All good things must come to an end, and that's just what happened on Thursday night at the U.S. Open when the 15 year-old upstart CiCi Bellis lost in the second round to the savvy veteran, 20-year-old Zarina Diyas, on Court 17 at the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center.
Her run certainly was fun while it lasted.
However, keep in mind throughout the next week, even year(s), as we reminisce about the week that Bellis conquered New York, the quickest way to ruin a good story is to bill it as a sensational narrative.
In other words, for CiCi's sake, and for ours, let's not get too carried away.
First of all, let's rewind and revisit what this hoopla is all about. At just 15 years old (a phrase that deserves repetition in this case), Bellis earned a spot into the main draw of the U.S Open by winning the USTA Girls 18's National Championships. She was the youngest winner of that event since Lindsay Davenport in 1991.
As the youngest player in the U.S. Open draw by a good two years, she was supposed to just be happy to be here.
Instead, Bellis seized the day. Up against one of the best players in the world, Australian Open finalist Dominika Cibulkova, the 15-year-old American absolutely dominated the first set on Tuesday, taking it 6-1. Considering Cibulkova is the No. 12 seed in the tournament, and Bellis is ranked No. 1208, that alone was enough to turn heads.
Suddenly, the world was paying attention. The match was nestled on a non-TV court -- because there wasn't really supposed to be anything to see -- but as the second set went on and the buzz grew, ESPN commandeered a camera and Pam Shriver (Aunt Pammy to die-hard tennis fans) to make sure that we could all watch the action live. In the middle of a busy day in the first round of a Grand Slam, she became the focus.
As quickly as we tuned in, Bellis dropped the second and went down 1-3 in the third, and it seemed that the story was about to be over before it even began. Then, she stepped her game up.
In the third set, Bellis hit forehands with power beyond her years and pranced around the court with wild abandon. There was no sign of second-guessing, no show of nerves, no hint that she knew she wasn't supposed to be doing what she was doing. It was pure talent running on pure instinct. Fearless and feisty, she wrestled the third set away from the older and more experienced Cibulkova.
It was, to put it mildly, exhilarating to watch. The tiny court six was overflowing by the time that Bellis finally won the match, and she smiled and celebrated with the crowd like she had just won the tournament.
Her press conference was adorable. She talked about twitter and hashtags, and dismissed the notion that she liked Justin Bieber -- she had when she was younger, but she'd grown out of that. Her dad sat in the back filming with a camcorder as she talked about how excited she was and rattled off a long list of ways her game could improve -- starting, perhaps most crucially, with the serve.
She was born in 1999 -- it was a fun (and slightly depressing) game to play, figuring out the staples in our lives that were older than Bellis. (The Williams' Sisters pro careers, for one!) It's hard to get the masses to agree on anything during the first week of a Slam, but we could all agree that no matter what we were doing when we were 15 years old, it didn't hold a candle to what Bellis had just done.
But then, as these things tend to do, things got a bit out of hand.
Bellis was the lead story on all of the major news stations, sports or not. She was, quite literally, front-page news. When the schedule was released for Thursday, The New York Times wrote a guide to watching her match on Court 17. People weren't just talking about her win on Tuesday, they were talking about her future, openly calling her the Next Big Thing tennis and counting her major titles as if they were a sure thing.
It was hype to the highest degree, and as fun as it may be for us outsider to get caught up in, it's a very dangerous thing for Bellis.
We've seen hype destroy players before, or at the very least derail them. The prime example is Melanie Oudin, who had an improbable run to the quarterfinals of the 2009 U.S. Open when she was only 17, taking out Elena Dementieva and Maria Sharapova along the way. People called her the successor to the Williams throne and turned her into a media sensation. She was everywhere, and expected to be everything for American tennis all at once.
Oudin has struggled mightily since, failing to even make it past the second round of a major since. She's currently ranked No. 134 and lost in the qualifying rounds of this year's U.S. Open. At 22 years old, she's already been pegged a has-been and a let-down, even though it's entirely possible that her career is just beginning.
More recently, Sloane Stephens became the poster girl for the next generation of American tennis when she beat an injured Serena Williams to make it to the semis of the 2013 Australian Open. She was just 19 at the time, and was instantly portrayed to be a contender at Slams even though she'd never even made a final of any kind on the WTA Tour.
Watching Stephens over the 18 months, it's clear that the immense expectations and pressure that followed her breakthrough have been more suffocating than supportive. Instead of getting to go through her growing pains on tour in relative anonymity, every single one of her losses becomes a big headline, and she's not mature enough to deal with that yet. It's been painful to watch her hit the wall over and over again in the tournaments since.
Oudin and Stephens became lost in the hype, and they were slightly older than Bellis and were legitimate pros on the WTA Tour who actually had deep runs into the second week of Slams and beat legends of the game in the process. Their runs were surprises, but they didn't come from nowhere.
Bellis, however, is still an amateur and this was her first main draw of any Grand Slam. Plus, although Cibulkova started off the year well with a marvelous run to the final in Australia, she was far from that form in Flushing. The Slovakian has been in a deep slump dating back to April and came into the U.S. Open on a three-match losing streak.
As much fun as Bellis' story was to watch this week, at the end of the day it was only one victory on the pro level. That's not a steady foundation for lofty expectations.
On Thursday, Bellis and her legion of newfound supporters had to wait nearly eight hours to take the court for her second-round match against Diyas, the No. 48th-ranked player from Kazakhstan. There were moments of brilliance from the 15-year-old in the match, particularly a seven-game stretch spanning the second and third sets where she ran the table, but she was ultimately outclassed by her steadier opponent 6-3, 0-6, 6-2.
She will go on to play the junior tournament in New York next week, where she'll be favored for the win -- a very different situation. There will likely be a few talk-show appearances and studio interviews, and her junior matches will likely be more crowded than normal, but eventually she'll be overshadowed by more significant storylines.
This might just be the opening chapter of CiCi's tennis career, or it could be the highlight. We don't know that yet, nor are we supposed to. She's going to have to forge her own path.
But if by chance we never see her again on the big stages, which I don't think will be the case, we'll always remember that week in New York where she made us all feel very old while helping us open our minds and believe in the impossible, if only for a minute.
Even if that's the end of the story, it's still a great one. There's no need to make it out to be more than it is.