MELBOURNE – The worst part might have been the telephone conversation — CiCi Bellis and her mother on one end of the line, a doctor on the other — to go over the plan for one in a series of operations to rebuild the 20-year-old American tennis player's right arm.
“We were just looking at each other. We were laughing. We had never heard of anything so barbaric, like in our entire lives," Bellis recalled Thursday. “He was literally on the phone, telling us: ‘We’re going to break your arm in half, shorten it, then put a plate in. And then you're going to have to remove the plate, because your arm's not going to be able to handle it, because your arm's too small."
Bellis told this story with a smile at the Australian Open — and why not?
Four surgical procedures and two years have come and gone since she was last healthy enough to participate in a Grand Slam tournament. And now she is into the third round at Melbourne Park after beating No. 20 Karolina Muchova of the Czech Republic 6-4, 6-4.
“I was so scared before each surgery,” Bellis said, “I got physically sick, because I was so nervous."
As recently as October, she was told by one doctor that she needed Tommy John surgery, like so many major league pitchers with torn elbow ligaments.
That would have been a career-ender.
“I was like, ‘Oh, my God. This is too much,’" she said.
A second opinion ruled that out, though. Turns out there was just some swelling. And right now, Bellis doesn't feel any pain at all.
She'll face No. 16 seed Elise Mertens of Belgium on Saturday for a spot in the fourth round.
It's been quite a journey already.
Bellis was something of a teen prodigy. In her very first tour-level match, at age 15 at the 2014 U.S. Open, she stunned 12th-seeded Dominika Cibulkova, an Australian Open runner-up, to become the youngest American to win a match at Flushing Meadows in 28 years.
She reached No. 35 in the rankings at 17, when she won WTA Newcomer of the Year honors. Then came the series of health problems, including three torn tendons in her wrist and bone spurs in her elbow. Plus, the breaking of the bone and the insertion, then removal, of a plate. All the time away from the tour has the Californian at No. 600 in the rankings currently, but she was able to get into the draw in Australia via the protected ranking rule.
“A year ago at this time, I didn't know if I was going to play again,” Bellis said.
On Thursday, she was out there on a Grand Slam court, playing in singles and doubles.
“It's been a really long time,” she said. “Just being back here is a blessing — let alone winning.”
U.S. Open runner-up Daniil Medvedev found himself seated in the nosebleed section at Margaret Court Arena, even though he was playing his second-round match there.
That's because the No. 4-seeded Russian found himself dealing with something he said happens to him a couple of times each year: a nosebleed.
Medvedev blotted his nose with a towel and then was treated by a trainer while his 7-5, 6-1, 6-3 over Spanish qualifier Pedro Martinez was delayed for more than five minutes late in the second set.
"Can happen to me sometimes. Doesn't usually happen during the match, so I had to stop (playing). Usually takes like four minutes -- three, four minutes. ... But it's nothing," Medvedev said.
But he also recalled where it happened to him in 2019 -- at the Australian Open.
Former top-10 player Ernests Gulbis is now ranked outside the top 250 after a series of injuries and no longer has a shoe contract, which led to a bit of an issue at the Australian Open: He ran out of footwear.
"I buy my own shoes now," he said. "I came here with one pair and I had to buy two pairs of shoes here. I thought that in Melbourne, during the Australian Open, it's going to be no problem at all."
The 31-year-old Latvian, a French Open semifinalist in 2014, started calling around, checking in with stores in Melbourne to find some that would be suitable replacements. The problem he ran into was finding the proper size, 11½ in the U.S.
It took seven attempts, but eventually Gulbis found what he was looking for.
He's won five straight matches -- three in qualifying, two in the main draw -- over the past two weeks, including 7-5, 6-3, 6-2 over Aljaz Bedene on Thursday. That sets up what could be an entertaining matchup Saturday against 10th-seeded Gael Monfils, who eliminated Ivo Karlovic 4-6, 7-6 (8), 6-4, 7-5.
This is a Grand Slam tournament where Gulbis never before made it past the second round; indeed, he had a 2-9 record at the Australian Open until now.
Gotta be the shoes.
"This one already has holes," he said about what he was wearing Thursday, "so I need to buy some more."
CLIMBING THE HEIGHTS
Garbiñe Muguruza has scaled the heights of tennis -- two Grand Slam titles; the No. 1 ranking -- and now she's trying to work her way back to that sort of lofty status. In the meantime, she also scaled the heights of Mount Kilimanjaro.
Muguruza spoke after edging Ajla Tomljanovic 6-3, 3-6, 6-3 in the second round of the Australian Open about an offseason trek to Africa's highest peak during a five-day climb in November.
"You don't get any award, any prize, any photo, any nothing up there," Muruguza said. "It's really challenging you, physically and mentally, to be there, and I was just looking for something fun, a different experience outside from tennis."
She described enjoying the sensation of being "in the middle of nowhere and just having one clear thought: just to keep climbing."
Muguruza became the first woman to beat each Williams sister in a Grand Slam final, defeating Serena for the title at the French Open in 2016, and Venus at Wimbledon the next year.
But she finished last season at 36th in the rankings and this Australian Open is her first major tournament without a seeding in a half-dozen years.
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