ESPN’s former teen tennis prodigies offer advice to Bellis

(L-R) Catherine “CiCi” Bellis, Chrissie Evert, LZ Granderson and Chris Fowler during ESPN’s Wednesday US Open coverage. (Dave Nagle/ESPN)

NEW YORK – On Tuesday, the glare of the sports media spotlight immediately descended upon 15-year old Catherine “CiCi” Bellis of California, following her stunning upset of No. 12 seed Dominika Cibulkova at the US Open.

The 5-foot-6 10th-grader won the first-round match 6-1, 4-6, 6-4.

It was a moment that resonated with two members of the ESPN Tennis team. And both advise caution – for both Bellis and fans, particularly in the media-heavy times we live.

At 16, Chrissie Evert reached the semifinals of her first US Open in 1971. She liked what she saw of Bellis, calling the match with Mike Tirico, saying, “She responded to pressure, even being down a break in the third set.”

But the Hall of Famer has seen too many get labeled “Future Star” too young.

“I get a little nervous when we glorify these young kids,” she said. “Let’s not get ahead of ourselves.”

Her advice?

Left: Chrissie Evert (Photo credit: Art Seitz)
Right: Mary Joe Fernandez (Photo credit: Art Seitz)

“Don’t do the talk show circuit just yet. Don’t do magazine covers. Go back to your normal life,” Evert said. “The attention these young players get now is 10 times worse than my day. They have no privacy. We didn’t have press camped out to see where we went to dinner.”

For Mary Joe Fernandez, success at the US Open came even earlier. She is still the youngest player ever to win a match there – 29 years ago Wednesday at age 14 and eight days. She bested Sara Gomer of Great Britain 6-1, 6-4.

“The big difference now, of course, is social media and cell phones,” she said. “There was a little bit of hype about me, but now it’s blown all out of proportion.”

And how should Bellis deal with all the attention?

“It’s hard now as we’re surrounded by media,” Fernandez said, “but don’t read anything people write about you. Virginia Wade (former star player) told me when I was young that if they criticize you, you get down. And if they praise you, it goes to your head. Stay in the moment.”

Bellis’ next plays today in a second-round match against Kazakhstan’s Zarina Diyas, ranked No. 48 in the world. It is the fourth match on Court 17, so is likely to start mid to late afternoon on ESPN.

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