Catherine Bellis never expected to win a match at this year’s U.S. Open, especially when the 15-year-old Californian drew 12th-seeded Dominika Cibulkova in the first round.
So the teen ranked 1,208th in the world was as amazed as the crowds that flocked to cozy Court 6, in the shadow of the practice courts at the National Tennis Center in New York, when she beat Slovakia’s Cibulkova in three sets yesterday.
Bellis, from Atherton, California, became the youngest woman to win a U.S. Open singles match since 1996, when Russian Anna Kournikova also won as a slightly younger 15-year-old.
“I went into the match thinking it was going to be such a great experience, but I never thought I would come out on top winning,” Bellis said at a news conference. “I’m still in shock about that match.”
Bellis, who is known as “CiCi,” earned a wild card into the U.S. Open by capturing the U.S. Tennis Association Girls’ 18s national championship. She won 6-1, 4-6, 6-4 against Cibulkova, 25, who was a finalist at the 2014 Australian Open.
Cibulkova has earned $1.8 million this year and more than $6.1 million in her pro career. Bellis, as an amateur, will have to skip the $60,420 that goes to first-round winners at the U.S. Open.
Serena Williams, 32, the No. 1 women’s seed and two-time defending champion, cruised past fellow American Taylor Townsend 6-3, 6-1 last night at the National Tennis Center in New York. She has a 73-9 career record at the U.S. Open dating back to 1998, the year before Bellis was born. Third-seeded Petra Kvitova of the Czech Republic and No. 8 Ana Ivanovic also won.
Bellis was making her Grand Slam debut, and her first appearance in a WTA Tour-level event. Ranked No. 2 in the world among junior girls, she is the youngest participant -- by more than two years -- at the U.S. Open.
Cibulkova, who made the quarterfinals of the U.S. Open in 2010, was playing her 82nd Grand Slam match and 523rd professional match.
After they split the first two sets, Cibulkova took a 3-1 lead in the third set against Bellis, who had never won any of her three previous three-setters in pro-level matches. By contrast, Cibulkova was playing her 172nd career three-setter.
The Slovak has struggled in the past month, losing four of her five matches on hard courts leading into the U.S. Open, and that poor play returned in the match’s closing games.
As word got around the U.S. Open grounds about Bellis’s match, the 1,148-seat Court 6 became more raucous than the 23,771-seat Arthur Ashe Stadium court across a walkway. The crowd got louder as Bellis fought back.
Bellis broke the Slovak’s serve to even the final set at 3-3, then won two service games at love and broke Cibulkova’s serve again to end the 42-minute third set and the match.
“I mean, I had like four friends that started some of the chants,” she said at the news conference. “I was like, ‘Oh, my God.’ I loved it. It made me play even better.”
Bellis next plays Zarina Diyas, 20, of Kazakhstan, who won her U.S. Open debut 6-1, 6-2 yesterday against Ukraine’s Lesia Tsurenko. Diyas is ranked 48th in the world.
Bellis said she’ll go into that match with the same attitude as against Cibulkova. Before yesterday’s match, her coach told her she had to believe she could win against the No. 12 seed.
“If you do believe, there’s two options,” she told reporters. “You can either believe and lose or believe and win, but if you don’t believe you’re going to lose anyway.”