The IX: Tennis Tuesday with Lindsay Gibbs, August 6, 2019
The teens take over the Citi Open, but 25-year-old Jessica Pegula steals the show
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Youth is exciting, but it’s not everything
This week, friends, it finally happened: I got to cover live tennis. I feel whole again.
Yes, I was at the Citi Open in Washington, D.C., a tournament that — on the women’s side, at least — was defined by American teen sensations early on. First, 15-year-old Wimbledon legend Coco Gauff qualified for her first WTA main draw. Then, 17-year-old local hero Hailey Baptiste got the first WTA win of her career, taking down No. 2 seed Madison Keys. Then, 17-year-old Caty McNally won her first WTA main-draw match, and then made it all the way to the semifinals, before falling to Camila Giorgi. (To top things off, McNally and Gauff — McCoco, to be exact — won the doubles title.)
All three players impressed me with their athleticism, variety, fearlessness, and maturity on the court. The future is bright.
But ultimately, the Citi Open belonged to a player who the spotlight had long left behind: Jessica Pegula, a 25-year-old from Buffalo who is more well-known due to her connection to her famous, wealthy family (who own the Buffalo Bills and Buffalo Sabres, among other entities) than her on-court triumphs.
Pegula won the final 6-2, 6-2 over Giorgi for her very first WTA title. While 25 is not at all old, and I wouldn’t dare suggest otherwise, the fact that she has really struggled in the tennis wilderness for the last few years gave her perspective that no teenager could possibly have.
“The journey makes it all that much sweeter,” she said in her press conference. “I’ve worked really hard. So to kind of push through this week and really push myself to the limit to — you know, stronger than I kind of almost thought I was at times, really makes it — it’s amazing, yeah. I’m excited.”
Pegula’s journey is really something. Her highest ranking before she had hip surgery in January 2017 was No. 123, back in 2013, when she was 19 years old. Back then, she was the up-and-coming star, but then injuries and reality sank in. In 2017, after she took more than six months off the tour in 2017 to recover from her surgery, she was ranked as low as No. 870.
Last year, she reached her career high of No. 110, then this year, she has blown past it, all the way to No. 55.
This week, she was on a trial run with David Witt, the former long-time coach of Venus Williams, and it’s clear that he helped her. Her strategy was brilliant, and there wasn’t a weakness to her game all week long. But the most impressive thing was how Pegula mentally held it together in the final. Not only was this her first WTA title; it was her first singles title of any kind as a professional tennis player. She’d previously lost in six ITF circuit finals, one WTA 125k series final, and one WTA final, last September in Quebec.
“There was definitely a point where I was thinking about it,” she said.
“But I don’t know. This week, though, it felt different. This final, I felt like I was just ready. I was like, You know what? You’re going to go out there and you’re going to go win. And I felt confident in that.”
This Week in Tennis
VERY IMPORTANT ADDITION TO THE JESSICA PEGULA STORY: HER DOG CELEBRATED THE WIN, TOO.
Ava Wallace writes about Jessica Pegula’s big breakthrough.
Zheng Saisai won San Jose. Fun fact: She started the tournament ranked No. 55 — which is the ranking that Pegula is now — and she’s also 25 and this is also her first WTA title.
Ben Rothenberg wondering out loud — could we see a DC-San Jose sanction swap soon?
Also, I enjoyed Rothenberg on the doubles title by Coco Gauff and Cat McNally.
Gauff met Michelle Obama last week, and I spoke with her about the conversation — honestly, we should all follow this advice from Obama, it’s incredible. And how level-headed is Gauff for wanting to figure out how to handle fame at such a young age?
Love this video from the Toronto social team, where WTA players offer media advice to the next generation.
Speaking of the media, Kelyn Soong at the Washington City Paper dives into how players adjust to life in the media spotlight.
Jon Wertheim defends the WTA’s age eligibility rule.
Meanwhile, at the Rogers Cup, Sofia Kenin has already taken down No. 1 Ash Barty, becoming the youngest American to beat a reigning No. 1 in eight years.
Serena is also in Toronto, and claims she is pain-free.
Tweet of the week
Five at The IX: Jessica Pegula
Before she won her first WTA title at the Citi Open, I caught up with Pegula about her favorite players, her skin-care line, and her new coach. (For the sake of transparency, I asked her the last two questions in a press conference, the others were from a one-on-one.)
I saw on social media that the two newest additions to the Tennis Hall of Fame, Li Na and Mary Pierce, are two of your favorite players of all time. Why do you connect with them so much?
It’s funny, I didn’t really get into their games until after they retired. Now that I watch so much more film, they became my favorite players. II just liked their game. It’s pretty relatable to how I play. So I like how they, you know, ripped the ball, but were good athletes and took the ball early. I just think my game resembles them a lot. So that’s why they’re good inspirations for me.
You’re closing in on your career-high ranking. What has been the key to your recent success?
Yeah, I mean, it’s been good to be healthy. First of all, because that’s kind of been my stickler. I think even last time I did well here, it was kind of another little mini breakthrough for me, and then I got hurt like in the fall, right after this tournament. I think staying healthy has been the best thing, and also my movement has gotten a lot better. I feel so much more better physically out there. I know I can run down balls and grind and not get as tired and that I think that along with staying healthy is really got me to the next level.
I saw you launched a skincare line. Is that right?
Yes, it’s called Ready 24 actually launched it this year. But we just went into Wegmans which is like a big deal, they just launched it in their stores. So that’s really exciting.
It’s like active skinwear, so hopefully I can come up with more stuff. We’re doing like little bits at a time, but it’s for anyone that’s on-the-go. It’s just simple ingredients. It’s nothing too fancy. It’s just like straightforward. It’s you know, most of its vegan and it’s no chemicals or anything like that.
Has that always been a passion of yours?
I would say with my parents, they’re so involved in business and developing stuff that, when I was hurt, actually is when I kind of started doing it. It’s been a little harder now that I’m playing a little bit more to keep up with it. But luckily, I have a lot of help with my family.
How did the [coaching trial with Venus Williams’ former coach, David Witt] come about?
Well, I finished my last coach after Wimbledon. I was with him, with Jesse Levine, for a few years. I did really well with him, it was great.
I don’t know, I knew David from when I was with [my former coach, Michael Joyce] actually. I think they grew up around the same time, era. They were always talking, hanging out. I knew him vaguely.
Actually a friend of mine who works for my family, also used to coach me when I was younger, again played junior tennis with him, kind of just threw his name out there. He said, Hey, do you want me to call him? I think he Facebook’d him or something. Do you want to come, Jess is looking for someone to help her out this week?
He came to Boca, where I’m from in Florida, for four days or so, helped me out. Then obviously we wanted to see how it would work at a tournament. So this is the first one.
So far so good.
So far so good. Can’t complain.