Bellis closing in on top junior ranking at Metropolia Orange Bowl

December 9, 2014 09:24 AM

By Pat Mitsch, special to
– The spotlight on CiCi Bellis has faded since the US Open. Bellis, herself, has done quite the opposite.

The pony-tailed 15-year-old, who became an overnight sensation in New York this summer, cruised by her first-round opponent at the 2014 Metropolia Orange Bowl International Tennis Championships on Monday, defeating Russia’s Alisa Rudenko, an unseeded wild card, 6-0, 6-0, in 45 minutes.
And with No. 1-ranked Shilin Xu’s 6-4, 6-2, first-round loss to Canada’s Katherine Sebov, Bellis, ranked No. 2 in the world among players ages 18 and under, could very well clinch the International Tennis Federation’s year-end No. 1 ranking this week.

“She’s obviously a great player to be where she is right now,” Bellis said of Xu, who currently holds a 26-point lead over Bellis and can still earn points with doubles victories. “Whoever ends up No. 1, they’ll deserve it.”

Much of the tennis world last saw Bellis months ago, walking off Court 17 at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center, where she played her second-round main draw match to a packed crowd chanting her name. Days before, she had toppled Australian Open finalist Dominika Cibulkova to become the youngest player to win a main-draw US Open match since Anna Kournikova in 1996.

On Monday, Bellis took the court to a smattering of viewers lining the Frank Veltri Tennis Center’s stadium court. From the first point played on the damp, green clay, Bellis employed the same tactics broadcast to millions in August – the quick, deliberate pace, forehands shot like arrows, the occasional, perfect drop backhand. Even the slow playing surface, softened by a morning fog, couldn’t slow her down.

Nothing much has this fall. Bellis – who has worked to improve her serve since the Open – won 10 straight professional matches in October to capture singles titles at back-to-back USTA Pro Circuit $25,000 events. She reached the quarterfinals at the Eddie Herr Junior Championships last week in Bradenton, Fla.

“I’ve been working really hard,” says the No. 2-seeded Bellis, who is still coached by her mother, Lori, with occasional help from various hitting partners and USTA National Coaches Leo Azevedo and Kathy Rinaldi. “I think all of that is starting to pay off right now in my tournaments, and I think if I keep working hard, it’ll stay that way.”

Of course, she’s had a few more eyes on her along the way. Bellis said that since the US Open, she’s had more fans watching her matches and asking for pictures, at both pro and junior events.

“It’s been crazy, but I love it. It’s been really fun, like a new kind of experience,” Bellis said. “I’ve kind of just adapted to it, kind of gone with the flow and not really thought about it too much. I mean, it doesn’t really affect me, having people watch me play, so that’s kind of nice.”

Stefan Kozlov, 16, can likely claim similar composure, being a two-time Grand Slam junior finalist in 2014 (Australian Open, Wimbledon) and now the youngest American ranked in the ATP Top 500 (No. 464). Kozlov, who lives a short drive away in Pembroke Pines, Fla., earned a  6-1, 6-4, victory over Taipei’s Chien Hsun Lo to open his Orange Bowl redemption campaign.

Kozlov reached the final here last year but fell in three sets to fellow American Francis Tiafoe, who made history by becoming the youngest ever Orange Bowl Boys’ 18s singles champion, at 15. That defeat, paired with losses in each junior Grand Slam final – to Alexander Zverev in Melbourne and Noah Rubin at Wimbledon – brought the soon-to-be 17-year-old back to the Orange Bowl.

“Ever since the day I lost in the final last year, I wanted to come back here and redeem myself,” said the No. 2-seeded Kozlov, whose younger brother, Boris, was a first-round winner in the 16s draw. “I felt like last year was a good tournament, but I felt really sick after the final because of just how I performed because I thought I should have won. And it's just my home tournament, so I love to come out here and compete.”

See all of Tuesday's results here.

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