A Word of Advice For CiCi Bellis, From Someone Who Has Been There
NEW YORK -- CiCi Bellis is certainly not the first teenage tennis player to make a splash on the worldwide stage. From Boris Becker, Pete Sampras, Andre Agassi and Michael Chang, to Chris Evert, Tracy Austin, Steffi Graf, Jennifer Capriati, Martina Hingis and others, a driver's license was never a prerequisite for tennis success.
But teenage prodigies are as outdated as car phones, and it is a relatively small sorority of girls who have won a US Open match before the age of 16. Before Bellis did it at 15 Tuesday, when she won her first-round match against No. 12 seed Dominika Cibulkova, there were, among others, Anna Kournikova in 1996 and Jennifer Capriati in 1990 and 1991. The youngest, though, was American Mary Joe Fernandez, who won a match here at age 14 on this day -- Aug. 27 -- in 1985 and two matches the next year at 15.
Fernandez doesn't remember every detail from nearly 30 years ago. But she remembers enough to relate.
"You're still in school -- she's being home-schooled -- but you're still doing other things. It's not like tennis is the only thing you're focused on," said Fernandez, 43, now an ESPN analyst, mother of two and married to sports agent Tony Godsick. "And all of a sudden you're in the US Open and all eyeballs are on you."
Bellis is the No. 2-ranked junior in the world and received a wild card into the Open main draw after winning the national 18s title.
"We've been keeping an eye on her," Fernandez said. "But all of a sudden she's here playing against the Australian Open finalist -- an established, experienced player -- and the first set, she was whacking the ball and attacking serves like she'd been there before."
Fernandez said she was impressed with Bellis' sense of calm, despite the crowd volume -- both size and noise -- on the outside court.
"She really fed off the fans, so in that regard she was a little different from me," Fernandez said. "I was really shy and a little overwhelmed."
Fernandez defeated the unseeded Sara Gomer, a 6-foot-plus British left-hander who gave her a big target at the net to pass, which she did.
The biggest difference between then and now is that Fernandez doesn't remember having any major distractions between matches.
"Yes, you did [interviews] and you saw the people coming to watch, but it's nothing like the expectations that come now from being in the spotlight," she said. "Now people know who you are immediately, people are tweeting."
Fernandez remembers advice dispensed back then by tour veteran and champion Virginia Wade.
"When I turned pro [in 1986]," Fernandez recalled, "she said, 'Listen, Mary Joe, don't ever read anything that's written about you. If it's bad, it's going to upset you. If it's good, it's going to go to your head. There is nothing good that can come out of it.'
"I thought that was the best advice when I look back because you don't need to know what people are saying. You just need to worry about yourself and improving and the next match. I think that is a problem today. You see all the players and they're constantly on their phones and they're texting and checking their Twitter and it's too much stimulation, too much good and bad. There's no need for that.
"So that would be my biggest advice to anyone but especially the young ones. Don't read it, don't get into that trap of finishing my match and 'OK, let's see what they said about me.' Just be confident in what you're doing and maybe when you retire you can go back and see what people said."
Bellis next plays 48th-ranked Zarina Diyas, 20, who reached the fourth round at Wimbledon and the third round of the Australian Open this year.
"Every match is going to be a big match for CiCi now," Fernandez said. "She's not the favorite by any means, but if you beat Cibulkova, all of a sudden, wow, you should beat the next one. ...
"She got a one-dimensional player in Cibulkova, who hits solid, hard ... but she got the same ball over and over again and she looked like she liked that. We'll see if she gets the same type of player or, if not, we'll see how she reacts to variety and slices and stuff like that. I'm excited to watch her [Thursday]."