The Washington Post

Pegula starts strong where it all began

2019 Citi Open title launched her on ascent to top ranking for U.S. woman

- BY PJ MORALES

Warming up before her first match as the top seed and defending champion at the 2022 Citi Open on Monday, Jessica Pegula, the highest-ranked American woman in profession­al tennis, looked the consummate pro — composed on the court and gregarious off it.

It all showed during her 6-2, 6-2 first-round victory over D.C.’S Hailey Baptiste. Though Baptiste, in her first match back since injuring her ankle at the French Open, pushed the world No. 7 hard in the beginning of each set, Pegula calmly demonstrat­ed her smooth serve, powerful return and longevity, picking Baptiste apart as the games got longer and the day got hotter.

“I put on a lot of pressure and elongated a lot of her service games, and I know from personal experience that it’s really tough to hold,” Pegula said. “It can definitely take a toll, physically and mentally, and as it got a little hot out there, I was able to move a little better.”

Three years ago, there was a different Pegula vying to contend in D.C. In 2019, the previous time the Citi Open held a WTA event, Pegula’s first and only WTA Tour singles win came at Rock Creek Park Tennis Center and helped define her burgeoning career.

That year looked to be a mixed bag for the Buffalo native. Her first entrance to the WTA top 100 led to a top-75 berth when she upset then-no. 12 Anastasija Sevastova at the Charleston Open, but those highs were soured by first-round exits at the French Open and Wimbledon — her first main-draw appearance­s at either Grand Slam.

And on the court, Pegula was dealing with an identity crisis. She recalled the criticisms she received back then — of appearing negative or as though “she didn’t want to be there” during matches — so she tried to counteract that by artificial­ly infusing fist pumps, wild maneuvers and other unnatural bursts of energy into her game.

By her own admission, she wasn’t playing how she wanted to.

“I would be too energetic or try to be too much, then I would be exhausted because I’d be wasting all this energy doing all this stuff,” Pegula said. “And naturally I’m not really like that.”

Pegula decided to take full control of her career. She hired a new coach, David Witt, who was fresh off a long stint coaching Venus Williams. She began planning her own training regimens and booking her own trainers. For a time, she was even her own agent, scheduling her travel and registerin­g herself in tournament­s.

In the midst of that process, Pegula had a realizatio­n — whether she was returning a serve or booking a flight to France, she was still Jessica Pegula.

“That [process] let me not think about who I am on court,” Pegula explained, “because now I was like, ‘Oh, I’m responsibl­e for my own career.’ And that’s, I think, how I always wanted it to be.”

The 2019 Citi Open was her first week and first tournament with Witt as her coach. During a routine practice leading up to the event, Witt said something that stuck with Pegula.

“There’s no reason you can’t win this tournament,” Witt told her.

With a fresh outlook on her career and a new coach in her corner, Pegula found out Witt was right — there was no reason she couldn’t claim her first WTA title. And with a straight-sets defeat of Camila Giorgi in the final, that’s exactly what she did.

During her trophy ceremony, her miniature Australian shepherd, Maddie, dashed onto the court and embraced her, creating an enduring image of the turn Pegula’s career was taking.

“It kind of changed starting that week, trying to get better every day but also being like, ‘ There’s no reason you can’t be at the top of the game,’ ” she reflected. “And now here we are, a few years later, and I’m at my highest ranking — top 10 in the world.”

It’s the renewed Pegula who arrived in D.C. this past weekend as the defending Citi Open champion — making three Grand Slam quarterfin­als in the past two years and reaching the apex of American tennis at the relatively senior playing age of 28. And though Pegula said her dog wouldn’t be making the trip to the capital, the changes of the past three years were on full display Monday.

Criticisms of her supposed negativity and nonchalanc­e have taken, in her experience, a complete 180.

“People come up to me, they’re like, ‘Oh, my gosh, you’re so calm and you’re so confident and you have such a great attitude about you,’ ” she said. “And I just laugh because it was so the opposite for so long and it was so frustratin­g to hear.”

And it showed on the court. In the face of a hostile crowd rooting for a hometown hero, Pegula never looked flustered or overwhelme­d against Baptiste but kept her form tight and her face measured. She only seemed to improve as the match wore on, using each long deuce and break point as a way to gain the advantage.

“It was tough [for Baptiste], coming back from injury,” said Frances Tiafoe, a Hyattsvill­e native and No. 27 in the ATP rankings, who was watching the match from the stands. “Pegula’s a great friend of mine, top 10 in the world, and is playing some of the best tennis of her life. It was always going to be a tough contest.”

Pegula issued only the lightest of fist pumps after each hard-won point, and only in victory did the world’s best American let a soft smile creep onto her face.

 ?? Katherine Frey/the Washington Post ?? Jessica Pegula won the previous WTA event in D.C. for her first tour title. She beat Hailey Baptiste on Monday in the first round.
Katherine Frey/the Washington Post Jessica Pegula won the previous WTA event in D.C. for her first tour title. She beat Hailey Baptiste on Monday in the first round.

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