CiCi Bellis relishing every moment at Australian Open after devastating setbacks

"I just feel lucky to be here," says CiCi Bellis, who is headed to the Australian Open third round. Bellis returned to tennis after a 20-month absence in November. AP Photo/Dita Alangkara

MELBOURNE, Australia -- It was clear with every point and every labored "Come on!" in the final games of the second set that CiCi Bellis could taste it. She was so close to advancing to the third round at the Australian Open. While she tried to remain composed with each tug of her ponytail, she couldn't mask just how desperately she wanted it.

Moments later, victory was hers. She defeated No. 20 seed Karolína Muchova 6-4, 6-4 in an hour and 23 minutes. When her opponent hit the ball long to end the match, Bellis screamed, "Yes!," as she jumped up with both feet in the air. The crowd of about 3,000 fans at 1573 Arena stood and cheered in admiration, including a group behind her waving an American flag. A contingent from the United States Tennis Association high-fived one another triumphantly. A fan yelled loudly for all to hear, "CiCi is back!"

And it seemed he was right. It wasn't just a win for Bellis, it was a hard-fought moment nearly two years in the making.

As a 15-year-old in 2014, Bellis earned a wild card into the main draw of the US Open and became the youngest player to win a match in Queens since Anna Kournikova in 1996 (and the youngest American since Mary Joe Fernandez in 1986) with an upset over No. 12 seed Dominika Cibulkova. She reached the third round at the event in 2016, as well as at the French Open the following year. She was named the WTA's Newcomer of the Year in 2017, and she was ranked as high as No. 35 in the world.

While Coco Gauff is tennis' latest teenage sensation, she's certainly not the first. Women's tennis has a long and legendary list of young players who have charmed fans and taken down much older opponents with their precocious talent and wide-eyed innocence before graduating from high school.

But for every success story, there's another player who never quite lived up to the hype following early success. For a time it seemed Bellis might fall into that latter category. Plagued with wrist and elbow injuries, Bellis missed most of the 2018 and 2019 seasons as she underwent multiple surgeries and struggled to be without pain.

It was two years of what almost felt like a never-ending cycle of devastating news, invasive procedures that made her so nervous she would become physically ill and tough recoveries. One such surgery involved the breaking of her arm to cut and shorten her ulna and put in a metal plate.

"I didn't want to do it," she said Thursday night after her second-round victory. "My mom and I were actually on the phone with the doctor at that point [when she first heard what it would entail], and he was telling us about it and we were looking at each other and laughing because we had never heard of something so barbaric in our entire lives. He was telling us, 'We're going to break your arm in half, shorten it, then put a plate in, and then we'll have to remove the plate because your arm isn't going to be able to handle it because your arm is too small.'"

As terrifying as it sounded, Bellis did it in hopes she could one day return to the court. She was fueled by her love of the game, but she also started online college coursework through the WTA's partnership with Indiana East University because she knew there was a chance she may never come back to the tour. Finally over the summer, after working incessantly with the USTA's medical staff, Bellis felt like she was moving in the right direction, save for a small pain in her arm.

That small pain resulted in perhaps the worst news of all in October. A doctor told her she would never be able to play again and referenced Tommy John surgery, a procedure often used on baseball pitchers. Bellis was determined to get another opinion. She did, and she was relieved to find multiple doctors who disagreed with the assessment.

Bellis returned to the court after a 20-month absence in November at the Oracle Challenger Series in Houston. She made it to the Round of 16 and was granted a wild card for the Australian Open.

Bellis still isn't even quite sure what the final diagnosis was, but right now she doesn't care. She is finally feeling healthy and pain-free and is loving every opportunity she gets to spend on the court. Her first-round 6-0, 6-2 win over Tatjana Maria felt like a proclamation of her return.

Now 20, but having lived the trials and tribulations of a far-more seasoned veteran, Bellis is ranked No. 600 in the world. She looks to make a significant rise in the post-tournament edition of the rankings. She will next face Elise Mertens, the No. 16 seed. Bellis won their previous singles match 6-3, 6-3 in Dubai in 2018. The two squared off in doubles on Thursday night, and Bellis and her partner Marketa Vondrousova lost 3-6, 6-3, 6-3 against Mertens and Aryna Sabalenka.

Bellis praised Mertens' serve and groundstrokes after their doubles outing and predicted a good match on Saturday. A win would result in her first fourth-round appearance at a Grand Slam. One would have to imagine it would be more special because of what she has overcome.

"I think a year ago at this time I didn't know if I was going to play again, so just being here is so special to me, let alone winning," she said. "I just feel lucky to be here."

Not to mention, heading home sooner rather than later wouldn't be all bad for the lifelong San Francisco 49ers fan.

"If I'm not still here, hopefully I'll be going to the Super Bowl," she said with a genuine laugh. "Either way I'll be happy."