2 years, 4 operations later, CiCi Bellis back on Slam stage
MELBOURNE, Australia (AP) — The worst part might have been the telephone conversation — CiCi Bellis and her mother on one end of the line, a doctor on the other — to go over the plan for one in a series of operations to rebuild the 20-year-old American tennis player’s right arm.
“We were just looking at each other. We were laughing. We had never heard of anything so barbaric, like in our entire lives,” Bellis recalled Thursday. “He was literally on the phone, telling us: ‘We’re going to break your arm in half, shorten it, then put a plate in. And then you’re going to have to remove the plate, because your arm’s not going to be able to handle it, because your arm’s too small.”
Bellis told this story with a smile at the Australian Open — and why not?
Four surgical procedures and two years have come and gone since she was last healthy enough to participate in a Grand Slam tournament. And now she is into the third round at Melbourne Park after beating No. 20 Karolina Muchova of the Czech Republic 6-4, 6-4.
“I was so scared before each surgery,” Bellis said, “I got physically sick, because I was so nervous.”
As recently as October, she was told by one doctor that she needed Tommy John surgery, like so many major league pitchers with torn elbow ligaments.
That would have been a career-ender.
“I was like, ‘Oh, my God. This is too much,’” she said.
A second opinion ruled that out, though. Turns out there was just some swelling. And right now, Bellis doesn’t feel any pain at all.
She’ll face No. 16 seed Elise Mertens of Belgium on Saturday for a spot in the fourth round.
It’s been quite a journey already.
Bellis was something of a teen prodigy. In her very first tour-level match, at age 15 at the 2014 U.S. Open, she stunned 12th-seeded Dominika Cibulkova, an Australian Open runner-up, to become the youngest American to win a match at Flushing Meadows in 28 years.
She reached No. 35 in the rankings at 17, when she won WTA Newcomer of the Year honors. Then came the series of health problems, including three torn tendons in her wrist and bone spurs in her elbow. Plus, the breaking of the bone and the insertion, then removal, of a plate. All the time away from the tour has the Californian at No. 600 in the rankings currently, but she was able to get into the draw in Australia via the protected ranking rule.
“A year ago at this time, I didn’t know if I was going to play again,” Bellis said.
On Thursday, she was out there on a Grand Slam court, playing in singles and doubles.
“It’s been a really long time,” she said. “Just being back here is a blessing — let alone winning.”