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Pegula finds identity, belief ahead of Svitolina clash

  • Reem Abulleil

World No.61 Jessica Pegula hit a new milestone on Saturday as she booked herself a spot in a Grand Slam fourth round for the first time by dropping just three games against Frenchwoman Kristina Mladenovic.

The 26-year-old American had never won a match at the Australian Open prior to this fortnight, but has stormed into the second week at Melbourne Park for the loss of just 13 games through three rounds.

She knocked out two-time Australian Open champion Victoria Azarenka in her first match, before blitzing Sam Stosur and Mladenovic. 

After defeating Stosur comprehensively in round two, Pegula apologized to the crowd for eliminating their home favorite and appealed to them in the most endearing way.

“I’m sorry that I won, but I mean, I’m wearing the Australia colors, so hopefully you guys root for me the next round. I love it here,” said Pegula, who received a huge applause from the stands in return.

The Buffalo-born Pegula comes from a wealthy family with strong ties to sport. Her parents Terry and Kim are owners of NFL side the Buffalo Bills and NHL team the Buffalo Sabres.

Having a strong support system in a solitary and expensive sport like tennis is always a blessing, but Pegula explains how it took her some time to establish her own individual identity and carve herself a place in sport separate from her family.

“I think more when I was younger, it was more like I wanted to make a name for myself. Then I realised as I got older I should embrace the whole family aspect of it instead,” said Pegula, who gave the Bills and Sabres a shout-out when signing the camera lens after her second round win.

“I think I actually shifted my mindset where it was more like, ‘Okay, I want to differentiate myself, I want to be different, I want to break away’. I think it was almost hurting me in a way because it wasn't going to go away. I learned to embrace that, kind of have fun with it.

“I actually think it's helped shifting that mindset. But obviously I still do like to keep things separate at times. Tennis is my thing, it's my job, it's my career. It's very separate. My parents don't really have any say right now in anything I do on the court.”

A fan of Martina Hingis and Mary Pierce growing up, Pegula qualified for her first Grand Slam main draw at the US Open in 2015. She still considers that final qualifying win to be her most memorable match.

“It was a big accomplishment. I think it’s different when you have to qualify and earn it yourself, so that was super special,” she told the Tennis Channel.

Knee and hip surgeries hampered her progress though and Pegula wouldn’t crack into the top 100 until 2019, at the age of 25. She lifted her maiden WTA title that year in Washington DC, and made the third round at a major for the first time in New York last September, before reaching the doubles quarterfinals at Roland Garros.

With injuries eating up big chunks of her younger years on tour, Pegula does not necessarily feel her age, and is embracing all the firsts she is experiencing at the moment.

“I think that does contribute to me feeling younger than I am. I think people still think I'm young. I'm not that young. I turn 27 later this month. I think because I was out at such pivotal times when I was younger throughout my career, I do feel like I missed, and these are all new experiences. Maybe I would have gotten there sooner. I think it's just the journey, trying to get by,” she reflected on Saturday.

Pegula has her own skincare line, a project that was a welcome distraction during her time out rehabbing her hip. She has her full attention on tennis now though, with a huge challenge up next in the form of Ukrainian fifth seed Elina Svitolina, who beat the American in Abu Dhabi last month.

“I think I'm just playing really confidently right now. I'm obviously seeing the ball and hitting the ball really well. I'm just trying not to let up really at all. I'm doing a good job of staying in the point when I have to, not going for too much, but still going aggressively at the right times,” said Pegula.

She’ll certainly need that mix of patience and aggression in her showdown with Svitolina, who can frustrate the very best of them with her exceptional retrieving skills.