Jessica Pegula Is Still in the Hunt for her First Major Title

by Pelican Press
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Jessica Pegula strode into Wimbledon’s cavernous interview room, bucket hat perched on her head, and stared at the empty room. When she realized that there were no media members there to ask her about her second-round win over Cristina Bucsa, Pegula chuckled, got up and walked out.

Pegula is never entirely shocked when attention is diverted away from her. Though ranked No. 3 in the world, the highest among American women, and the champion at the Canadian Open two weeks ago, Pegula, 29, has never advanced to the semifinals in singles at a Grand Slam tournament. She is 0-6 in quarterfinal appearances at the majors, including at this year’s Australian Open and Wimbledon. The United States Open, where she lost to Iga Swiatek in a tight two-setter last year, is her final chance this season.

At 5-foot-7, Pegula doesn’t have a thunderous serve, like Aryna Sabalenka. And she doesn’t possess flashy movements like the No. 1 Swiatek. Pegula can also flutter emotionally, as when she let a 4-1 lead slip in the third set against the eventual Wimbledon champion Marketa Vondrousova. Instead, it is her consistency that sets her apart.

“Her ball-striking is really, really good,” said David Witt, her coach since 2019. “If I were to think of a player who hits this clean it would be [former No. 1] Lindsay Davenport.”

Pegula’s game is durable and reliable. She has a wide wingspan and hits with tremendous power off the forehand and backhand. Because of her doubles success with Coco Gauff, she has become a more-than-competent volleyer.

She also studiously avoids the histrionics that many of her compatriots get entangled in.

“I’m pretty chill, pretty laid-back,” said Pegula in an interview during Wimbledon in July. “It takes a lot to get me going emotionally, excited or upset. Maybe that’s good for the U.S. Open, because I’m able to stay well-balanced.”

For Pegula, the Open is a mixed bag. A Buffalo native (her parents own the Buffalo Bills of the N.F.L. and the Buffalo Sabres of the National Hockey League), she likes the fan support in New York but struggles with the mayhem.

“I feel like the Open is really hot and crowded,” said Pegula, who failed to qualify four times at the Open before reaching the third round in 2020. “Everything is kind of against you. There’s so much going on. You’re usually really hyped up, and it’s kind of like you’re running on fumes. There’s just so much energy, and it can be really fun, but it can also zap a lot out of you. It’s something you have to learn how to balance.”

Balance is particularly important for Pegula, who weathered career-threatening knee and hip injuries that kept her out of the U.S. Open a decade ago, and then she faced the emotional turmoil of her mother’s heart attack last June.

Jimmy Arias, a former top five player who has worked with Pegula, once tried to impress upon her that there were two types of competitors: a lion and a rat. Pegula, with her fearsome ground strokes, has long been a lion. What she needed to adopt was the rat part.

“In a nuclear explosion, a rat is the only animal to survive,” Arias said. “J.P. had the weapons of a lion, but she needed the mentality of the rat. She had to learn how to dig, claw and scratch her way out. Now, when she’s in trouble, she can find her way out of a point.”

Pegula understands that; it’s just the execution that can be tricky.

“I’m doing everything to put myself in a good position,” she said. “It’s just a little more belief in myself in the later stages of tournaments and being more aggressive in the bigger moments.”

And if she doesn’t break through and win a major, will she feel unfulfilled?

“If I had to stop tomorrow, I think I’d be pretty satisfied,” she said. “I got to have this amazing career, proved a lot to myself and to a lot of other people. Obviously, there’s more that I want to do, but I’ve gotten through the really tough parts and a lot of really big lows. To come out of that has been a win in itself.”

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