A month before Catherine "CiCi" Bellis' return to professional tennis at last week's 125K Oracle Challenger Series in Houston, Texas, a doctor told the 20-year-told American she would never play pro tennis again. A pronouncement like that might rock most athletes to their core, but given what Bellis has gone through over the last 20 months of a recurring surgery-recovery-rehab cycle, the young American didn't flinch.
"I got an MRI and then three separate other doctors said that I was gonna be fine," Bellis told WTA Insider by phone from Houston. "So I took that and ran with it. I'm fine right now and I'm feeling really good. I don't have any pain anywhere.
"So right after that appointment that I had, my team and I decided we were going to try and make a tournament this year. Just to get to a tournament was the main goal and try and get through a match. So about a month ago was when we decided we were going to try and get here."
Bellis' Houston return proved a booming success. Into qualifying to play her first competitive pro match since the 2018 Miami Open, an unranked Bellis defeated No.304 Alexa Glatch to earn a spot in the main draw and proceeded to make her way to the quarterfinals. En route, Bellis defeated No.238 Ellen Perez and No.167 Varvara Lepchenko, before bowing out to eventual champion Kirsten Flipkens.
"It's been incredible coming back this week and just being at a tournament," Bellis said. "Being able to compete again has been definitely one of the best moments of the last year for me. I've just been so excited each match, even the warmup for each match, being prepared beforehand has been so fun to be able to do that again.
"I've been doing everything. I've been trying to, especially in the last few weeks, play as many sets and practice matches as I can to try and replicate a tournament, but it's never fully the same as a tournament.
"When I got here I was so sore after my first match and emotions and nerves and everything else that's involved in tournaments that you can't really replicate in practice. But I tried to do the best that I could to make it as much like a match as I could.
"I think it's definitely going to take me a few tournaments to really shake off all the rust."
Bellis's long road back from a debilitating right arm and elbow injury has been fraught and put a sudden halt to a phenomenal young career that was consistently building momentum. The former junior No.1 made her splash on the tour-level by defeating No.12 seed Dominika Cibulkova in a dramatic 6-1, 4-6, 6-4 victory at the 2014 US Open. Bellis was just 15-years-old and playing her first tour-level main draw match, and the lithe youngster captured the imagination of a tennis community searching for the next teenage talent.
The names on Bellis' win list over the next three years were notable. En route to her first WTA quarterfinal in 2016, at her home tournament in Stanford, California, she defeated Jelena Ostapenko. She finished that year on a 14-match win-streak through the ITF Circuit, a run that included a win over Bianca Andreescu in the final of $50K in Canada.
A few months later, Bellis would earn the best result of her career, a quarterfinal at the 2017 Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships, then a Premier 5, where she defeated Agnieszka Radwanska along the way. That summer she would make her first Premier semifinal after bageling Petra Kvitova in Stanford.
In the last event Bellis played before feeling arm pain in 2018, she advanced to the quarterfinals of the Qatar Total Open, defeating Daria Kasatkina, Madison Keys, and Karolina Pliskova before losing to Simona Halep.
A week later in Dubai, Bellis began to complain of right arm pain, which only worsened as she played through the Sunshine Double. Bellis rested her arm for a month, flew to Rome with the intention to play, but withdrew when the pain flared up during practice.
By July, the pain did not go away and Bellis was initially diagnosed with torn tendons in the right wrist caused by an elongated ulna. She underwent surgery to repair the tendons that month and then another in September to remove bone spurs in her elbow. In November she underwent a second wrist surgery to cut and shorten the length of her ulna and insert a metal plate. Then came a third surgery earlier this year in March, this time to remove the plate after doctors found it to be irritating Bellis' arm, causing pain and swelling.
"I started taking college classes online with Indiana University East through the WTA," Bellis said. "I'm a business major. I completed a full year of my freshman year of college, which has been great and I'm still doing that right now. That's been one of the main things I've been doing.
"I've been doing a lot of fitness when I couldn't play tennis. After each surgery that I had, I thought I was going to be OK. So I rehabbed it, got back to tennis, did progressions, and then ended up having a setback. I was pretty much in full swing after each surgery that I had before I had a setback.
"So it's kind of annoying. I couldn't really do anything that was so far away from tennis because I was so close each time. But it was nice to have school on the side for sure."
After an encouraging week in Houston, Bellis is looking ahead to properly starting the 2020 season in Australia.
"I don't know exactly which tournaments I'm going to play yet, but definitely going to start there," Bellis said. "We haven't really decided after that. I think it's going to be a lot based on how I'm doing, how I'm feeling, and we're just going to go, day by day, week by week, for sure."
As Bellis has buried herself in her studies over the last 20 months, she has seen her cadre of young peers elbow their way to the top of the tour. Her best friend, Marketa Vondrousova made the Roland Garros final, becoming the youngest major finalist since Maria Sharapova in 2004. Naomi Osaka, 21, and Andreescu, 19, are now reigning major champions, with Osaka a former No.1.
With the surge of youth on tour, it's easy to forget that Bellis carried the torch for years as the youngest member of the Top 100, peaking at No.35 in 2017. There's no jealousy or envy from they easy-going Californian, who was happily waving pom-poms from the sideline.
"I thought it was great," Bellis said. "Obviously, I couldn't do anything about playing or anything. So I was really happy for Marketa and I cheering her all along the whole way, for sure. We've been talking a couple of times a week at least, almost every day since I've been out. We're still planning on playing doubles next year which will be really fun.
"I think I'm a lot more mature on court now and I feel like my game has changed in a few ways for the better. Definitely a lot more patient in situations, I don't get as stressed out as I may have before.
"Obviously I have confidence in my results from before, but I think I'm a totally different person now. I've had so much happen to me in the last couple of years and I feel like I have a totally new and fresh perspective on tennis. It's definitely different.
"I'm just extremely happy and I feel so blessed that I'm able to play tennis at this point. I'm just enjoying every second. Not that I didn't before, but even more now. Just really happy at all times, for sure."
"I definitely take confidence in my past results still, but I'm ready to start fresh."