Despite the lack of American talent at the top of today’s pro tour, 2014 has been a huge year for USA tennis. California’s Catherine “CiCi” Bellis has dominated the junior circuit, racking up a 30-2 record so far this season, making her one of the country’s brightest rising stars.
At just 15 years old, Bellis is sitting at No. 2 in the junior ITF rankings, and already in 2014 she has won the USTA International Spring Championships and the Easter Bowl, two more major ITF events (in Costa Rica and Milan) and reached the finals of the junior French Open in doubles.
Her recent success started when Bellis began working with Jelena Pandzic last December. Pandzic was just finishing her professional career, in which she reached No. 136, and Belllis is her first full-time student. Despite the freshness of the relationship, Bellis says her recent success is partly because working with Pandzic allows her to have two solid practices each day and has improved her desire to “kill herself for every ball.”
Bellis is her own biggest motivator. “I feel no pressure when I’m at the top. In fact, it’s the opposite,” she says. “I want the pressure. It makes me work so hard every day because I never want to be anything but the best or No. 1.” Even with all of her titles, she says the best day of her life was hitting with Chris Evert, because she received advice that she still uses today. They hit together on a windy day on Bellis’ 11th birthday, and the pre-teen was trying too hard to paint the lines and impress the tennis legend. Evert reminded her to aim for three feet inside the lines, and it’s advice she refers to regularly. Evert also helped her with the topspin lob, a shot that helped Bellis reach the doubles final of the French Open.
Another big factor helping Bellis succeed is her love for crowd atmosphere. The US Open junior event last year is her greatest memory so far, even though she only won two matches. “The fans were as interested in the juniors as they were the professionals,” she says. “And I got so much energy from that.” Last year, she won Les Petits As, a major 14-and-under tournament in Tarbes, France. She says it was as if the whole town shut down to watch the event: “I love a place where they love tennis and appreciate the game whether it’s juniors or pros.”
Luckily for American tennis, Bellis’ next goal is to rise up the pro ranks. She has been homeschooled for years to give her more freedom to train and travel. Despite the fact that she’s on a path to professional stardom, the teen is still maintaining her schoolwork as if she is going to attend college. She says, “At the end of the day, I would never want to put all my eggs in one basket and not have the option of going to the college of my choice.”
But the pro circuit is already calling her name. In March, she reached the quarterfinals of a pro $10,000 in Orlando, Fla., and won doubles with fellow teenage American Alexis Nelson. With this level of maturity and early success, it’s hard to imagine that Bellis won’t reach her ambitious goals of being No. 1 in juniors and, eventually No. 1 in the big leagues.
Back in 2004, a 17-year-old Maria Sharapova stunned defending champion Serena Williams 6-1, 6-4 to win Wimbledon for her first Grand Slam. Sharapova became the first Russian to win in London, the lowest seeded player to ever win the title (at No. 13), and the fourth-youngest Grand Slam champion ever. But she has only beaten Serena once since then (also in 2004) and is now 2-16 against her biggest foe. So what were the keys to her biggest win over Serena, and what can be learned from it?
Serena is known for putting her opponents on their heels, but in this match she was the one hitting off her back foot. Sharapova’s groundstrokes had tremendous pace, but equally important was how deep they were. Her shots landed just inside the baseline, and she created a large margin for error by only occasionally going for the sidelines. That’s the epitome of “controlled aggression.”
Hitting with depth also knocks your opponent off balance. Time and again Serena would lift her front leg or even fall over trying to return Sharapova’s shots. To deal with such power, you have to hunker down and get control over your center of gravity. That requires using little adjustment steps to get in ideal hitting position. Serena has always been great at using long strides, but she can struggle with smaller positioning steps.
Sharapova’s now more known for serving problems, but back in 2004 it was surprising how much more effective her second serve was than Serena’s. Sharapova outpaced Serena on the second serve (she averaged 97 m.p.h., compared with Serena’s 86 m.p.h.), and she won a higher percentage of points with it.
Sharapova didn’t just pound the ball; she also used guile. Serena isn’t especially comfortable in the forecourt, and the last thing you want to do against an insecure volleyer is hit her the same kind of passing shot each time. So Sharapova would hit a rocket right at Serena and then dip a slow-paced angle that would force a backhand volley error. And when Sharapova really needed a point late in the second set, she threw up a topspin lob.
If Sharapova is down in a game, set or match, you’d never know it by looking at her. Between points, she focuses on her strings to stay composed. So many players burn energy getting emotional about the score. Sharapova saves everything she has for her shots and her strategy, and it works.