There was one especially understanding observer to the two-day CiCi Bellis sensation at the U.S. Open tennis tournament. Pam Shriver had been there, done that.
Certainly, when 15-year-old Bellis of Atherton, Calif., lost in three sets Thursday night to Zarina Diyas of Kazakhstan, 6-3, 0-6, 6-2, Shriver was watching somewhere, feeling empathy.
It was 1978. Shriver had just turned 16 — “I was a Fourth-of-July baby” — and was about to make the kind of run in the U.S. Open that shows the upheaval here and in the media over Bellis’ first-round victory to be both shallow and overdone.
Hours before Bellis was to take the court Thursday, Shriver articulated the positives in Bellis’ game.
“She’s a really good young player,” she said. “She attacks and has great energy.”
Shriver also added perspective.
“It will be exceptional if she makes a big run here,” Shriver said, speaking as if she hoped she would and knew she probably wouldn’t.
“It’s a different time now, a different kind of media,” she said. “Everything is just bigger.”
Shriver, 52, is part of that media. She is a broadcaster for ESPN. She has kids and lives in a world of iPhones, instant gratification and everything needing to happen right now. She understands why Bellis became an overnight sensation. She also understands the good and the danger in that.
Shriver came to the U.S. Open as an amateur, still a high school student, weighing the prospects of pro tennis or Stanford University. She was 6 feet tall, played with an oversized Prince racket and served and volleyed with it.
“That struck a lot of people as strange,” she said. “It was supposed to be a racket for older people.”
She had played in enough tournaments leading into the U.S. Open to actually be seeded.
“They only seeded 16 then, and I was No. 16,” she said.
Still, she was far from a known quantity and her big game attracted immediate attention. But by the time she got to the semifinals, and beat Martina Navratilova, there was as much sensation as possible in a world before thumb-typing and Twitter.
“It still wasn’t as big as it would be now,” she said. “This was the age of teenage girls, making big moves in tennis. Chris Evert did it. And Tracy Austin.”
Still, when 16-year-old Shriver rode the train from Baltimore and started running through the draw, it was a big deal. Her coach, Dan Candy, kept things low-key.
She stayed in a midtown hotel, took the subway’s No. 7 train that goes to Flushing Meadows, as it still does. No limos, no official escorts. Just the subway with everybody else.
“I don’t remember any offer of transportation from the tournament at all,” she said.
Her mother, Margot, got nervous during her matches and usually spent the time doing needlepoint. Her dad, Sam, watched from the highest corner of then-center court, Louis Armstrong Stadium.
“I remember [famed tennis writer] Bud Collins climbing all the way up there to talk to him,” Shriver said.
When she lost to Evert in the final, she was given an immediate mandate by her parents. Get home and get to school. The next day, that’s where she was.
Her high school called an assembly to honor her, and on the way into school, a reporter from the National Enquirer stopped her and asked her whether she knew where Pam Shriver was. She said she was Pam Shriver and talked to the reporter for a couple of minutes. That got her in trouble with her parents.
“The family had agreed to get things back to normal. No talking to reporters,” Shriver said. “My mother threw a couple of them from People magazine off the front porch.”
Eventually, she decided to turn pro, rather than go to Stanford. Things calmed down.
“I went to take my driver’s test,” she said, “and I flunked it when I couldn’t parallel park.
“That was my worst loss of the summer.”
That summer of 1978 was the closest she ever came to a Grand Slam singles title. She got to six more major semifinals, and had a Hall of Fame career that included 21 Grand Slam doubles titles (20 in women’s, one in mixed), most of them with Navratilova. She ranked in the top five in singles most of her career and won 21 tour singles titles.
Yet her toughest year of all was the year after her 1978 U.S. Open run.
“It was such a burden,” she said.
So she watches with interest and concern as Bellis begins to spend her teenage years in tennis’ bright spotlight.
In her three-set loss Thursday night, Bellis showed both talent and maturity.
She was properly grateful and happy in her on-court, post-match interview, as ESPN did its usual ugly American thing and bypassed the winner to get to the American first.
Her dad watched quietly from the seats in packed Court 17. Like Margot Shriver, Bellis’ mother is too nervous to watch in person. Bellis is home-schooled and lives in an upscale Atherton neighborhood, with a swimming pool and tennis court in the backyard.
At her news conference, she was typically, and refreshingly, a teenager. She said she was surprised she could play with these pros, that she was excited to stay around and play in the juniors. And when told people had started to line up to get a seat on the court for her match starting at 10 a.m., she said, “That’s crazy. It’s an honor to have people doing that for me.”
She also was asked about being the future of American tennis.
Shriver would have answered that easily: “Whoa, slow down there.”