Monday, January 9, 2017

Injury leaves Bellis out in the cold

CiCi Bellis and her coach, Anibal Aranda, pose at the Broadway Tennis
Center in Burlingame, Calif., on Dec. 28. Photo by Paul Bauman
   This is the first of a three-part series on San Francisco Bay Area teenage phenoms CiCi Bellis and Katie Volynets.
   CiCi Bellis seemed to be preparing for the Alaska Open rather than her first Australian Open.
   When the 17-year-old Bellis, her coach and a hitting partner convened at the Broadway Tennis Center in Burlingame, near San Francisco International Airport, for practice at 9:45 a.m. on Dec. 28, the temperature in the indoor facility was a frigid 44 degrees (6.7 Celsius).
   Broadway, which opened in April 2015, is not heated.
   Bellis and her coach, Anibal Aranda, made the 25-minute drive up Highway 101 from her parents' house in affluent Atherton, even though there's an outdoor court (in addition to a gym and extensive garden) on the property.
   "We have been practicing here just because it's chilly outside," explained Bellis, bundled up in a Nike warmup suit. "At my house, it's kind of damp in the morning and the court gets icy."
   That's not a problem these days in Melbourne, the site of the Australian Open. It's summer Down Under, and the temperature in Melbourne typically hovers between two and three times higher than at Broadway.
   Bellis and Aranda are based at the new home of American tennis in often sultry Orlando, Fla. The USTA National Campus, featuring 100 courts of various surfaces on 64 acres, opened Thursday. It replaces the USTA training center in Boca Raton, Fla.
   "Sometimes in Boca, we had tough conditions, like rain, wind, heat," said Aranda, a 33-year-old Paraguayan who became a U.S. citizen last March. "Here, now, it's cold. (You'd think) this wouldn't help her, but I think it will because (she needs) to push herself. We need to get a good warmup."
   Added Bellis: "Same thing with the heat."
The temperature at the indoor Broadway Tennis Center when Bellis began
her practice was a frigid 44 degrees (6.7 Celsius). The facility, which opened
in April 2015, is not heated. Photo by Paul Bauman
   Bellis spent a week in Atherton after training for 2 1/2 weeks in Florida. She was scheduled to fly to Australia on Dec. 30 and play in this week's Apia International in Sydney. However, a lingering injury forced Bellis to cut short her Dec. 28 practice at Broadway and withdraw from Sydney and the Australian Open, which begins Jan. 16 (next Sunday PST).
   "Bummed I have to pull out of @Australian Open b/c of a hamstring strain," Bellis tweeted Friday. "Healing, but not ready to play yet. Can't wait to start 2017 szn!"
   Bellis' father, Gordon, said CiCi (short for Catherine Cartan, her grandmother's maiden name) "went for a ball in Boca on Dec. 14 or 15 and pulled up lame. It's muscle pull and/or tear."
   CiCi would have made her first main-draw appearance in a Grand Slam tournament other than the U.S. Open.
   As a 15-year-old wild card, she shocked 12th-seeded Dominika Cibulkova in the first round at Flushing Meadows in 2014 before losing to Zarina Diyas of Kazakhstan in the next round. Cibulkova had reached the Australian Open final that year, falling to since-retired Li Na.
   Also, Bellis advanced to the third round of last year's U.S. Open as a qualifier, then turned pro. That allowed her to keep her singles prize money of $137,503, plus $7,436 for losing in the first round of women's doubles with fellow California native Julia Boserup to third seeds Timea Babos of Hungary and Yaroslava Shvedova of Kazakhstan.
   In addition, Bellis signed lucrative endorsement contracts with Nike (clothes and shoes) and Babolat (rackets). She said she is not allowed to reveal the terms.
   Bellis has a 15-match winning streak after ending 2016 with titles in two $50,000 indoor tournaments in Canada (Saguenay and Toronto) and the inaugural $125,000 Hawaii Open in Honolulu. The latter was the biggest crown of her life.
   When asked which of her accomplishments -- including a quarterfinal appearance in last year's Bank of the West Classic, a WTA Premier Level tournament at Stanford that she grew up attending -- means the most to her, Bellis shot back: "Honolulu, for sure. Hands down. Because I won the tournament."
   Not only did Bellis win all 10 of her sets in Honolulu, she dropped no more than six games in a match. She upset top seed and then-No. 23 Zhang Shuai 6-4, 6-2 in the final.
Bellis practiced hitting targets from the opposite service line
with her serve at Broadway. Photo by Paul Bauman
   Against Zhang, Bellis recorded her fifth career victory over a top-50 player and third over a Grand Slam quarterfinalist or better. Zhang stunned second-seeded Simona Halep and 15th-seeded Madison Keys en route to the quarterfinals of last year's Australian Open.
   "In my opinion," Aranda said, "(winning Honolulu) was great because it was at the end of the year, everyone was tired from a long year, it was a long trip, and the conditions were tough with the rain. Then she beat the No. (23) in the world in the final. That proves she is ready (for the pros)."
   The Honolulu title raised Bellis' ranking to No. 75. Now a career-high No. 74, she is one of six teenagers in the top 100 and by far the youngest. Next is No. 36 Ana Konjuh, a Croat who turned 19 on Dec. 27. Bellis will turn 18 on April 8.
   "Two-thousand sixteen was a great year," Bellis gushed. "I think the second half was a lot better than the first half. We just trained really hard, and that's why it became so much better. I think if we just keep doing what we're doing, 2017 is going to be a really good year, too."
   Aranda described Bellis as "very determined. She works hard, but also she enjoys what she does. She loves her profession; she loves tennis. You can tell when she's on the court she's enjoying (it) and positive and smiling and all those good things. Whatever you do, if you are that way, you will do something great."
   Bellis began working with Aranda almost one year ago.
   "He has helped me in every way possible -- my game, my strokes, my footwork, my mind," Bellis asserted. "A huge part of my success has been because of him.
   "The way we practice and how hard we work really gives me confidence when I'm playing matches. That's the biggest thing -- we work so hard. We have fun with it, too. It takes all the pressure off when I'm playing matches because I know I've put in all the work before."
   Bellis said that when she isn't playing in a tournament, she typically trains from 8:45 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. with a break for lunch. Bellis does one fitness and one practice session in the morning and the same in the afternoon.
   "So it's a full day," Aranda noted. "It's like being in the office, pretty much 8 to 6, and she does that every day consistently, over and over and over again."
   Well, not every day. Bellis rests on Wednesday and Saturday afternoons, getting a massage or doing yoga, and takes Sundays off.
   Bellis, 5-foot-7 (1.70 meters) and 120 pounds (54.4 kilograms), has blazing speed and tremendous groundstrokes, but Aranda said without hesitation that her greatest strength is "her mind. She's definitely a fighter, and she knows how to think on the court. She's extremely smart. She can see not only what she is doing but what her opponent is doing. That is an advantage because she understands her game and the game of the person in front of her. Very quickly she knows what she has to do, and she does it."
Bellis rips a backhand during her second-round victory
over fellow American Shelby Rogers last August in the
U.S. Open. Rogers reached the French Open quarterfinals
earlier in the year. Photo by Paul Bauman
   Bellis, an only child, said she gets her competitiveness and fighting spirit from her mother, Lori, who grew up in Marion, Ind., and was recruited to play at the University of Indiana.
   "She always told me that if you work hard in practice, it'll always come out in matches," CiCi said.
   Lori responded in an e-mail: "I don't know if I would call myself competitive, but I am definitely singularly focused and driven. CiCi has gotten and/or learned those traits from me. I never really liked tennis and quit playing in high school. I was never a happy player. I had a terrible temper, and tennis was way too frustrating for me.
   "CiCi is the right kind of player. Competing makes her so happy. She has the perfect demeanor for tennis. She loves it and can't wait to get to practice each day. She knows how hard she needs to work to get to the next level and very much enjoys the process.
   "Most impressively to me is the way she can be laughing with her opponent five minutes before a match and then flip a switch the second they step on court and compete the best of her life. She is a gifted competitor, and that definitely did not come from me."
   Gordon, meanwhile, is easygoing.
   "He sees the beauty in everything," Lori said in a June 2012 interview, "I'm not more critical, but I see what CiCi has to do. Someone has to be the good guy, and someone has to be the bad guy."
   Gordon, an investment manager, does not play tennis. Both parents often travel to CiCi's tournaments, but ironically, Gordon attends her matches while Lori stays away.
   "She doesn't like it," CiCi said. "She gets too nervous."
   Gordon is stoic at his daughter's matches, as CiCi has instructed.
   "I'm told I cannot sigh and cannot move or say anything," he told espnW.com after CiCi stunned Cibulkova in the 2014 U.S. Open. "She knows when I sigh. I have to sit like a sphynx."
   There hasn't been much to sigh about lately, but the work continues.
   "Right now, we're working on transition (to the net) and serve," Aranda said at Broadway. "She always will need to work on things and get better until she is No. 1 in the world. Usually we focus on one or two things for a period of time. Once it improves, we move to the next thing."
   Aranda said Bellis' first serve "has improved a lot" and that she's working on being aggressive on her second serve. The serve, Bellis added, "will probably always be one of our two main focuses."
   Aranda explained, however, that he and Bellis focus on her strengths because opponents make her work on her weaknesses in matches.
   "I heard this theory from (Roger) Federer 10 years ago:  'I work on my strength. My forehand is my strength. My (one-handed) backhand I always need to work on, but everybody plays to my backhand,' " Aranda said.
   Bellis is versatile from the backcourt, by design.
   "When we started working together," Aranda said, "we spoke about not having any holes in her game. She is becoming a very complete player. She knows how to hit slice, she knows how to hit flat, how to hit topspin, drop shots ...
   "If you play her now, you say, 'OK, which way do I play her because she has a big forehand, a very consistent (two-handed) backhand that can be very big, too, and she defends well with her slice?' You won't find a big weakness in her game right now."
   Bellis heads a group of prospects trying to become the next great American after Venus Williams (36 years old), Serena Williams (35) and perhaps Keys (21).
   "That would mean a lot to me, for sure," Bellis declared. "That's definitely what I'm striving for."
   With that, Bellis and Aranda began their abbreviated workout at bone-chilling Broadway.
   After all, there's no place like Nome.
   Next: Monique Javer, a former top-60 player from the Bay Area, coached Bellis from ages 7 to 10 and 12 to 14.

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