When Cici Bellis is at her best, it tends to evoke a reflexive effusiveness from the tennis hierarchy, like Tracy Austin’s “Oh my gosh, she’s on fire. This is surgical,” as Bellis took apart her first-round opponent at the BNP Paribas Open Thursday.
The Tennis Channel analyst and three-time Grand Slam champion had to edit her comments, however, as it took just 65 minutes for Bellis’ 6-0, 6-3 victory over Spain’s Sara Sorribes Tormo, which set up a second-round match-up with defending champion Elena Vesnina.
So clinical was Bellis’ dismantling of her opponent and so pronounced was the zone in which she found herself at times, that only a “Wow” was necessary.“
Definitely later in the first set today, I was definitely finding my groove really well and I think I played a few service games that were probably under a minute,” Bellis said. “That was awesome.”
The youngest player in the Top 40 at age 18, Bellis turned pro last August after deciding to forego a scholarship offer from Stanford. It came precisely three years after she became the youngest winner at the US Open in 18 years, defeating No. 12 seed and that year’s Australian Open finalist Dominika Cibulkova, then turning to her dad and asking innocently “What was my biggest win before this?”
Considerably stronger and noticeably more muscular than the 15-year-old she was back then, but still with the same fierceness that made Chris Evert want to mentor her, the young American was indeed impressive Thursday, leading 20-2 in winners at 1-1 deuce in the second set.
“I feel like my fitness has really helped me improve the most out of anything that I’ve been working on,” she said. “Just overall strength has helped so much and movement, trying to get quicker to every ball.”
But it was Bellis’ serve that would carry her as she lost just three points on serve in the first set and was broken just once. “I think my serve has also improved because I know I can track down any ball after it as well,” she said.
Puig, ranked 83 in the world, fought back from 4-love down in the second set to upset Beatriz Haddad Maia, 6-3, 7-6(3) and advance to the second round, where she will face No. 21 seed Anastasija Sevastova.
Haddad Maia had not lost this year to a player ranked lower than the Top 40.
Meanwhile, in an all-American battle on Stadium 2, Collins, a wildcard ranked 117th, edged out 101st-ranked qualifier Taylor Townsend, 2-6, 6-4, 6-3 in the pair’s first meeting on the tour level.
Townsend had won their previous match in a third-set tiebreaker in October, and once again, it was a tight battle with the two almost identical in every statistical category.
Collins, who in her only other appearance at the BNP Paribas Open, lost to Puig last year in the first round. She will play No. 15 seed Madison Keys in the second round.
Also advancing to the second round were qualifier Yanina Wickmayer and Ekaterina Makarova and Katerina Siniakova, who squandered four match points before dispatching American Christina McHale 3-6, 6-2, 7-6(6).