seeded Jacqueline Cako, 23, in the
final round of qualifying. Photo by Paul Bauman
   August will be another big month for Bellis. She received a wild card to play in the Bank of the West Classic on the WTA tour at Stanford, 5-10 minutes away from her home, for the first time.
   "It means everything to me," Bellis said. "Every year I've gone, I've been thinking about how long it'll take for me to be able to play in that tournament, and I never thought it would be this soon.
   "It's basically in my back yard. I played there so many times when I was younger in clinics and practices. It's one of my favorite places to play, and it's such a beautiful campus, so I think it's going to be amazing to play there."
   Bellis could play Williams again in the Bank of the West, which Williams won for the third time last year. Bellis said she's OK either way.
   "If I play her again, I won't be nervous because I've already played her once," Bellis declared.
   After the Bank of the West, Bellis plans to get her driver's license.
   "I'm so excited," she gushed. "I was supposed to get it earlier this year, but I haven't had time."
   Then comes the U.S. Open, which begins in late August. Bellis expects to get another wild card, if necessary, at Flushing Meadows.
   The home-schooled Bellis said if she cracks the top 100, her goal, she'll turn pro. And if she doesn't, there's always the possibility of attending that school down the road.
   Lele Forood, the Stanford women's coach, probably could make room for Bellis on the roster.      
   Notes -- Maria Sanchez, who won the inaugural Gold River Challenger three years ago, withdrew Monday without giving a reason, according to USTA supervisor Missy Malool.
   Sanchez, a 25-year-old USC graduate, suffered an agonizing first-round loss in Stockton, about a 30-minute drive from where she grew up in Modesto. She fell to Jessica Moore of Australia 3-6, 7-5, 7-5 after serving for the match at 6-3, 5-4, leading 4-2 in the third set and getting broken in the final game. ...
   Mayo Hibi and Jessica Pegula beat fourth-seeded Jamie Loeb and Sanaz Marand 7-6 (4), 6-1 in the first round. All except Hibi are American, and even though the 19-year-old Hibi plays for her native Japan, she grew up in Irvine in the Los Angeles area.
   Loeb and Marand won the Stockton Challenger.
   Both Hibi and the 21-year-old Pegula, whose billionaire father owns the NFL's Buffalo Bills and the NHL's Buffalo Sabres, have had singles success in the Gold River Challenger. Hibi won the title two years ago, and Pegula was the runner-up to Sanchez in 2012.
At Gold River Racquet Club in Gold River, Calif.
Final-round qualifying
   Ashley Weinhold, United States, def. Renata Zarazua (7), Mexico, 4-6, 6-2, 6-4.
   Nicole Frenkel (8), United States, def. Kelly Chen, United States, 6-4, 6-3.
   Michaela Gordon, Saratoga, def. Jacqueline Cako (5), United States, 6-2 6-3.
   Mari Osaka (6), Japan, def. Alexandra Stevenson (1), United States, 6-3, 7-5.
First-round singles
   Anhelina Kalinina (8), Ukraine, vs. Samantha Crawford, United States, 7-6 (4), 6-1.
   CiCi Bellis (3), Atherton, def. Karina Vyrlan, Sacramento, 6-4, 6-1.
   Eri Hozumi (2), Japan, def. Caitlin Whoriskey, United States, 6-4, 6-2. 
First-round doubles
   Mayo Hibi, Japan, and Jessica Pegula, United States, def. Jamie Loeb and Sanaz Marand (4), United States, 7-6 (4), 6-1.
   Robin Anderson and Maegan Manasse, United States, def. Jacqueline Cako, United States, and Chanel Simmonds, South Africa, 4-6, 6-3 [10-6].
   Nao Hibino, Japan, and Rosie Johanson, Canada, def. CiCi Bellis, Atherton, and Rianna Valdes, United States, 3-6, 6-2 [10-8].
Today's schedule
(Not before 1 p.m.)
   Asia Muhammad, United States, vs. Naomi Cavaday, Great Britain.
   Kimiko Date-Krumm (7) vs. Jessica Pegula, United States.
   Nao Hibino (4), Japan, vs. Sanaz Marand, United States.
   Samantha Crawford and Asia Muhammad, United States, vs. Naomi Cavaday, Great Britain, and    Alexandra Stevenson, United States (possible court change).
(Not before 6:30 p.m.)
   An-Sophie Mestach (1), Belgium, vs. Melanie Oudin, United States.
   Alexandra Facey and Kat Facey, Cameron Park, vs. Jillian Taggart, Fair Oaks, and Karina Kristina Vyrlan, Sacramento.
Court 3
(Starting at noon)
   Ashley Weinhold, United States, vs. Mari Osaka, Japan.
   Jamie Loeb, United States, vs. Kelly Chen, United States.
   Jennifer Brady, United States, vs. Clothilde De Bernardi, France. 
   Jovana Jaksic, Serbia, and Anhelina Kalinina, Ukraine, vs. Usue Maitane Arconada and Kylie McKenzie, United States.
Court 4 
(Starting at noon)
   Mayo Hibi (7), Japan, vs. Nicole Frenkel, United States.
   Julia Boserup, United States, vs. Jan Abaza, United States.
   Robin Anderson, United States, vs. Lauren Embree, United States.
Court 5
(Starting at noon) 
   Jovana Jaksic, Serbia, vs. Manon Arcangioli, France.
   Kristie Ahn, United States, vs. Chanel Simmonds, South Africa.
   Brooke Austin, United States, vs. Michaela Gordon, Saratoga.

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