COMPETE LIKE A CHAMPION: CICI BELLIS
CiCi Bellis turned pro at 17 years old, two years after becoming an overnight sensation when she shocked world No. 11 Dominika Cibulkova at the 2014 US Open.
In a podcast with USTA mental skill specialist Larry Lauer and coach Johnny Parkes, CiCi spoke about her journey from amateur to professional, facing her idols for the first time and balancing training with off-court obligations.
Q: How'd you get started in tennis?
CiCi Bellis: I think I hit my first tennis ball when I was 3 years old. My mom played when she was younger, so she kind of started me and then I played my first tournament when I was 7.
Q: When did you know that you wanted to be a pro player? Was it your first tournament when you were 7?
CiCi Bellis: Probably a little bit later. I'd always definitely had college as a backup. Ended up committing to college before I turned professional. I was older, but I think when I was around 14, 15, I definitely saw a pro career in my future.
Q: So what happened around that time that made you think, “I’d give this ago, I think I'd be pro here”?
CiCi Bellis: I think it was just playing a lot more international tournaments. I was starting to do a little bit better and it was traveling the world and they're really enjoyed it and I was just having a lot of fun and I thought it'd be really fun to have a career out of that.
Q: What was it like the first time you matched up against someone you saw on TV years ago?
CiCi Bellis: I think it's almost impossible to not have that experience when you're a young player coming up. It was pretty crazy. I think the most nervous I've ever been was when I was 15 playing Serena in Miami and that was such a crazy moment for me. Cause obviously looking up to her my whole life and her and Venus. Each time I played them, it was pretty crazy for me. I was pretty nervous.
Q: How did you feel like you did in those matches? Being young and they're the veterans and have been doing this for a long time and really the holding the torch of American tennis for a number of years now. How did you do in that environment?
CiCi Bellis: When I played Serena, I think my nerves really got the best of me and I've never had that experience really ever when I've played. I've always thought going into the match that if I play well, I'm going to have a good chance of winning. And yeah, I’ve never been that nervous. I was almost scared going out into the match and it was such a crazy experience for me. But obviously it was a great time to have that so young. So yeah, I don't think I handled that great. But then when I played Venus, I think it was the next year, I handled a lot better.
Q: You have this confidence and presence about you, not only just kinda how you carry yourself on the court, but also in practice. Is that something that was taught to you or is just part of who you are?
CiCi Bellis: I mean, I think a lot of my confidence stems from my practice and how hard I feel I work on the court. And then when I get to tournaments and matches, I feel like I've done everything that I can to prepare before the tournament. So I feel like that gives me a lot of confidence and just a lot of just not much doubt going into matches and tournaments.
Q: You bring great energy to practice; where does that come from? I find a lot of times at tennis practices it feels like people are uptight and walking on eggshells, but that's not that way with you on the court. How would you say your practice demeanor is and where does that stem from?
CiCi Bellis: I think it's so important to enjoy what you're doing. And I mean obviously I love tennis so much. I've been doing it for so long, so I think it's so important to enjoy the hard work and that's definitely something I do. And just knowing that I'm working extremely hard and it's all gonna be paying off in the tournaments. Seeing all that hard work come through is so important. I think that's what really gives me joy and like me playing well in practice and having good sets of drills and that's what really gives me joy.
Q: How you deal with some of the challenges in practice when maybe you're tired or you're not performing the way you want to or you're struggling with something that your coach wants you to do. How do you kind of work through that and keep going?
CiCi Bellis: I think that's when you get better in those times that are challenging you. And I think that's what I've always thought in practice and when I do tough drills is those times are really what are going to help you in what's going to push you to the next level. So I actually find a lot of joy in challenges and practices. I know it's gonna help me.
Q: You face a lot of choices: When you train, when you practice, when you're playing matches. You're getting pulled in a lot of different directions. How are you navigating the choices between making sure you’re comfortable, confident and prepared with the other side of it, like media or ads?
CiCi Bellis: I think that's a really big part of it and what's challenged me in the last year or two, for sure. But I think what we've always done is put practice first and always make sure that I feel confident that I've gone in enough and what I needed to do that day. And then whatever other media stuff I have, the rest of the day can be done after practice. I’ve had to take some trips for media and I just make sure I get my practices in and make sure those are maybe on weekends if possible or on times that are supposed to be off tennis. So that's really been the most important thing for me.
Q: Players have a lot of say in their schedule and how they train. You made the conscious decision to have set training blocks. Why is that important?
CiCi Bellis: We went through and scheduled them basically a year in advance and scheduled out my full year in the December before, before the year even started. And I think that's so important for me to have training blocks cause all of my good results in the past have come after I've had a good week or two here and there and getting it a lot of good time on core, a lot of good fitness and just giving me that confidence that we talked about from practice to get into tournaments and matches.
Q: One of the things that we talk about are managing distractions. I find that for me focus is the biggest issue for players. I know that was an emphasis for you even in the last couple of years is training without distractions. What does that mean and how does that work?
CiCi Bellis: Yeah, that's, that's been a huge thing for me. And just basically starting from when I turned pro and like we talked about having those media obligations and other things outside of the court that would distract me from my training. And that's what we said. We were always going to put my training first and what I need to do for my tennis and then have the distractions come second. Or you know, at all.
Q: How important are your routines off the court to create the state or mindset that you want to have in training and matches?
CiCi Bellis: I think the routines are everything and we've worked on that so much over the last few years. I think just having set routines every single day before and after matches I think is so important to have. The same thing every day. I mean, we almost go as far as to have the same restaurants and food every day. And I think that's kind of a fun way to deal with it. But yeah, it's so important I think to have the recovery routines, the pre-match routines, the eating and hydrating routines. I think it's extremely important.
Q: You beat Dominika Cibulkova at the US Open when she was at almost the height of her tennis. How are you able to go into that match, obviously being young and being an underdog and find a way to win that match?
CiCi Bellis: I mean, honestly, like we said, I had so much confidence in my training and I think at that point I'd never played someone that highly ranked of course. I didn't really know any better, I just started playing the match like it was any other match and didn't really think twice about the person across the net.
Q: What was it like after the match and then how might have that impacted your next round against Zarina Diyas?
CiCi Bellis: After the Cibulkova match? It was crazy. I'd never experienced media like that before obviously, cause I was just playing in juniors earlier that year and that was my first real pro tournament. It was so much for me. I think I finished the match and I was there another five or six hours for media obligations. And I didn't really know how to say no at that time. I didn't know you could say no and I had so many people pulling me in every direction. It was a lot. It was good to have that experience for sure to know then obviously in the future when big things happen like that just to know what's coming. But yeah, it was definitely a lot for me at that age.
Q: How much did that take out of you going into that Diyas match?
CiCi Bellis: Yeah, it took so much out of me. I think I had one day off after that before the next match against Diyas. And I remember practicing the next day and I was exhausted. I mean I was going, going, going up until late hours of that night and then had practice the next day and was exhausted and was doing everything I could to get ready for the next match. But I didn't even do fitness at that time. You know, I was just on-court practicing cause I was a lot younger. My body couldn't really hold up.