Commentary

Buzz: Travails of winning too early

CiCi Bellis' win reminds us to be cautiously optimistic with young players

Updated: August 26, 2014, 10:36 PM ET
By Greg Garber and Matt Wilansky | ESPN.com

NEW YORK -- It wasn't the 6.0-magnitude quake they experienced in wine country early Sunday, but the earth moved here on Tuesday at the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center.

It happened when CiCi Bellis, who oddly enough hails from San Francisco, defeated Australian Open finalist Dominika Cibulkova 6-1, 4-6, 6-4. Bellis, for the record, is 15 years old and ranked No. 1,208 among WTA players -- 1,195 spots behind the No. 12 seed. That sent the historians scurrying to the archives to put it all in context.

Bellis is:

• The youngest American to win a match at the US Open since Mary Joe Fernandez, some 28 years ago.

• The youngest player to win a match here since Russian Anna Kournikova broke through 18 years ago.

• More than two years younger than Belinda Bencic of Switzerland, the next-youngest player in the women's main draw.

[+] EnlargeCatherine Bellis
Streeter Lecka/Getty ImagesCiCi Bellis became the youngest player to win at the US Open since Mary Joe Fernandez in 1986.

She says she used to listen to Justin Bieber "when I was younger" and that believing in herself carried her to the victory of the young tournament and, perhaps, several others.

"You can either believe and lose or believe and win, but if you don't believe you're going to lose anyway," Bellis said.

Borna Coric, a 17-year-old from Croatia, came out with the same attitude -- and blew away Winston-Salem champion and No. 29 seed Lukas Rosol in straight sets.

The twin triumphs got tennis editor Matt Wilansky and senior writer Greg Garber to thinking. Tennis has seen quite a few teenage terrors, but many of them -- we're talking about you, Anna -- fail to make a lasting impression. Why? Here is the latest Baseline Buzz.

Greg Garber: Goodness, in a matter of hours those terrible teens made a mockery of the draw. Don't they know they're supposed to know their place? I watched Noah Rubin -- the reigning Wimbledon boys' champion -- get dismantled by Argentina's Federico Delbonis, a nice little player but hardly a dynamo. Afterward, he talked about the big gaps between young players and seasoned professionals. How does a kid step into that environment and maintain their composure? Perhaps it's that they're so young that they don't know what they don't know.

Matt Wilansky: We've seen state-of-the-art talent come along time and time again and wow us with insane shot-making and then ... nothing. A few weeks ago, I spoke with 17-year-old Alexander Zverev, who had recently reached the semifinals of the Hamburg Open -- his first-ever ATP event -- and asked him what it would take to win on this stage right now. He was poignant and refreshingly realistic in his response: "You have to get so much physically stronger than you were in juniors and at the Future level," he said. "You have to work harder. Today, even players who are 300, 400 in the world might be top 10 someday. Right now, climbing the rankings is great, but it's important to work hard and not lose sight of the daily work." My fear is that players who break through so quickly lose sight of the daily grind.

Greg Garber: Mentally, I can see how a teenager could come into a grand-stage moment fairly fearless. These kids are cocky, man. Monday night, Diego Schwartzman was playing the No. 1 guy in the world, Novak Djokovic, and putting his hand to his ear to get the crowd going. Tuesday, Marcos Giron was fist-pumping and staring down John Isner, the top-ranked American. The critical issue for these teenagers, the boys especially, is matching up physically with older players who are far stronger and have more stamina.

Matt Wilansky: Unless you're built like Boris Becker, you're exactly right. The graying of the game has been a central theme for years. Players are smarter about fitness, but it takes time until they're able-bodied athletes. The other issue that I believe isn't addressed enough is the disjointed lives tennis players live. They're in a different place every week -- sometimes different continents. Imagine being someone like Jerzy Janowicz or Dustin Brown, both young players who slept in their cars for cost-cutting measures. At some point that has to take its toll, no matter how ambitious they are.

Greg Garber: A word of caution to those of you who would rush Bellis onto the fast track of fame. Two, actually: Melanie Oudin. You remember the name. The 17-year-old from Marietta, Georgia, reached the fourth round at Wimbledon five years ago and followed it up with an improbable quarterfinals run here at the US Open. Her ranking jumped 80 points, to No. 44. Today, it's sitting at No. 134. She played 14 majors after that massive statement -- and managed to win only four first-round matches.

Matt Wilansky: You can go back even further to someone you may have heard of: Jennifer Capriati. Just 13 years old, a Sports Illustrated cover star and, at least in the beginning, a tennis phenom. And then the game became too big for her. We're all well-versed in the trajectory of her career, but in truth, she was one of the lucky ones. There was so little discipline in her life outside the tennis court and it caught up. The WTA Tour has implemented age-eligibility rules to guard against player burnout. But at the end of the day, even that's far from a panacea. At this point, we know little about Bellis. The best we can hope for is a drama-free, tennis-rich existence.

Greg Garber

Writer, Reporter
Greg Garber joined ESPN in 1991 and provides reports for NFL Countdown and SportsCenter. He is also a regular contributor to Outside the Lines and a senior writer for ESPN.com.

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