Sunday, June 24, 2012

Little Bellis gets big results

Catherine (CiCi) Bellis, ranked fifth in the United States in the 14s,
 won two national titles last year in the 12s. She weighs only 85
pounds.  Photo by Paul Bauman
   SACRAMENTO, Calif. — Catherine Bellis looks as if she should be swinging on the monkey bars.
   Or maybe doing flips on a gymnastics mat.
   But dominating Northern California's top juniors in tennis? Bellis, who turned 13 in April, stands 5-foot-3 1/2 and weighs all of 85 pounds. Her regulation-size Babolat racket looks gigantic in her hand, but she wields it masterfully.
   "She gets a lot of bang for her buck," said Bellis' coach, John Hubbell.
   Seeded sixth in the recent NorCal 18 Junior Sectional Championships at Sacramento State, Bellis surrendered as many as four games in a set only once -- against top-seeded Kassidy Jump, 17, of Granite Bay in the quarterfinals -- en route to the title.
   Bellis, from Atherton in the San Francisco Bay Area, knocked off 17-year-old Kristina Hovsepyan, a 5-foot-4, 140-pound left-hander from Danville, 6-2, 6-3 in the semifinals and eighth-seeded Hadley Berg, 16, of Greenbrae 6-1, 6-3 in the final.
   "She's really consistent," said Berg, who briefly rallied after trailing 6-1, 5-0. "She's good at keeping the ball deep. She takes whatever you give her and redirects the ball."
   Bellis, who's ranked No. 1 in the NorCal 18s, won her first two national titles last year in the 12s. She triumphed in the USTA hard courts and became the first Northern Californian — according to her mother, Lori — to win the clay courts.
   As the No. 17 seed in the prestigious Easter Bowl in Rancho Mirage in April, Bellis annihilated No. 2 Raquel Pedraza of Claremont 6-0, 6-0 in the girls 14 semifinals before losing to top-seeded Emma Higuchi, 14, of Los Angeles 6-4, 6-4. CiCi, as Bellis is known, is ranked No. 5 nationally in the 14s.
   "She definitely has the talent and work ethic to be a good pro," Hubbell said of his braces-wearing, home-schooled protege, who will enter the eighth grade in the fall.
   What about the size factor in an era of power tennis? CiCi said she's projected to reach 5-6 or 5-7, still undersized in the pros. Her father, Gordon, is 5-9 and Lori 5-5.
   "There are some very successful pros out there who are 5-5, 5-6," Hubbell noted. "Right now, girls (on the pro tour) are big and strong. If CiCi works to get stronger, she certainly could be a great player."
   Hubbell mentioned Christina McHale, a 5-foot-7 American who's ranked 30th in the world. He also could have cited 5-foot-4 1/2 Sara Errani, an Italian who's ranked 10th, and 5-foot-3 Dominika Cibulkova, a Slovakian who's No. 13.
   Bellis can hit surprisingly hard and has a strong return of serve. But her greatest assets, Hubbell said, are desire and quickness.
   "She's a great competitor and very focused. She's fast and a good mover who's able to cover a lot of court. It's an I-can-get-any-ball type of attitude. She's going to run and dig and make somebody have to beat her. She doesn't give a whole lot away," Hubbell said.
   Northern California is not known as a tennis hotbed like Southern California or Florida. But Bellis has benefited from living in Stanford's backyard and across San Francisco Bay from Cal.
   First, she has been exposed annually to the highest level of women's tennis. Serena Williams will defend her title in the Bank of the West Classic next month at Stanford. Bellis was involved in the coin flip for Maria Sharapova's second-round match against Daniela Hantuchova last year.
   "That's (CiCi's) favorite tournament," Lori Bellis said. "We go to qualifying. We go every night (during the main draw) and stay until the doubles is over at midnight."
   In addition, Lori said, "We go to every college match we can."
   CiCi often practices with current or former college stars such as Stanford's Lindsay and Mallory Burdette and Cal's Jana Juricova and Tayler Davis. Lindsay Burdette won the 2010 NCAA doubles title, and her younger sister, 5-foot-10 Mallory, has won the last two. Juricova, 6 feet, took the 2011 NCAA singles crown, and the 5-foot-10 Davis played in the NCAA Singles Championships in May, falling in the first round.
   "Mallory Burdette is as good a ball-striker as there is," Hubbell said. "If CiCi can get anything from her, it's going to be all positive."
   Lori Bellis said of CiCi: "We wouldn't send her away (to an academy). We don't have to. The colleges have been so good about setting up players to play with her."
   CiCi also has had the good fortune of living near the Burlingame Country Club, which has one of the few clay courts in Northern California, in Hillsborough and of practicing with Chris Evert, the greatest female clay-court player in history. Lori's uncle lives in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., and played every day at Holiday Park, where Evert's father taught tennis.
   "CiCi has played a lot on clay," Lori said.
   Lori grew up playing tennis with her twin sister and mother in Marion, Ind., a town of about 30,000 people 81 miles northeast of Indianapolis. Marion is not exactly a tennis hotbed, but Lori's mother comes from Cincinnati, which is.
   "We played in a barn," Lori said. "We didn't have indoor tennis in Marion. We had a friend who was a doctor and loved tennis, and he turned his barn into an indoor court."
   Lori, who played competitive junior tennis, describes herself as a 5.5 (very advanced) player and practices daily with CiCi. Gordon Bellis, an investment manager who grew up in San Francisco, does not play.
   "I'm the chief ball-picker-upper and lead Sherpa," he said.
   Although Lori admits to being intense, she and Gordon do not appear to be high-pressure parents.
   "He sees the beauty in everything," Lori said. "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.'
   CiCi, who likes to cook and ride her bicycle in her spare time, hopped on Lori's lap after dismantling Hovsepyan at Sac State and cuddled with her mother after winning the title. Both parents quietly watched CiCi in the semifinals, but only Gordon observed the final. He offered a few encouraging words but otherwise was silent. Lori ran on a nearby track and appeared after the match.
   "We practice together so much, I know what she needs to work on," Lori said. "I don't need to see it in a match. She wants to play on her own, and we've always fostered that. We want her to figure out what to do when the match gets close."
   CiCi, an only child, began playing at 3 and picked up the game quickly.
   "She had very good hand-eye coordination, and she was always lightning fast," Gordon said. "Even today, one of her great assets is her speed and agility getting to balls that other players don't expect."
   Lori and Gordon actually thought CiCi would become a soccer player, but she chose tennis at 9. 
   "Tennis was more fun," CiCi explained. "The (soccer) team was getting really competitive (internally)."
   Added Lori: "She liked the individual aspect of tennis. I don't think she liked the physical aspect of soccer. She got trampled a few times. She still has a scar on one leg."
   Bellis plays four to five hours a day six days a week. She drills for two hours in the morning and plays matches against top juniors, open-level men and college players in the afternoon.    
   "She's on almost a pro-level schedule now," Hubbell noted. " ... What separates her from other kids who do that is she loves practicing. Other kids burn out, but she's very hungry mentally. She gets on the court, and she's bouncing all around and ready to go. She's like the Energizer bunny. She's willing to try things she's not great at yet. ...
   "The key thing, especially for girls, is going from being consistent to being more aggressive at 13, 14, 15. If you don't learn an all-around game and a big serve, you're not going to be as dominant. That's what we're working on in practice. She loves it. Other kids are afraid to make a mistake. They don't want to get out of their comfort zone."
   Bellis hopes to play at Stanford or Cal eventually. Or possibly turn pro instead.
   "Anything would be really nice," she said.
   Lori sees college in her daughter's future.
   "She's an only child, and she's home-schooled. She would like to play on a team. She loved the Maze Cup," Lori said in reference to the prestigious annual competition between the top juniors from Northern and Southern California.
   Lori downplays CiCi's pro prospects.
   "We know that regardless, she'll be a great college player," Lori said. "If she happens to do more, it'll be icing on the cake. She has accomplished more than most have in a lifetime. We're ecstatic with what she's done."

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