Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Bellis upends defending champ in Midland

CiCi Bellis preparing to serve in the first round of the Midland
$100,000. © Jonathan Kelley, On the Rise
It was a daunting task, to be sure: facing the #2 seed -- the defending champion no less -- a Top 70 player with an unorthodox style that can challenge the patience of even world-weary veterans. But a highly focused and well prepared CiCi Bellis took on the task with aplomb on Tuesday, ousting Tatjana Maria 7-5 6-3 in the first round of the Dow Corning Tennis Classic, a $100,000K ITF event in Midland, Michigan.

In front of a crowd measuring well over 1000 fans, the 16-year-old Bellis used her forehand to control the action, and didn't let Maria's consistent, wicked backhand slice disrupt what she wanted to do. After the match, Bellis noted that her new coach Lisa Raymond, had played Maria before and who was able to feed her lots of "unbelievable" slice backhands in their practice earlier that day. "It's really good to have a coach who has been there, at the highest level, and who has faced some of the players I'm facing." Prior to her retirement last year, Raymond had a 2-0 record against Maria, both doubles matches.

Bellis started the match slowly, going down 0-2* with Maria serving at 40-15. But then Bellis' groundstrokes started to connect, and she reeled off 4 games in a row to take control of the set. Although she played a tight game to get broken serving for the first set at 5*-4, she showed some serious maturity in the very next game, breaking right back and held in her next game to seal the first set.

Tatjana Maria. © Jonathan Kelley, On the Rise
Bellis then sprinted to a 3*-0, two-break lead in the second set and it seemed that nothing Maria was doing was bothering the American. Bellis was particularly successful in that stretch moving into the court, both on her own initiative and when forced in by a short Maria shot. "Especially with Lisa being such a great doubles player, we've been working on me moving forward a lot, and today that was one of the places I focused on." Interestingly, when lobbed, Bellis resorted to a swinging volley every time, to great success. "I've been getting more comfortable with my overhead, but I think in tight situations I'm always going to hit a swing volley, even as I get older."

Just when things looked bleakest, Maria started going for more, and won a couple of multiple deuce games to even the set at 3-3. At this point it seemed like the tide had perhaps turned: Bellis wasn't the aggressor anymore, and shots that had been hitting the lines started floating long. Fans were getting excited at the prospect of a third set. But Bellis had other ideas. "I just told myself I was winning because I was dictating, so just go back to that." Perhaps not coincidentally, Maria's game, which had come to life a few games prior, suddenly sputtered. Bellis started returning better, Maria threw in a couple of double faults, and just like that it was winner: Bellis (USA).

Bellis is still limited in the number of tournaments she can play due to age restrictions. But in planning her schedule, she said that because she was injured for part of last year, the WTA will allow her to play a few additional tournaments in 2016. (She also noted that despite what the post-match interviewer said, she is still an amateur, and will be keeping college as an option for as long as she can.)

The win guaranteed an American finalist from the bottom half of a draw that has 26 Americans out of 32 total main draw players.

The day started with qualifying, and all four qualifiers were American: teens Michaela Gordon and Alexandra Sanford, and former teens Jamie Loeb and Lauren Albanese. Additionally, Nadja Gilchrist got Lucky Loser after Jessica Pegula withdrew late in the day. Colette Lewis of ZooTennis has a nice overview of the final round of qualifying and the other Monday matches.

Center court is being streamed all week at https://www.usta.com/Pro-Tennis/Pro-Circuit/2016_pro_circuit_womens_live_streaming/.

For the full draws, order of play, and more, visit the tournament website at http://www.dowcorningtennisclassic.com/.

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