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Life Is Back To Being Crazy Good For Tennis Phenom CiCi Bellis

CiCi Bellis' success at the US Open not only brought a "zillion" interview requests, but it also leaked pressure into the tournaments that followed for the 15-year-old American. Chris Trotman/Getty Images for USTA

There was a moment among all the others during a wild 2014 and even wilder US Open when CiCi Bellis knew it had become, well, weird.

"Yeah, it was crazy," she said of the hoopla surrounding her first-round US Open victory, at age 15, over the Australian Open runner-up and 12th-seeded Dominika Cibulkova.

"One of my friends said when she came in [to New York] for juniors and qualifying, everyone at the airport asked if she knew who I was. It was crazy for my friends and for me, too."

Bellis is still 15, which should not be too hard to grasp since the US Open was just four months ago. But it seems she should have aged at least a year or two since then, that the experience alone would account for turning her from a kid not old enough to get her driver's license, to a seasoned vet of at least 16.

But she's not a pro yet, either, something her parents are somewhat relieved about. CiCi, though, appears to be more eager.

"Once I get to a certain ranking, I'll turn pro," said Bellis, who rang in 2015 as the No. 1 junior and ranked 254th in the world.

That magic number to turn pro is not concrete yet, the family agrees. And although the Northern Californian who follows her high school curriculum online admits Stanford is "my dream school if I did go to college," it's a complicated matter.

"Once upon a time we said if and when it comes around to college, if she is not in the top 200, what's the point [of turning pro and not going to school]?" said CiCi's father, Gordon. "I think we have kind of revised that. I think we have a number ranking, but it might change."

Also possibly hastening the decision, said Gordon, is the trend of so-called "lifetime scholarships," which a handful of schools -- including Miami, Maryland and North Carolina -- offer athletes as a way of returning to college to finish their degrees.

Either way, the youngest first-round winner at the US Open since Anna Kournikova in 1996, and youngest American winner since Mary Joe Fernandez in 1986, is on a roll.

After gaining a wild card into the Open by becoming the youngest USTA Girls' 18s national champion since Lindsay Davenport also won it at 15 in 1991, Bellis beat Cibulkova before bowing out to 48th-ranked Zarina Diyas 6-3, 0-6, 6-2.

From there, Bellis helped the U.S. to the Junior Fed Cup, won two consecutive $25,000 USTA Pro Circuit titles in October, and ended the year clinching the world junior No. 1 ranking with a quarterfinal victory at the Orange Bowl Junior Championships.

It is the second time in three years an American girl has clinched the top ranking after Taylor Townsend did it in 2012.

"It was definitely a weight lifted off [my] shoulders," Bellis said of the top ranking. "It was one of my goals at the start of the year to finish at No. 1, so to end like that, I was really happy."

Most importantly, said the family, a top-five finish assures Bellis of getting three additional wild cards into WTA tournaments (beyond the 12 events that would normally be allowed after she turns 16 on April 8).

Bellis will not, however, be in Melbourne this month for the Australian Open because her ranking is not high enough to make qualifying for the pro side. Instead, she is opting for two $25,000 pro tournaments in Florida.

More important for the long term, however, the strong finish to 2014 meant she was able to overcome a series of arm injuries that had plagued her over the previous 14 months, and get past her own self-imposed stress following New York.

"I was feeling a lot of pressure in the first couple of tournaments after the US Open," she said. "I felt I had to do well, but that was unrealistic. I'm 15, I shouldn't expect to win every tournament I played. I was definitely playing a little tight, but now I'm fine, back to normal."

Ironically, it was Bellis' ability to play with poise under pressure, and to appear unruffled throughout, that drew much of the attention to her at the Open, amazing observers like Fernandez.

"She's playing against the Australian Open finalist, an established, experienced player and the first set, she was whacking the ball and attacking serves like she'd been there before," Fernandez said. "And that's what you really look for in young players is that sense of calm and confidence at the same time. She wasn't in awe of the moment. She seemed to get more energized as the crowd got more into it."

While Bellis' mother, Lori, watched from her hotel room, too nervous to be at her matches, which drew long lines of fans waiting to get in and then ringing the court four and five rows deep, Gordon answered questions from the media while observing in amazement at the frenzy his teenager had created.

"She was accustomed to doing media interviews, some autographs, but not to the extent of what happened at the Open," he said. "After she won that first match, she got a zillion interview requests and we purposely turned them all down because, one, you just knew it was going to end badly and go to her head, and she still had to play a tournament. And it wasn't just gradual, it was a deluge.

"Definitely it would be enjoyable for any kid to have that, but sometimes if it's not handled correctly, it can ruin them. ... For lack of a better way of saying it, she had to move on and it was difficult to do. She's dealing with it a lot better now."

Bellis now calls it the best experience of her life and says it helped her at this stage of her career to have played before big crowds as well as a television audience.

By the time she got to the Fed Cup, spending three weeks with the team and coach Kathy Rinaldi -- herself the youngest player at the time to win a match at Wimbledon at 14 years, 91 days in 1981 -- Bellis appeared as relaxed as any 15-year-old should be.

"We spoke a little bit about it," Rinaldi said. "She got so much attention so quickly, but she got so much support from her parents and CiCi has such a great head on her shoulders, she was handling it well. You could tell how much she really loves tennis and loves to play. Practices were great and fun and she works hard. You looked forward to going out and working with her, and all those qualities are going to serve her well."

Leonardo Azevedo, a USTA coach who has worked regularly with Bellis for the past two years, does Rinaldi two steps better, saying Bellis "loves, loves, loves" the game and boasts that her confident and aggressive posture on the court is "not normal."

Azevedo attributes Bellis' second-round loss to Diyas at the Open as simply "running out of gas physically and mentally" and said he never saw Diyas play better.

As for Bellis, she is focusing forward though not likely to ever forget two days in New York she made the place her own.

"I didn't appreciate it as it was going on because I was so focused on playing," she said. "But afterward, once I realized how many people were watching, and all my friends from home and tennis friends who were supporting me, it was crazy to think how big it was."