Pegula aiming high as Swiatek looms

The late-blooming American is thriving in Paris 

Jessica Pegula, Roland Garros 2022, fourth round© Nicolas Gouhier/FFT
 - Chris Oddo

The gorgeous Parisian scenery that once served as a background for Jessica Pegula’s engagement pictures is now serving as the mise en scène for the Buffalo native’s clay-court coming out party. 

Once known as a player only suited for the faster surfaces, Pegula is now proving that she can be just as lethal on the terre battue.

The numbers bear that out. The 28-year-old entered 2022 with an 11-12 record on clay, and has proceeded to double her lifetime clay-court win total by winning 11 of her 14 matches on the dirt this spring. 

Pegula, who will face red-hot Iga Swiatek in quarter-final action on Wednesday in Paris, chalks her new-found clay aptitude to self-belief and her willingness to persevere at all costs. 

“I think I've proved that I can be patient on clay, that I can play well, that I can beat a lot of clay-courters, even if maybe the conditions don't favour me, which has been really, really important,” she said.

“I've definitely surprised myself a little bit this week.”

Through four rounds in Paris, Pegula has dropped only two sets. On Monday she rallied to defeat Romania’s Irina-Camelia Begu, 4-6, 6-2, 6-3, to book her first trip to the last eight at Roland-Garros.

Quite a feat considering the No.11 seed had entered this year’s draw with a 2-3 lifetime record at the Parisian Slam. 

Pegula’s success isn’t just happening randomly. It’s fuelled by dedication to her craft, and a strong connection with long-time coach David Witt, the former coach of Venus Williams.

She is embracing the clay rather than dreading it, and adding nuance to her game as she goes. 

Jessica Pegula, Roland-Garros 2022, Simple Dames, 1/8 de Finale Nicolas Gouhier / FFT

“I think that I definitely wanted to be a little bit more physical, work on my sliding this year on the clay, get more comfortable sliding up to short balls, sliding into my shots,” she said.

“A lot of little things. I mean, I've tried to work on getting the ball a little heavier because I play very flat. I tried to work on incorporating drop shots more, which I've always liked…” 

Reflecting on the journey

Pegula's success on clay mirrors her gradual improvement on all surfaces. Prior to 2020 she had never finished a season inside the WTA's top-50.

Thanks to her performance in Paris, she'll be a card-carrying member of the WTA's top-10 when the new rankings come out after Roland-Garros.

For years Pegula's progress was marred by injuries and multiple surgeries, including one on her right hip, but her desire to compete always kept her afloat.

She reflected on that journey on Monday.

"I definitely hit that point, with my last surgery where I was like, I don't know if I really want to do this. And I think it lasted for like a week and then I was like, ‘What am I thinking? What else am I going to do?’ This is what I love to do and I think you realise how much you miss it," she said.

"I think at the end it comes down to the fact that I love to play tennis and I think that my passion for the game just always kind of trumped everything else."

Facing the Iga challenge

By excelling through four rounds, Pegula has earned herself the toughest task in tennis. She’s next in line for Polish juggernaut Swiatek - she of the dazzling 32-match win streak. 

While Pegula was chatting with reporters on Monday, Swiatek was embroiled in a battle with Chinese teenager Zheng Qinwen, and the American was closely monitoring the situation. 

“I know I’m going to have to play really, really well,” she said, when asked about potentially facing Swiatek for the second time in as many months.

“I’m going to have to play aggressive against her, I’m going to have to go for my shots, because she is better when the point extends.

“I’m going to try and shorten the points as much as I can but at the same time try and be patient and not go for too much and miss my shots. But it’s definitely going to be really tough. Hopefully I can bring my A game because I need it.”

Jessica Pegula, 3e tour, Roland-Garros 2022©Nicolas Gouhier / FFT

Pegula, who owns a 1-1 lifetime record against the world No.1, was the 16th victim of Swiatek’s mind-boggling winning streak in Miami last month. She is fully aware of the daunting task ahead of her. 

“I practised with her here as well before the tournament started and she's a super nice girl," Pegula revealed. "We practised a few times. So I definitely know [her game] but obviously in the moment, it's hard to pinpoint exactly what you should do. 

“She's just been so solid in every aspect. I think it's one of those things where at least I've played her so I think I do have that familiar sense, going against her, but yeah maybe a little different on clay.” 

Could Pegula be the one who finally cracks the code of the virtually unbeatable Pole? 

“I think it goes both ways,” Pegula said of facing the 2020 Roland-Garros champion. 

"I think sometimes it’s like, ‘Oh, I wish I didn't play her in the quarter-finals. I wish I played one of the other people, and didn't meet her so early, but then at the same time, it's a great chance to have a great win and a great story.”