After winning her second career singles title a week ago, the American player with world-class timing on the court has found herself the world No. 3.
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The tennis partnership between Jessica Pegula and David Witt got off to a roaring start. Only a few days after their first practice session, Pegula arrived in Washington, D.C., for the Citi Open with Witt, her new coach, and went on to win her first WTA singles title.
That was in 2019, when Pegula was ranked No. 79 and still learning to trust her body and talent after major knee and hip injuries.
“In the beginning, it was more me pounding it into her head that she’s really good,” Witt said. “And that she can beat these people and that there’s nobody better and whether they are top 10 or 20, it doesn’t matter.”
Three years later, Pegula is a genuine member of the tennis elite: at No. 3 in the world in singles a week after winning her second career singles title in Guadalajara, Mexico, and beating four former Grand Slam singles champions along the way.
The top-ranked American, Pegula is one of the headliners of the WTA Finals — the year-end championships of the women’s tour, reserved for the top eight players — beginning Monday in Fort Worth. It will be her first appearance in the exclusive event, and that has extra resonance for Pegula because it comes at the relatively advanced tennis age of 28.
“Of course, I would have liked success younger, but I don’t know if it would have panned out the same,” she said in a recent interview. “I don’t think it would have. So, I’m particularly appreciative of it now. If I didn’t go through all the stuff I went through, I don’t think I would have developed the kind of strength that I think I used to help me do well now.”
Pegula comes from an overachieving family. Her parents are Terry and Kim Pegula, the billionaire owners of the N.F.L.’s Buffalo Bills and N.H.L.’s Buffalo Sabres. Terry Pegula made a fortune in natural gas and real estate and married Kim, who was born in South Korea but abandoned by her biological parents and later adopted at age 5 by a family in the United States.
“I think my mom was left on police station steps,” Jessica Pegula said. “It’s a crazy story. It could be like a movie.”
Kim has been facing significant health issues since the summer, which the Pegulas have acknowledged publicly without providing details. Jessica, tearing up, dedicated her victory in Guadalajara to her mother.
“My mom always kind of joked I was the first sports team as far as helping me with my tennis career growing up,” Pegula told reporters in Guadalajara. “I definitely wanted to dedicate it to her. She’s had a really tough year. I know she was watching.”
Pegula plans on giving her mother plenty more tennis to watch in the next two weeks. After the WTA Finals, she will travel to Glasgow to lead the United States in the finals of the Billie Jean King Cup team event.
It will be a grueling finish to a busy season, one that No. 1 Iga Swiatek will not attempt. Swiatek declined to play in the King Cup finals for Poland, explaining that the tight, intercontinental turnaround put her at risk of an injury.
Pegula agrees that the scheduling is far from ideal. She wants the team experience she missed last year when she had to withdraw from the King Cup finals; she tested positive for the coronavirus shortly after her wedding to Taylor Gahagen in October and had to spend what she called “a Covid honeymoon” at home in Boca Raton, Fla.
“I definitely want to go,” she said of Glasgow. “I think it’s a good problem to have if I’m in the finals of both. So, it’ll be a tough turnaround, but it’s a tough two weeks and then I’m done. It’s like a reward.”
Pegula’s best season has been about juggling it all: newfound success, newlywed life, her skin-care business and a spot on the WTA player council in the midst of a politically and financially fraught time for the tour.
She is eager to develop skills that could translate into a role with her family’s sports franchises after her tennis career is finished. She said she has learned to feel at home outside her comfort zone.
“Player council, I was really nervous,” she said. “I didn’t know if I knew enough, but I felt that if I was afraid to do it, then I should probably do it. I like to put myself out there and learn through different experiences. At one point, I’m probably going to have to say no, but I like saying yes, and my mom always told me to say yes and to do a lot of things and put yourself in different situations too.”
Her agenda will be packed again this week. Pegula has qualified in singles and in doubles with Coco Gauff, her 18-year-old compatriot. Pegula and Gauff, who is ranked No. 4 in singles, are the only competitors playing both events in Fort Worth.
Pegula and Gauff each extol the benefits of playing both events regularly on tour for fine-tuning their games and lifting some of the pressure from the singles result. They have teamed up to win three doubles titles in 2022, also reaching the French Open final.
Asked for one word that summed up her partner, Gauff thought for a while before settling on “resilient.”
That rings true despite Pegula’s privileged upbringing, which alleviated concerns about the training and traveling costs that pose obstacles for many other tennis talents.
“It doesn’t matter how much money you have,” Witt said. “It’s something inside that drives you to want to win. A lot of people probably say, she doesn’t have to play tennis, but what would somebody do to satisfy that competitiveness if they didn’t play a sport or challenge themselves with something? I’m sure there’s a lot of people out there that would have never thought in a million years that Jessica would be top 10 or top five. But they don’t know her as a person. They don’t know how hard she works.”
Witt, a 6-foot-3 former touring pro from Florida who had a huge serve and forehand, struggled to duplicate his junior success on the main circuit. But he has now proved himself twice as a top-drawer coach, working with Venus Williams, first as a hitting partner and then as a coach, for 11 years before they split at the end of the 2018 season.
Pegula and Witt clicked from the start; they have become regular golfing partners and often travel without any other support team members.
“Dave’s very calm, laid back a little bit, but at the same time super competitive,” Pegula said. “He’s a good fit for me because I’m kind of similar. Not a lot of things get me fired up or revved up, but I’m also very competitive. A lot of times growing up, I didn’t really know how to balance that. It was like, ‘You need to show more emotion.’ But that’s not me.”
Pegula is not an explosive, acrobatic mover like Gauff or Swiatek; she’s not a flashy shotmaker like No. 2 Ons Jabeur. But Pegula is a clean hitter with world-class timing and plenty of pop in her groundstrokes and improved serve. Unlike some baseline bashers, she also has a Plan B and C and is ever more comfortable at net. In Witt’s view, her even-keel approach (with the exception of the occasional thrown racket) allows her to channel her energy effectively during matches.
Her progress with Witt has been steady and increasingly heady. She was ranked No. 62 at the end of 2020 and No. 18 at the end of 2021 after reaching her first major quarterfinal that year at the Australian Open. She is now within range of the No. 2 ranking after reaching three more Grand Slam quarterfinals in 2022, losing to the eventual champion in all three — including another loss to Swiatek at the U.S. Open in September, after which she sipped a beer in a downbeat post-match news conference.
Pegula now expects more. The thought of winning a major singles title still makes her uncomfortable, but that seems all the more reason to increase the pace of the chase. Stagnation, as Novak Djokovic once said, is regression.
“Exactly,” Pegula said. “That’s perfect.”
Jessica Pegula Is Peaking Just in Time for the WTA Finals – The New York Times