Jessica Pegula stands at a crossroads, with Wimbledon her best shot for a breakthrough | Tennis.com (2024)

Wimbledon

The American's own early-summer Super Bowl has arrived. Is she ready to meet the moment?

ByPeter Bodo

Published Jul 03, 2024

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The National Football League’s Buffalo Bills are famous for having fielded several terrific teams that have come excruciatingly close, but never managed to win, the Super Bowl. Jessica Pegula is well aware of this—not only because she’s a sports fan whose family owns the Bills, but because she knows how painful it is to see a dream snatched from her grasp.

Now, at the age of 30, she stands at a crossroads much as many of those Bills teams have, wondering what to do next in her quest to win that elusive Grand Slam title. The six-time Grand Slam quarterfinalist (including one at each of the four majors) is in the hunt again in London this week, where she kicked off her Wimbledon campaign with a 49-minute masterclass in precise shotmaking on Tuesday, defeating Ashlyn Krueger 6-2, 6-0.

Is this the year Pegula punches through that quarterfinal wall?

“I think you have to put in your mind that you’re here to win matches,” Pegula said after her win. “[But] I’m not really one to be like, ‘I'm going to win Wimbledon.’ Like, I'm not telling myself that in the mirror over and over again. I think it’s me, I just have belief in every single match, maybe not getting too ahead of myself.”

Jessica Pegula stands at a crossroads, with Wimbledon her best shot for a breakthrough | Tennis.com (1)

Pegula’s style compensates for the fact that she doesn’t have the quickness or explosive movement of some of her rivals. Instead, she has a fine understanding of tennis on grass.

© Getty Images

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Pegula admitted that the formula is easier to articulate than to follow because Wimbledon is majestic to the point of being intimidating. It inspires many players to peak performance, but woe be to those who take anything for granted. That beautiful grass is not just energizing, it can also be insidious. Wimbledon may be the most prized of all tournaments, but it also plays out on an antiquated but wonderful, organic surface that is tricky to navigate, both physically and mentally.

“It’s hard not to [get ahead of yourself] when you’re here,” Pegula added. “You feel how special it is, you see all the pictures of the past champions, even from last year.”

Jessica Pegula stands at a crossroads, with Wimbledon her best shot for a breakthrough | Tennis.com (2)

In 2023, Pegula became just the fifth American woman to reach the quarterfinals at all four majors in the past 25 years. But she remains without a victory in a Grand Slam elite eight.

© Getty Images

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Ah, last year. . .

In June 2022, Pegula’s mother Kim nearly died after going into cardiac arrest. Pegula did not divulge that information until February 2023, months after she had played at Wimbledon (where she reached the third round) without benefit of a grass-court tune-up and her mother’s condition on her mind. She improved on that finish in 2023, achieving a sixth quarterfinal in her last 11 Grand Slam events. But Pegula’s next, potential breakthrough match was catastrophic: She led Marketa Vondrousova by 4-1 in the third set, but failed to close out the eventual champion.

It was a devastating loss, at least in the short term. Her first words to reporters who sought her reaction after that loss were, “Yeah. It sucks to lose that way.”

But it was also an educational loss, from which Pegula moved on before her final press conference had even concluded. She said: “I think a year coming around to make quarters, to see that she’s [her mother] able to watch my match was a huge success for myself and for my family. To look at the positive side, yes, that’s something I’m very proud of. That I was able to build on momentum.”

Pegula went on to turn 2023 into her best year yet. Her ranking rose as high as No. 2, and she lit up the WTA Finals, hammering out wins over Elena Rybakina, Aryna Sabalenka, Maria Sakkari and Coco Gauff—all in straight sets—en route to the final. Pegula lost the championship match to Iga Swiatek, but these days doesn’t everyone?

Whenever I see someone on a run, I think it’s because they embrace the challenge of grass, maybe they are a little patient. It’s just a different surface, where things are not as straightforward.Jessica Pegula on the qualities of Wimbledon

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The most encouraging detail for Pegula going forward, in this stage of her career, is that she’s not only a level-headed, attentive student of the game—she’s also a late bloomer. This is a player who did get out of the qualifying rounds at a major until after she turned 25 in 2019, her ninth year on the tour. She’s a contender at Grand Slams who didn’t crack the Top 20, or make the quarterfinal at a major, until 2021.

Pegula’s career history is remarkable in an era during which women in their late teens and early 20s often enjoy outsized success. She has made slow but steady progress, and this may well be approaching her moment to shine. Seeking a breakthrough, Pegula split from David Witt, her long-time coach, at the beginning of the year. (As first reported by TENNIS.com) The voice in her ear now is that of Mark Merklein and Mark Knowles, who enjoys a reputation on the tour as a one of the wise heads.

Not long ago, Frances Tiafoe suggested that Pegula, his friend and occasional hitting partner, hits the “cleanest” ball of anyone on the pro tour, man or woman. Her compact, relatively flat, picture-perfect strokes add up to a game well-crafted for today’s grass. If her shots aren’t the most powerful on the tour, they are among the most precise—useful for taking time away from some of the bigger hitters on slick, low-bouncing turf. Pegula’s style compensates for the fact that she doesn’t have the quickness or explosive movement of some of her rivals. Instead, she has a fine understanding of tennis on grass. That knowledge was amply demonstrated a few weeks ago in Berlin, where Pegula defeated friend and former doubles partner Coco Gauff in the semifinals, then brushed aside five championship points held by Anna Kalinskaya to earn her first grass-court title. That win over Gauff improved Pegula’s recent record against Top 10 players to 8-1.

On cloud nine 🥹 ☁️

Jess Pegula saves 5 championship points to defeat Kalinskaya 6-7(0), 6-4, 7-6(3)!#ecotransLadiesOpen pic.twitter.com/t3MwIviklU

— Tennis Channel (@TennisChannel) June 23, 2024

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Pegula’s take on the challenge of grass may be the most nuanced on tour. She said on Tuesday that players who know how to read a rival’s game and the properties of the court, who serve well and are handy around the net, those who are more “crafty,” enjoy greater rewards at Wimbledon than at any other major.

“Whenever I see someone on a run, I think it’s because they embrace the challenge of grass, maybe they are a little patient. It’s just a different surface, where things are not as straightforward.”

One of the lingering lessons Pegula took from last year’s loss to Vondrousova is that grass demands total focus. Grass matches are notorious for turning an innocuous slip-up, or a momentary loss of focus even at a seemingly unimportant time, into a turning point.

“I think with the grass, it's really important to play every single point.” Pegula said. “Because you get a weird bounce, you get a let cord, you get someone serving well, it can switch, I feel like, so fast both ways.”

Jessica Pegula stands at a crossroads, with Wimbledon her best shot for a breakthrough | Tennis.com (3)

Pegula faces Wang Xinyu in her next match.

© AFP via Getty Images

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Pegula was forced to miss the entire clay-court swing this year because of a rib injury, but that enabled her to spend more time working on her grass-court game (it certainly showed on Tuesday). It also left her relatively fresh for Wimbledon, and the upcoming Olympic Games (back on clay). While admitting to the anxieties that come with a lengthy hiatus for injury, she said, “I’ve always done pretty well when I come back from injury. I think I’ve come back from a lot worse injuries, and I’ve always managed to do better throughout those years.”

Like the Bills, Pegula is at a crossroads. And Wimbledon is her own early-summer Super Bowl.

Jessica Pegula stands at a crossroads, with Wimbledon her best shot for a breakthrough | Tennis.com (2024)
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