After the first two round of the Australian Open, all top 10 seeds in the women’s draw are still standing with no early upsets. The last time this happened was Wimbledon… back in 2009. This little fact has been repeated by many tennis fans on social media in disbelief, given the usual upheaval on the women’s tour.
But on Thursday, when 20th seed and upcoming star Karolina Muchova was ousted by a 20-year-old player currently ranked 600 in the world, the news was not greeted with the regular analysis upset-wins attract.
Because the winner of a certain Catherine ‘Cici’ Bellis, a name tennis fans would be familiar with but not heard in a while at tournaments.
A junior world No 1, the American was a teen prodigy, destined for big things when in her first tour-level main draw match, the then 15-year-old wildcard had stunned 12th seed Dominika Cibulkova 6-1, 4-6, 6-4 at the 2014 US Open. She lost in the second round but reached third round of US Open and French Open in 2017. By then she was the youngest member of the Top 100, peaking at world No 35 with wins over Agnieszka Radwanska, Petra Kvitova, Karolina Pliskova, Daria Kasatkina, Madison Keys.
But a debilitating injury to her right arm all but ended her career. She required four surgeries and was even told she will not be able to play tennis again. But she decided to take the chance and here she is, in the third round of the fourth tournament she playing since her return.
Not that unusual a story in modern sport, or even tennis, right?
But there was nothing so usual about Bellis’s injury, surgery or recovery. There were the garden variety wrist tears and bone spurs, but the procedure to fix it and save her career when only a teen, was not for the faint of heart.
To paint a direct, if slightly gruesome picture, her right arm had to be sawed in half to shorten a bone. A metal plate had to be inserted in her arm. But that wasn’t her first surgery or the last on that right hand.
Bellis first felt the pain back in 2017, when she was still at the top of her game, and played for close to a year with it. Because she was prescribed pain-killers, because she didn’t want to lose her momentum. When the pain became too much in 2018, she went under the knife in July to fix what was thought to be torn tendons and then again in September to remove bone spurs in her elbow.
But when she attempted a comeback, it didn’t quite work and prompted her to undergo the procedure that voluntarily broke her bone and insert a metal plate. And then again, in March 2019, she had to undergo another surgery to remove the plate that was causing pain and irrigation.
Only a teenager, she had undergone more medical procedures than some other players go through in their entire career. The arm that wielded the tennis racquet with so much skill wasn’t even the same appendage by the time she considered herself fit enough return to tennis.
Then a misdiagnosis almost sent her back to square one when in October last year, a doctor said she would never be able to play tennis again. Fortunately, the error was rectified and, intent on playing at least one tournament in 2019, she competed at the 125K Oracle Challenger Series in Texas – her first tournament in 18 months. Going through qualifying, she reached the third round before losing to third seed Kirsten Flipkens.
One small tournament, but a huge step in the right direction.
She started the 2020 season at Auckland, winning only four games and getting bagelled in a first-round loss. At Hobart, she reached just the second round but got a lot more match practice under her belt. Now, playing pain free in both singles and doubles at Australian Open, she has a win over a seed to her name in the second round, and the eyes of the tennis world back on her.
Among her contemporaries she beat at the starting level were Jelena Ostapenko and Bianca Andreescu, who are now Grand Slam champions. One of her best friends and former doubles partner Marketa Vondrousova is the 2019 French Open runner-up.
With the influx of teen talents, many in tennis may have forgotten the American who was once destined to be the next big thing. But Bellis neither forgot nor gave up on the sport she loved.
“A year ago this time I did not even know if I’d play again so just being here is so special to me, let alone winning... My love for the game is what really drove me through all this time.”
A player returning from drastic injury layoffs to win matches is not new neither is the drive powered by love for the game. But what sets Bellis apart is the fact that she faced the adversity while still a teenager and didn’t give in but returned to the highest level of the sport and made it count.
Up next is 16th seed Elise Mertens, which will be much tougher test. But the experience of having fought through extreme odds will serve her well, win or lose. It’s just the fourth day of the season’s first Grand Slam but Bellis’s return is already one of the stories of Australian Open 2020.