Saturday, January 21, 2017

Scary good: Bellis, 17, compared to Capriati

CiCi Bellis, left, poses with her former coach, Monique Javer,
last month at the Broadway Tennis Center in the San Fran-
cisco suburb of Burlingame. Javer, who was born in Burlin-
game and lives in nearby Hillsborough, reached No. 56 in the
world in 1992. Photo courtesy of Monique Javer
   This is the second in a three-part series on San Francisco Bay Area teenage phenoms CiCi Bellis and Katie Volynets.
   It all began with Halloween.
   That's when family friend and ex-professional player Monique Javer witnessed CiCi Bellis' energy and determination.
   "We went trick-or-treating with the Bellises in the city (San Francisco) when my daughter was 3 and CiCi might have been 6," Javer, formerly ranked in the top 60 in the world, said of Gordon and Lori Bellis' only child.
   As Javer recalls, CiCi (short for Catherine Cartan, her grandmother's maiden name) was dressed as a tiger -- an appropriate choice, given her subsequent competitiveness.
   "I said, 'Gordon, you better get your daughter into something like gymnastics or figure skating' because she kept saying, 'Let's get more candy!' " Javer said. "CiCi's like, 'I'm not going home; I need more candy.' I said, 'OK, you guys, it's 10 o'clock at night. I'm exhausted. I have to get my daughter home and change the diaper.' 'No -- more candy!' That's why I said, 'Get her in a sport.'
   "They called the next day and said, 'Would you hit with her?' I said, 'No,' because we're good friends. Then I said OK, I would. But I think if she had done any other sport, she'd be at the top. I don't think it's just tennis. I think she was born with that seed. If it was gymnastics, she'd be in the Olympics right now. That's just who she is."
   Bellis, a 17-year-old product of Atherton in the San Francisco Bay Area, turned pro last September after reaching the third round of the U.S. Open as a qualifier. She hopes to follow Venus Williams, 36, Serena Williams, 35, and Madison Keys, 21, as a U.S. star.
   At No. 73 in the world, Bellis is by far the youngest player in the top 100. Next is No. 36 Ana Konjuh, a Croat who turned 19 on Dec. 27. Bellis, who's featured as one of five women to watch in Tennis magazine's 2017 preview issue, will be 18 on April 8.
   "Every goal she's ever set, she's achieved," noted Javer, who worked with Bellis until she was 14, except for a one-year break at 11. "If CiCi says top 50, she'll be top 50. If she says top 10, she'll be top 10.
   "All those years working with her, people said, 'Why are you working with her? She's so little.' You don't take away someone's dream. It doesn't matter what size you are in tennis. It's what you do out there, how you compete, how you believe in yourself, what you can and can't do. If she believes she can go all the way, she will. People said, 'Why should she turn pro?' I said, 'Because she's too good for college tennis. She's ready to play as a pro.'"
   Then Javer dropped a bombshell.
   "The USTA hasn't seen a player like this since (Jennifer) Capriati," Javer declared. "They have not had one. And Capriati was great. She was exciting. She was fun to watch. When you get a young player in, it's great for the sport. We miss Capriati. I know she had her troubles, but boy was she fun to watch against (Monica) Seles. (Capriati) worked hard."
   Bellis' combination of talent and charisma, Javer contends, separates her from the Williams sisters, International Tennis Hall of Famer Lindsay Davenport and Davenport's protege, the eighth-ranked Keys.
   "There's some excitement when CiCi plays," Javer said. "She creates attention like Jennifer where people want to watch. Some players draw attention and have that appeal -- CiCi has that. Her dad used to call her the 'Energizer Bunny.' She is. She's like a little wind-up Energizer Bunny. She doesn't stop. She's positive. She's go-go."
Bellis, 8, waves to the camera as Javer shakes hands with another
junior at the Burlingame Country Club in 2007. Photo courtesy
of Gordon Bellis
   Bellis is fiery yet composed on the court.
   "CiCi is one of the best competitors that I've seen among the best young players in the world," Martin Blackman, the general manager of USTA Player Development and a former Stanford star, proclaimed in an e-mail from Melbourne, where he is attending the Australian Open. "She stays focused on getting better and making good decisions, with the knowledge that results are a product of process. This approach to competition reflects a rare maturity and ability to stay in the moment."
   As precocious as Bellis is, nobody compares to Capriati -- and therein lay the problem.
   Capriati made her professional debut in 1990 at age 13 years, 11 months, reaching the final of a hard-court tournament in Boca Raton, Fla., and gracing the cover of Sports Illustrated. She advanced to the semifinals of the French Open three months later in her Grand Slam debut and became the youngest player to crack the top 10 at 14 years, 235 days.
   But Capriati's early success exacted a big emotional toll. After a first-round loss in the 1993 U.S. Open, she took almost 2 1/2 years off, was arrested on charges of shoplifting and possession of marijuana, and went five years without winning a Grand Slam match.
   Capriati rebounded to win three Grand Slam singles titles, the first coming in the 2001 Australian Open at age 24, and ascend to No. 1 later that year. Injuries ended her career at age 28 in 2004, and she was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2012.
   Venus and Serena Williams turned pro at 14 after being held out of junior tournaments by their iconoclastic father, Richard. Venus made her pro debut in Oakland, across the bay from Atherton, in 1994.
   "They did a different path (from Bellis)," Javer noted. "It worked for them, and it didn't work for anyone else."
   Bellis "did it the old-school way," according to Javer. "She won the 10s, the 12s, the 14s, the 16s, the 18s. She was No. 1 in every age group and No. 1 in the juniors in the world. She has a foundation.
   "Lori (a former NCAA Division I recruit in Indiana) never let her skip her age group (in national tournaments), and I'll tell you this: The reason CiCi is so much better than every American junior is that she didn't skip her age group. All these other kids are playing the 18s, and they belong in the 14s -- winning. Everyone says, 'They play better in the 18s.' Well, of course they do. There's no pressure, but you're never going to be like CiCi. She beats everyone her own age. She rarely loses to someone younger than her. ... You have to play your own age group."
   Furthermore, Javer asserted, "CiCi played consolations. She never defaulted a consolation. These girls who play the 18s ... 'Oh, I lost second round; I'm not playing the consolations.' Who does that (plays them) now? And people wonder why we don't have (teenage) American pros in the top 100, top 200. We only have CiCi and (No. 197) Kayla Day. But Kayla Day has played every age group and been No. 1 in every age group."
   Davenport (6-foot-2, 175 pounds) and Keys (5-10, 145), meanwhile, are bigger and more powerful than Bellis (5-7, 120). Capriati, by the way, also is 5-7.
   "(Davenport and Keys) are great, and they did well coming up," Javer allowed. "They're absolutely fantastic, but CiCi's a little different. She's a lot like Jennifer. They just have that same personality, that spunk, that energy."
   Bellis appears to have everything -- talent, passion, drive, temperament, tennis IQ, charisma, nationality, personality and, yes, looks -- to be a star not only on but off the court. After turning pro, she signed lucrative endorsement contracts with Nike (clothes and shoes) and Babolat (rackets).
Javer, a Burlingame native, played No. 1 for Great Britain
and represented that nation in the 1992 Barcelona Olympics.
Her mother, Anne, was born in England. Photo courtesy of
Monique Javer
   Bellis' agent, Marijn Bal of IMG, also represents two-time Wimbledon champion Petra Kvitova of the Czech Republic and reigning Olympic singles gold medalist Monica Puig of Puerto Rico.
   Bal, reached by telephone in Melbourne, said Bellis "is extremely marketable. She comes from a great market being in the U.S. She is a very humble, approachable, down-to-earth, normal girl who has both feet on the ground. I describe her often as the girl next door.
   "For her, the sky is the limit. She has the potential to be one of the best players in the world and win Grand Slam titles, to compete for the No. 1 spot in the world. Combined with who she is as a person and her off-court demeanor, the care she takes for others, the nice family that she comes from, she's extremely marketable because a lot of people will use her as an example. She has good morals and standards."
   Bellis has everything, that is, except size in today's era of power, although the serve is less important in women's tennis than men's. You don't have to be a giant to win Grand Slam singles titles (hello Angelique Kerber, Li Na, Flavia Pennetta, Marion Bartoli, Francesca Schiavone, Svetlana Kuznetsova and, most of all, Justine Henin). But it helps (hello Davenport, Kvitova, Venus Williams, Maria Sharapova, Victoria Azarenka, Ana Ivanovic and Garbine Muguruza).
   "I don't like it when people say, 'Oh, you can't do this because of your size,' " Javer groused. "It's all about your strike zone and your power. Now that (Bellis) is hitting a little bit flatter, it's allowing her to hit harder. (Dominika) Cibulkova is tiny -- she's what, 5 feet or 5-1? (she's actually listed at 5-3) -- but she hits really flat."
   Javer, who reached the second round in all four Grand Slam tournaments, is 5-foot-10 (1.77 meters).
   "But I don't have the speed of CiCi -- I never did," Javer conceded. "She has the speed of an Olympic track runner. She's the fastest thing ever on the court. That girl can cover anything. She can move. So what you (lack) in height, you make up in speed."
   Javer, a 49-year-old native of Burlingame and resident of nearby Hillsborough, climbed to a career-high No. 56 in the world in 1992. She played No. 1 for Great Britain (her mother, Anne, was born in England) and competed for that nation in the 1992 Barcelona Olympics.
   Javer lost in the first round of the 1992 Games to Barbara Paulus of Austria on clay. Capriati won the gold medal, beating Steffi Graf in the final.
   Javer also played for Great Britain against the United States in the old Wightman Cup in London in November 1988. Beforehand, she said she would imagine all the spectators -- including Queen Elizabeth -- were naked.
   "It will make me laugh and ease the tension," Javer, then 21, told United Press International.
   Seventeen years later, Javer began working with Bellis and knew immediately she could beat enormous odds.
   "It's so hard to become a pro and do what Capriati, Kathy Rinaldi, Marianne Werdel -- all the players I grew up with -- did," said Javer, who's actually nine years older than Capriati and never played her. "There's one in a million that rises to the top 100, that shines through. (CiCi) is that one person that shines through. She's one in a million.
   "You just see that one client that you can just tell ... Now I understand when I (attended Nick Bollettieri's academy) what he meant when he said, 'Monique, you're one of my girls.' I get it. He knew I was going to be a pro. You can just see it."
   Javer has known Bellis' parents for 30 years, and her in-laws have known the family for 50 years.
Bellis celebrates after winning a key point
during her three-set loss to eventual cham-
pion Anhelina Kalinina in the quarterfinals
of the 2015 Sacramento Challenger. Photo
by Paul Bauman
   "After lesson one, you could just see she had it," Javer recalled. "She works hard. I hit with her (recently) for the first time in three years because I had breast cancer. I'm fine now. It was like nothing had ever changed. She's the same humble person.
   "We usually text each other after every match win or lose. We have a quote; she said it to me: 'Monique, you taught me that if I ever lose to somebody, I never lose to them twice.' She always beats them back. That's the fire in her. She's just different."
   Indeed, Bellis has avenged losses to Latvia's Jelena Ostapenko, the 2014 Wimbledon girls champion currently ranked No. 38; American Shelby Rogers, a French Open quarterfinalist last year; and Kazakhstan's Zarina Diyas, ranked as high as No. 31 in January 2015.
   Those are only a few of Bellis' stunning results in the last three years. At 15 in 2014, she became the youngest player to:
   --Win the USTA girls 18-and-under national championship since Davenport in 1991. The title gave Bellis an automatic wild card into the U.S. Open.
   --Win a U.S. Open match since Anna Kournikova in 1996. Bellis stunned the 12th-seeded Cibulkova of Slovakia in the first round in 2014 before losing to Diyas. Cibulkova had reached the Australian Open final that year, falling to since-retired Li of China.
   --End the year as the world's No. 1 junior since Russia's Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, also 15, in 2006. Pavlyuchenkova is ranked No. 27 in the world after climbing to a career-high No. 13 in 2011.
   Bellis has beaten five top-50 players, including three (Cibulkova, Rogers and Zhang Shuai of China) who have reached the quarterfinals or better in a Grand Slam tournament.
   Furthermore, 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.
   Zhang, Bellis' victim in the Honolulu final, shocked second-seeded Simona Halep and the 15th-seeded Keys en route to the quarterfinals of last year's Australian Open.
   Bellis, suffering from a hamstring strain, withdrew from this year's Australian Open.
   None of Bellis' success surprises Javer.
   "Not at all," Javer declared. "I always said to her mom (Lori), 'She's like Capriati she's so good.' The only thing I'm hoping is when she plays now, she'll start to believe she can beat players like Serena and Kerber and have no fear against those players because when she plays those matches, she has nothing to lose. I hope she can ... realize those players are scared of her. The top 10 are always nervous about a young player coming up. Nobody wants to play the young phenom.
   "That's the next step for her, to believe that, OK, those players have all the pressure and you have no pressure. That's the one thing that would be awesome. It will happen, but only she can do that. No one else can do that."
Bellis talks to the media after upsetting sixth-seeded Jelena
Ostapenko, ranked No. 38 then and now, in the first round
of the Bank of the West Classic at Stanford last July. Bellis,
who grew up in neighboring Atherton, reached the quarter-
finals of the WTA Premier Level tournament. Photo by
Paul Bauman
   Bellis has played former world No. 1 Serena Williams and current No. 1 Kerber once each. Both times, Bellis lost 6-1, 6-1 in less than an hour.
   "I thought she had a chance to beat Serena two years ago in Miami," opined Javer, who watched the third-round encounter on television. "I thought she could have won that, and everyone's like, 'You're crazy -- she can't beat Serena.' I said, 'Serena was nervous.' CiCi had nothing to lose. And she'll get there with experience.'
   Javer didn't hesitate when asked if Bellis has top-10 potential.
   "Absolutely," Javer exclaimed. "One thing in her game she knows she needs to work on is her serve, and she can do that. She's only 17. Her (two-handed) backhand is world class; her backhand is superb. Her groundstrokes are superb."
   ESPN commentator Brad Gilbert -- a lifelong Bay Area resident who reached No. 4 in the world and coached Andre Agassi, Andy Murray and Andy Roddick -- also is bullish on Bellis.
   "Need to watch her play more at the tour level to really give better feel for her level, but top 25 for sure for now," Gilbert tweeted.
   Blackman, the general manager of USTA Player Development, understandably is more cautious than Javer and Gilbert about Bellis' future.
   "CiCi can become a great player and maximize her potential," Blackman, who trained as a teenager with Agassi and Jim Courier at the Nick Bollettieri Tennis Academy, wrote in an e-mail. "I don't make predictions; they don't help the player.
   "CiCi is a great mover and is able to absorb pace and re-direct the ball. Because of that, she is not afraid of playing bigger, stronger opponents. She is also committed to developing an all-court game, which means that we'll continue to see her add tools and weapons to her repertoire every year."  
   And eventually win one or more Grand Slam singles titles?
   "I can see CiCi doing it, absolutely," Javer declared. "She loves tennis. I've never seen her so happy on the court and pumped. She's got the foundation, she's working hard, she's gotten bigger and stronger. She's got to be in the right hands, right frame of mind. She's got a chance, how about that?
   "You get one good draw at a Grand Slam, you get an opening, you never know what happens. Everyone gets that opportunity. You don't know where it is, but you get it, like that match against Arantxa Sanchez."
   Javer faced Arantxa Sanchez-Vicario in the second round of the 1991 Australian Open, when the Spaniard was 19 and ranked sixth in the world. She climbed to No. 1 four years later.
   "I had her 6-4, 4-1, point for 5-1, and I ended up losing it," Javer recalled. "That was an opportunity because that draw was wide open to the semis. If (Bellis) gets the opportunity and she goes for it, yeah, absolutely."
   For Bellis, that would be sweet indeed.
   Next: Katie Volynets, 15, makes a name for herself.

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