CHARLESTON, SC, USA - For Buffalo-born Jessica Pegula, the green clay courts of the Volvo Car Open are probably the closest thing she has to home turf.
After showing early tennis promise as a preteen, Pegula’s parents traded the Northeast for Hilton Head, South Carolina, where she developed her game just a car ride away from Charleston, the tournament where she has a long history.
Maybe it’s the good vibes of being back in her home away from home, or maybe it’s the feeling of finally being healthy again after long snake-bitten years of injuries and surgeries, but there’s something different about Pegula in 2019. It all clicked on Wednesday when the 25-year-old recorded the tournament’s first major upset over Anastasija Sevastova, the No.4 seed and a former US Open semifinalist, winning 6-4, 6-2.
For Pegula, the victory was more than just her career’s biggest-win-by ranking over the World No.12: it was a confirmation of the quality of tennis she knew she had in her, despite many setbacks.
“It’s weird because I just turned 25, and I don’t feel like I’m 25 because every time I did well when I was pretty young and I was about to break through, I would get hurt,” Pegula told press after the victory. “And then it kind of happened again, and then I got hurt and had another surgery.
“So to me, I feel like I’m still at that point of my career where I almost feel like I’m like 20, and I still have this talent. Doesn’t feel like I’m washed up or anything,” she laughed.
“I feel I’ve always had the skill and the talent, but it was like the health and getting quicker and fitter every single time. And that’s definitely the part that’s gotten way better, and it’s given me so much confidence.”
At a career-high ranking of World No.81, Jessica Pegula sat down for an exclusive interview with wtatennis.com to reflect on the way she’s come back even stronger after hip surgery, the sports biographies that got her through tough downtimes, and the lessons she’s learned from her family with an undeniable sports business pedigree.
1. Pegula started playing tennis at seven years old, and quickly caught the eye of a South Carolina tennis coach.
Although her father Terry Pegula is a big name in the world of sports business - he’s the owner of two New York sports teams, the Buffalo Bills and Buffalo Sabres - it was Jessica’s sister that sparked her interest in sports.
“My older sister played Division 1 college tennis, so I was kind of around it when I was younger,” she explained. “I took lessons after school when I was like six, or seven. And then I actually moved to Hilton Head, South Carolina because this coach from the Smith Stearns Tennis Academy, Billy Sterns used to come up north from Hilton Head and he thought I was really talented.
“So really the only reason I got into tennis was because my older sister played. It was like an after-school activity that I did for fun, and then I was pretty good at it so it was something I ended up sticking with.”
2. When Pegula finally cracked the Top 100 in January, it was a huge moment - even though her coach got ahead of himself in the celebrations.
After years of injury woes and near-misses, Pegula finally made her WTA Top 100 debut in January. The American reached back-to-back finals at the Newport 125K Challenger Series event - where she ran up against an in-form Bianca Andreescu in the final - and ITF 100K in Midland.
But due to a mixup with her points, Pegula and her coach Jesse Levine celebrated the breakthrough just a bit too early.
“It’s actually funny,” she explained, laughing. “When I made my semifinal in Newport, my coach was like, “Welcome to the Top 100!” But I don’t think I was Top 100 yet... because my points from Midland, because I won a round there the previous year, fell off. So I actually wasn’t Top 100 yet!
“And the next day I’m like, ‘Wait, I don’t think I’m Top 100 yet? I looked and like, I don’t think..’ And he was like, ‘Yeah, I think I messed it up.’
“So then it was like this joke when we went to Midland: I won a round and I was like, ‘Am I Top 100 yet?’ Won another round, ‘Am I Top 100 yet?’ Why would he tell me that if I wasn’t yet!” she laughed, feigning outrage at the memory. “Because now I had the thought in my mind. But I guess he didn’t realize the points had fallen off and all this stuff.”
3. The breakthrough was a long time coming, but for Pegula it felt like a natural rise.
It wasn’t the first time that Pegula was close to reaching the Top 100 - she had hovered around the Top 150 rankings for years - but this time around, the American felt mentally and physically ready to make the jump.
“I think I just realized that my game kind of went up a level,” she said. “And before it was always like, and with everyone it’s like this, but it was always a goal: get to Top 100, get to Top 100. To just reach that milestone.
“But I don’t know if it was because I was playing better, so I got more confident, but it didn’t seem like such a big deal to me. Which I think kind of helped.
“It’s like, “Okay, I belong here.” It was way less pressure. Before, maybe like a few years ago, when I had gotten pretty close, it was more of like a pressure situation - whereas this was more like, ‘Okay, I feel like this is where I’m supposed to be anyways.’”
4. Pegula got a big boost of confidence at the end of 2018, when she reached her first WTA final in Quebec City...
Ranked 227 in the world, Pegula tore through qualifying and powered into the first WTA-level final of her career - taking down Lauren Davis, Kristyna Pliskova, Ons Jabeur, Petra Martic and Sofia Kenin along the way.
“I was doing okay, you know, coming back from [hip surgery in August 2017],” she recalled. “I was doing alright at the beginning of the year, but once I hit the hardcourt season I kind of started to… I guess my matchplay started coming back to me. It kind of took a while, but I was winning tough matches, close matches, matches where I wasn’t playing that well, which started giving me confidence.
“So when I went into Quebec, I’ve always played well there too in the past so I felt really good. Actually, I think that it helped that I had to qualify and win a couple of matches there already. I kind of helped me, getting into the main draw and just get that momentum going.”
5. ...But because of a scheduling overlap, she had to manage the toughest part of the tournament without her coach.
Pegula reached the biggest final of her career, but for the latter half of the tournament she had to do it without her coach on site to guide her. Levine, a former Canadian tennis player, had to leave early for TV duties in Toronto - leaving Pegula on her own from the quarterfinals and on.
But she proved that she could handle herself just fine.
“I had one match where I was by myself, which was a big win for me,” she grinned. “It was a good thing actually, because it always helps the confidence when he’s not there and you still get the win. You’re like ‘Okay, I can do this, I don’t need him.’ It’s a good feeling.”
Although she had to navigate her quarterfinal against No.2 seed Martic on her own, edging to a 6-3 7-5 victory, she had a bit of help in the semifinal and final. Her now-fiance, Taylor Gahagen, signed on as her coach, and, with remote help from Levine, even did an on-court coaching break - despite having never played tennis before.
6. Pegula’s favorite tennis memory is still qualifying for the 2015 US Open and winning her first round match - but her most important moment happened off the court.
“That was such a big leap for me,” Pegula recalled her run through qualifying. “I remember my last round qualifying match… I played someone, and I came back and won. And for the final round of a qualifying, it made me feel really good because I was like, “Wow, I really pushed through that.”
“And I ended up playing really well in my first match, and then I lost to Cibulkova second round in a tough match.”
Pegula came crashing back down to earth in the weeks and months that followed, which saw her undergo surgeries to treat injuries in her knee and later in her hip.
“Coming back from my hip surgery was also a big milestone,” she said. “Like once I came back to like Top 100 after that, that was a big deal. I was like, okay I’ve went and had hip surgery, was out for a year and a half, and then I came back and within a year I beat my career-high ranking.”
7. Pegula’s frustrating, years-long struggle with injuries has often kept her from playing her best tennis - but it’s taught her an unexpected skill.
“I had knee surgery, I had hip surgery,” Pegula explained, smiling ruefully. “They weren’t like, that big of a deal, but they all came at really crappy times. They came right when I was like, 130 or 140 in the world. I would come off of a couple of months where I was playing really, really well and then I would start to get hurt. And that would then snowball into pain the rest of the year and then I ended up having surgery the following year and be out the whole year.
“I got really good at using my special ranking,” she joked. “Now I’m a pro at it. People ask me now like, “What did you do when you came back from injury? You did so well!”
“But no, it was really hard. Although honestly, I think it helped me. It sounds kind of corny, but it definitely makes you tougher. I’m so glad I was able to come back from all of that and still be better than I was before. That was a big accomplishment.”
8. While she was out recovering from her hip surgery, Pegula took inspiration from athletes like Maria Sharapova and Drew Brees.
“I think it was pretty cool how Maria came back and won the French after her shoulder surgery,” Pegula said. “I don’t think a lot of players have ever done that, have a surgery and won a Slam, beating top players. I thought that was really awesome.”
But the biggest inspiration for Pegula came from an unlikely place. A big fan of sports biographies, Pegula picked up 'Coming Back Stronger: Unleashing the Hidden Power of Adversity’, a book written by New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees.
“I’m not a Saints fan or anything, but I really admire him and I read his book,” she said. “I didn’t know that he had like, torn out his whole shoulder when he was a few years in and was still playing with the Chargers.
“And he ended up facing adversity because people didn’t want to sign him and all that, and he came back stronger. That was before he was even that good, no one really knew him.
“I thought that was pretty cool that he came back that way. Because I know how hard it is: it changes your mindset, your body is different, you know?”
9. In fact, Pegula’s love for sports biographies dates all the way back to her childhood.
Pegula counts Mary Pierce and Martina Hingis as her two biggest tennis idols, but she also admitted that she didn’t watch a lot of tennis growing up. Instead, Pegula’s mother nurtured her love of the sport through biographies of great tennis players.
“My mom did used to read me a lot of tennis biographies when I was really young,” Pegula said. “I would pick out a tennis player and she would read me their biography. I don’t really remember a lot of them, but it was a lot of different players.
“I honestly didn’t start watching tennis regularly until the last few years. I just never really paid attention, but now I watch a lot.”
10. Now that she’s back and finally healthy again, Pegula is enjoying a newfound love for the game.
“I feel so much more grateful to even be playing,” she reflected. “I mean, it was nice taking a break as well. We live such crazy lives and it was nice to be normal for a bit.
“But at the same time, you realize just how much you love playing and competing. You feel kind of empty. Like, you don’t even know what to do with your free time. You try doing other stuff, but it doesn’t really give you that same feeling.
“So you definitely feel more grateful when you come back and be able to do what you love, especially when you’re finally healthy again.”
11. Away from the tennis courts, Pegula is looking to carve her niche in the family business.
With parents in the business of sports, it was only natural that Pegula would venture out and start a business of her own. Ready24 is a skincare line developed by Pegula, which doubles as a way to stay busy off of the courts, too.
“It was just something I’ve always done and I got the opportunity to start something with a company that was going to help me,” she explained. “I feel like in a way it’s helped my tennis too. Because when I go away from the courts, it’s something else to focus on. And it kind of works your brain in a different way, so I actually feel like mentally it’s helped me, having something to do.”
But although her father is the owner of multiple sports teams, Pegula won’t be turning to him for business advice anytime soon.
“I feel like I’ve taught them more,” she joked. “I was like their first venture into professional sports, first time working with an athlete, and then they got into hockey and football. Now they’re like, ‘Gosh, having these football teams and hockey teams is like having 30 of you! It’s way worse!’
“It’s kind of funny but I feel like I’ve prepped them a little bit, like ‘This is how athletes really are,’: she laughed. “But no, now that I’m getting older, they see that I’m more mature and that I can start helping with the business and stuff. That’s what I want to do eventually.”