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Bottoms Up for Jessica Pegula

By Giri Nathan

As the season winds down, it is possible to see who really owned it, and the easiest measure of that is qualification for year-end finals. Two women qualified early last month for the WTA Finals in Fort Worth, which begin on Halloween. One was Iga Swiatek, winner of pretty much everything there was to win, an apparent all-timer who’d extended her dominance from clay to hard courts. The other was Ons Jabeur, a trickster-technician entering her physical prime, a flagbearer for Arab and African tennis, who won in Madrid and made two major finals this year. Both names are synonymous with the 2022 season. The third player to qualify for the finals, announced this week, cuts a less conspicuous profile. That would be Jessica Pegula, world No. 6 and top-ranked American, who spent this breakout year within striking distance of tennis’ biggest titles.

Pegula, who works much harder than I would were I the 28-year-old daughter of billionaire Buffalo Bills and Buffalo Sabres owner Terry Pegula, has endured her injury-riddled early 20s to become one of the best players in the world, with none of the fanfare that might accompany a young prodigy. She plays a well-rounded brand of tennis with no glaring flaw, and it works. This year she had about as good a titleless season as possible, sustaining a 36–17 record. Pegula played a Masters final and two semifinals. In all, she played an impressive seven quarterfinals in 2022. She won three of those matches, and all four losses were at the hands of the eventual champion, at the Australian Open (Ash Barty), Roland-Garros (Swiatek), Cincinnati (Caro Garcia), and US Open (Swiatek again). After that last loss in New York, she hit the press conference with a Heineken tallboy in hand. “I’m trying to pee for doping,” said Pegula, who’s a reliably unfiltered and easygoing interview. “Although it does help ease the loss.”

That was a beatable Iga that she’d lost to, in a queasy two-setter. “I go back and forth. ‘Oh, I should be positive.’ At the same time I’m like, ‘Fuck, three quarterfinals [in majors].’ Sorry, but it sucks. It sucks,” said Pegula, looking back at the year that was. “I wish I didn’t have to play Iga every quarterfinal or Ash Barty, which seem to be the two people that don’t really lose that often. So it just sucks.” Pegula is one of the best talkers about tennis, because she’s not terribly self-conscious, and because she really understands other players’ games, having eaten enough tape to know their styles down cold. “I think I’m really aware of other girls who aren’t ranked as high, their results and how they’re doing. I watch a lot of people, so I’m never really surprised when I see someone that seems like a surprise,” Pegula said this week in San Diego. In her next match she dismantled Coco Vandeweghe, who had beaten her in Charleston, which was Pegula’s season-worst loss by opponent ranking, now avenged.

Though the titles have eluded Pegula this season in singles, they’ve been plentiful in doubles, which she now regularly plays alongside next-highest American, phenom Coco Gauff. The American pairing, separated in age by a decade, won 1000-level titles in Doha and Toronto, and on the strength of those wins, Gauff managed to capture the No. 1 ranking in doubles. It’s very cool when elite singles players take doubles seriously, and for America to have its two best players teaming up, it’s a throwback to a simpler time. Their wins this week in San Diego booked them a spot in the WTA Finals, getting Pegula into both draws.

Above: You look like you could use a cold one, Jess Pegula. (Getty.)

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