Remember age 15? I sure do. I was in 10th grade, a shy, geeky-looking kid just hoping to make the varsity tennis team, maybe get Christina Leone to like me, and desperate to avoid failing math.
I’m guessing 15 was like that for most of us. But 15 was a little different Tuesday for Cici Bellis, a teenager who went from curiosity and upstart with potential to the major story of the U.S. Open in just a matter of a few hours.
I saw a lot of great tennis live at the U.S. Open Tuesday; I saw Kei Nishikori and Eugnie Bouchard and dozens of others. But a 15-year-old homeschooled kid from San Francisco, and her incredible poise and shotmaking is what I’ll remember years from now.
Bellis was on an outer court at the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center Tuesday, a court that could hold maybe 400 spectators, and there were no TV cameras present at the start of her match.
She had gotten this opportunity to make her Open debut years ahead of schedule, by winning the U.S. nationals earlier this summer.
But she was due to play No. 12 seed Dominika Cibulkova, who was a former Australian Open finalist and a much more seasoned player. Clearly, the moment and the opponent would overwhelm Bellis.
Only it didn’t. Different performers respond to first-time pressure in different ways. Some shrink from it, cowed by the expectations and the stage. Others… they embrace the hell out of it.
Bellis was spectacular in her first major “stage” appearance. She raced out to a 6-1 first set, faltered in the second set, 6-4, then fell down 3-1 in the third as the crowd swelled to a mass of people.
It looked like she was gassed. But she rallied, and tied the set at 3, and suddenly the crowd was going nuts, and this 15-year-old sprite of a player with powerful strokes and a bigger-than-you’d-think serve was nailing winners, adorably pumping herself up with both arms fist-pumping at once, and grabbing a 4-3 lead.
All of a sudden ESPN cut live to the match, and Bellis went on to a 6-4 win, and she jumped up and down after match point, and we all hooted and hollered, and Bellis ran over and hugged her parents and her coach (she didn’t have far to go, it was a small court!), and now Wednesday she’ll be all over the sports pages and websites as America’s newest tennis sweetheart.
And she’s 15 years old. She was still in diapers when 9/11 happened, just for some context.
You hope this isn’t the highlight of her tennis life, that she continues to improve and maybe wins a Slam one day.
You hope that Tuesday was Day 1 on a remarkable tennis career. I feel lucky I was there to see it. Because it was so cool to be a part of.
**Finally today, Peyton Manning’s football talent is equalled by his awesomeness at acting. He’s always great on SNL, always great on commercials (I still laugh at his “Tommy, you’re my favorite accountant!” ad).
I saw Manning’s new Gatorade ad yesterday, and it cracked me up, as he and a gas station attendant decide if a woman has “sweated enough” to deserve to buy a Gatorade.