IN 2016, JESSICA PEGULA’S long-awaited breakthrough seemed inevitable.
At the US Open, she advanced through qualifying into the main draw and won her first round match since a knee injury had derailed her three years earlier. Her ascent in the rankings continued throughout the season as she added more WTA events to her ITF-heavy schedule — even reaching the semis in Washington as a wild card.
And then Pegula learned a lingering right leg injury she had been dealing with was a torn labrum. She would need another surgery, this time on her hip.
For the second time in her career, Pegula was out of tennis for nearly a year. And this time, knowing all that it would take to return and all the far-flung places on the tennis map she would have to go to get back to where she started, her mind went another direction.
“I didn’t even know if I wanted to come back,” Pegula said.
Even Pegula’s family wondered how much longer she could hang on. It wasn’t as if she would have to worry about a way to support herself if she decided to quit the sport — her parents Terry and Kim Pegula, owners of the Buffalo Bills and Buffalo Sabres, have a net worth of more than $5 billion.
“I remember thinking, ‘Why would she want to keep doing this?'” Kim Pegula said. “There are other women whose families are relying on them through tennis but she doesn’t have that worry. She doesn’t have to do this and her life would be so much easier if she didn’t [play]. But it’s because she loves this sport and she’s truly doing it for herself.”
Five years later, Pegula is in the best stretch of her career — ranked 27th, having achieved a personal goal by earning a spot on the Olympic team and continuing to make a name for herself outside the family’s shadow. The 27-year-old reached the quarterfinals at this year’s Australian Open — her best result at a Grand Slam — and the quarters or better at four other tournaments.
“I’ve always thought I had the game,” Pegula said in an interview with ESPN. “But there’s a difference between thinking it and then actually doing it and executing it on a bigger stage. … So being able to get through that mental hurdle gave me more and more confidence, and now I’ve reached like, ‘The next level.’
“But I’ve always known I could get there. And then there’s always another level, so it’s always right back to making it the next challenge. How do I get even further?”
FOLLOWING THE HIP SURGERY, Pegula’s ranking went into free fall and plummeted outside of the top 800. After some consideration, she decided she had worked too hard for too long not to try to return. She went to rehab nearly every day for three months and slowly returned to practice, and then finally to the tour.
She advanced to her first WTA final in Quebec City in September 2018 and entered the top 100 for the first time in February 2019. She made the third round at the French Open. Still, her first-round exit at Wimbledon that summer showed her it would take more than hard work to compete with the best of the best.
She moved on from her coach, Jesse Levine, when she got home from the All England Club and brought in David Witt. He and Venus Williams had recently parted ways after 11 years together, and he was looking for a new gig.
They teamed up two weeks before the start of the 2019 hard-court season and agreed to see how the first tournament went on a trial basis. When the two arrived in Washington for the Citi Open, Witt turned to his new pupil and said, “There’s no reason you can’t win this tournament. You’re just as good as all these women out here.”
Pegula, who had never won a professional tournament in singles, was skeptical — until she won five matches in seven days to claim her first WTA title.
“She looked at me like I had a third eye when I first told her that,” Witt said. “But sometimes you just have to talk it into existence, and maybe hearing it from a different voice helped her start believing in herself. We joked after it was like getting an eagle on your first hole but then we were like, ‘What do we do now? We’ve got to keep following this up.'”
THE 2016 INJURY setback also provided Pegula with an opportunity she hadn’t previously had — to test her own business acumen, though her family ties certainly helped.
Homebound after her hip surgery and eager to keep herself occupied, she started work on her skin care line, Ready 24. She didn’t know when her tennis career would come to an end, but she was determined to set herself up for when that day did arrive.
Pegula and her younger sister Kelly also opened the first of three Buffalo-area locations of their fast casual restaurant Healthy Scratch (the others opened in 2018 and 2019) as part of the hospitality division of the family’s Pegula Sports and Entertainment umbrella. Those who work with her say she’s more involved than just lending her name to something.
“Jess is calculated, confident and meticulous,” said Mark Preisler, executive vice president at Pegula Sports and Entertainment. “If she is going to dedicate her time and effort to an endeavor, she makes sure it has her full attention.”
Pegula put that business savvy on display in April when she became the first female athlete and first professional tennis player to launch a five-card series of non-fungible tokens (NFTs). Inspired by her fiancé Taylor Gahagen’s high school friend Rob Gronkowski — yes, that Rob Gronkowski — and his NFT, she jumped at the chance.
“When we realized we could be the first, we just really wanted to do it,” Pegula said. “It wasn’t for financial gain, it was honestly just opening the window to tennis, which sometimes can be very traditional, and to open the door for women in sports.”
All of the proceeds went to her dog rescue charity, A Lending Paw, a passion that developed after one of her surgeries. (“She watched a lot of Animal Planet,” Kim said.)
Pegula’s off-court pursuits and passions have helped provide her some semblance of balance throughout the weekly grind of the tour — something more necessary than ever this season with all the pandemic protocols and restrictions in place. Pegula said being a business owner has even helped her with her day job.
“Managing the business stuff has helped me feel more comfortable making my own decisions with my career,” Pegula said. “I mean, tennis players, we’re essentially the owners of our own team, and this has allowed me to see it like that and have a maturity that I didn’t have when I was younger. Now I can make decisions on my own and do what’s right for me.”
WITH A FINAL appearance at Auckland to open the 2020 season, Pegula looked poised to continue her upward trajectory before the season was shut down in March due to the coronavirus. But having gone through long breaks before, she knew what to expect and was eager to take advantage of the rare time to improve while simultaneously being injury-free. Pegula had the added advantage of having continuous access to a court — something many of her peers didn’t have due to varying local restrictions — in her parents’ backyard, and she made sure to put it to good use.
“Without a timeline, it would have been so easy to take a few weeks off, but she never stopped working,” Witt said. “She was like, ‘I’m going to come out of this and I’m going to be in the best shape of my life and just be ready to play whenever we are able to play.’ And I think when we came back, it was like, boom, she was out of the gates and she was on top of her game.”
Pegula made a run to the third round at the US Open in September and reached the quarterfinals in the French Open doubles draw with Asia Muhammad. When the Australian Open got underway in February, she felt a surge of confidence from the previous two Slams.
“Mentally, you just kind of have to decide that you’re going to do it,” Pegula said. “For a long time you know you can do it, but it’s almost kind of like the belief isn’t quite there, and then all of a sudden you put that aside and go, ‘You know what, I’m just going to do it.’ There’s suddenly no question in your mind about it.
“I don’t know if that was just a shift in mindset or just confidence from all of the practices and time in the gym but in Australia, everything just clicked for me. For the first time, I really believed I belonged.”
Pegula’s surprise success in Melbourne initially drew headlines stateside because of her family name. But by the end of her hard-fought, three-set loss against Jennifer Brady in the quarterfinals, she had won attention for her game (albeit with the added support of the ever-loyal Bills Mafia) in part due to some friendly trash talk with Brady that went viral. Two weeks later, she made the semifinals in Qatar.
Pegula now has six wins against top-10 opponents this season, including over No. 2 Naomi Osaka at the Italian Open. She had no such win on her résumé at the beginning of the season.
Pegula had targeted breaking into the top 50 as her first goal for the new season. She did that before she left Australia. Then it was the top 30. She already has achieved that, too. The only other tangible goal she set for herself in 2021 was to make the Olympic team. On July 1, she was named to the roster.
— Kim Pegula (@KimPegula) July 1, 2021
Pegula is now focused on achieving steady results and building off of each match — win or lose. Having worked so long to get to this point, she said she’s not taking any opportunity for granted and knows small improvements can pay big dividends.
Witt, however, has even grander ambitions for Pegula. Much like what he said to her before her win in Washington in 2019, he believes Pegula is nowhere near her limit. He has told her that she is capable of breaking into the top 10.
“There’s no reason why she can’t make it,” Witt said. “She’s beating top-10 players and she’s starting to have consistent results on a weekly basis. Why not?”
And this time, after all she’s been through, Pegula believes it too.