CANCUN, Mexico -- After posting her second Top 5 win of the week at the GNP Seguros WTA Finals Cancun, Jessica Pegula was asked whether she knew how many professional tennis matches she's played this season.
She was stumped.
"One hundred thirty-one," the reporter informed her, across singles, doubles and mixed doubles. It's the most of any player on tour this season.
Pegula's jaw dropped.
"Oh my God," Pegula said. "What's wrong with me? Like seriously. That's ... psychotic."
Since then, Pegula has added two more matches to her tally -- one singles and one doubles -- taking it to 133. Her win against World No.1 Aryna Sabalenka in the second round of group play in Cancun was her 100th match win of the season. Her 6-3, 6-2 win over No.9 Maria Sakkari on a wet and windy Thursday night was her 101st.
"I just take the confidence in the fact that I've like competed really well and finished the year really strong
already in my mind," Pegula said, "beaten three really tough players and switched the narrative from my last year run.
With that, the 29-year-old American completed her WTA Finals rebound. After going 0-3 in singles in Fort Worth last year, she went undefeated in a brutal group that also included Elena Rybakina. As a result, Pegula will advance to Saturday's semifinals of the season-ending championship for the first time in her career. She's the first American to reach the final four since 2018 when Sloane Stephens made the final in Singapore.
Pegula's heavy match load isn't part of some Machiavellian plan -- based on her reaction, it just kinda, sorta happened. But there is a method to the madness.
Pegula did not break the Top 100 until 2019. That year, at 25, Pegula won her first title at any level, in Washington D.C. For the next four years, Pegula would forge herself into a seemingly unflappable competitor. And gain the respect of her peers along the way.
She moves quietly, hits powerfully and, as she said this summer, wins "a crap-ton of matches". Pegula's 6-4, 6-3 win over Sabalenka was her third win over a World No.1. She kicked off her season at the United Cup, where, with the help of a straight-sets win over then-No.1 Iga Swiatek, she led Team USA to the title. She repeated the feat in Montreal over the summer, besting Swiatek in physical 6-2, 6-7(4), 6-4 semifinal. She's now running a six-match win streak against the Top 10.
"I think last year when I became Top 5, I felt maybe I psyched myself out a little bit -- not a lot -- but just a little bit," Pegula said. "You have a couple of thoughts in your head if you really belong at that level. I was always good at beating everyone below me. But it's like now you have to beat the one or two before you, and I think you put a bigger emphasis on that.
"This year, I've just not really cared and I've just had, I think, more confidence in those matches. And that's why I think I've had some maybe better top wins this year as far as beating No.1 players in the world in big moments, like here and in Montreal."
Underestimate her at her peril. A highly analytical player who once confessed that she can lose herself down the YouTube rabbit hole watching match footage for players up and down the rankings, Pegula's heavy match load has given her a data trove from which to mine. And in a tournament that has tested the players' willingness to adapt and adjust, Pegula might just be the most well-equipped for the challenge.
She's seen it all and she can win in it all. While she may have started as a hard-court specialist, this summer, Pegula completed her Grand Slam quarterfinal set after reaching the final eight at Wimbledon. She continues to lead the tour in hard-court wins this year, extending her tally to 44. She joins Lindsay Davenport and Serena Williams as the only Americans in this century to win more than 40 in a season.
"I try to use my match experience as best I can," Pegula said. "Every match, you're always gonna feel different. But I think the more you put yourself in those situations, the better you feel when they come up again. It doesn't feel like you have to panic as much.
"Doesn't always [happen], it depends on the day. Sometimes you don't always feel like that. Sometimes you might freak out. But I think that's the point is, I've been through those moments before."
As Pegula now entered unchartered territory at the WTA Finals, she'll kick up her feet and wait to see who she will face in the semifinals. As the Bacalar Group winner, she will face the second qualifier out of the Chetumal Group, where all four players -- Swiatek, Coco Gauff, Ons Jabeur, and Marketa Vondrousova -- are still in contention to advance.