Backing up a breakthrough year is never easy for tennis pros. Heightened expectations – from outsiders and the players themselves – injuries, defending points and rivals having a better read on their games are all potential contributing factors.
But Jessica Pegula is on the way there after reaching the quarterfinals at the Australian Open for the second year running.
Pegula entered Australian Open 2021 ranked 61. When the season ended, five quarterfinals, a pair of semifinals and seven top-10 wins helped the 27-year-old climb to year-end No.18.
She is one of only two women to appear in both last year's and this year's Australian Open quarterfinals, joining Ash Barty – who Pegula meets in Tuesday's night session at Rod Laver Arena.
That despite Pegula pondering how she would follow up her stellar 2021 that truly began with a scalp of two-time champion Victoria Azarenka at Melbourne Park.
"It's definitely something that I was thinking about as well, backing up a season," she admitted on Sunday after upsetting fifth seed Maria Sakkari, another breakout performer in 2021.
"Tennis is kind of brutal that way where you can have a really great year and we're right back here again, and it kind of forces you into the same position, puts a lot of pressure on.
"I think, I was able to keep my mentality pretty well coming into this tournament.
"Obviously the year is a long year. There's still a lot more tournaments. I did really well last year, which is great. I wish I didn't, because now it's like every tournament there's points or something coming off. I'm like, 'Maybe I shouldn't have done that well'.
"Still a lot more tournaments. It's a long year. I'm excited I did well here and hopefully I can take that into the rest of the year like I did last year."
Pegula's build-up to AO 2022 didn't go as planned, however.
She lost both her singles matches, including as the top seed at Melbourne Summer Set 2, an event eventually won by Pegula's compatriot Amanda Anisimova. Anisimova proceeded to oust defending Australian Open champion Naomi Osaka in a Friday night thriller.
But it wasn't all doom and gloom, according to her veteran coach David Witt.
Beating Anhelina Kalinina, at a career-high 49 in the rankings, in three hours in the first round got Pegula going.
"She wasn't too discouraged coming in," Witt told ausopen.com.
"Getting a confidence win and going from there was huge, so I think coming into the Australian Open and getting that first victory started her confidence going.
"Didn't play the greatest. I think each match first round to second to third, she has been playing better and better and better. She put it together in the third round but against Sakkari, it was definitely her best match so far."
Pegula subsequently suffered disappointment off court on Monday when her beloved Buffalo Bills – the NFL franchise her family owns – lost 42-36 in overtime to the Kansas City Chiefs in the AFC playoffs.
Bettering Barty would mark the biggest touchdown of her career.
A indication of her progress, Pegula was ranked 71 in their only previous meeting in the first round of the 2019 French Open.
"The last couple of years, her progression and her confidence with the way that she plays has gone and absolutely skyrocketed," Barty said on Sunday.
"She's a great competitor."
Pegula has been pondering strategies in casino games in Melbourne in her free time. She knows the home favourite and world No. 1 is almost always spot-on in her game plan.
"I feel like Ash is so tactical in everything she does," said Pegula.
"Really a smart, like perfect kind of tennis player in a way."
Witt said that Pegula, downed by friend Jen Brady in last year's quarterfinals, had to strike the right balance.
"Jess is going to have to be very patient and very disciplined but at the same time, she's going to have to move forward and attack Barty and try to end a lot of points at the net," Witt, the former long-time coach of Venus Williams, said.
"You don't want to stay on the baseline with her and let her jerk you around. So that's the plan.
"If you want to be the best, you have to beat the best. To play Barty on Rod Laver in Australia, I mean, what an opportunity.
"She has to go out and just do it, and she can do it. And she knows she can."
Pegula knows one more thing – that she's currently the top American in the live rankings, no small feat for a nation that boasts 15 players in the women's top 100. Danielle Collins, who made the quarterfinals on Monday, isn't far behind, while Madison Keys makes it three Americans in the final eight in Melbourne.
"I'm just going to stay with the live rankings today," Pegula said light-heartedly.
"I am the highest-ranked American, in case that's not the case at the end of the week."
Upsetting Barty would sure help Pegula stay there.