For many, the new year provides an opportunity to strive to be better—at work, in relationships, or to make one’s dreams come true.
It looks like America’s top-ranked tennis player Jessica Pegula got the memo.
The 28-year-old is off to a flying start in 2023, picking up her first career win over Iga Schwetek, as she upset world number one 6-2, 6-2 in the opening match of the United Cup semi-final in Sydney.
And with the Australian Open in full swing, more success may be on the way for the American, who has reached the quarter-finals of the tournament in the past two years.
Eurosport expert Barbara Chet told CNN Sport: “Jess definitely has a chance to win her first Grand Slam title.
“I watched her play against Iga Światek and she really surprised me. She literally knocked Iga out of the court. If she can repeat that level, she can win the Australian Open.”
Ranked third in the world, the Pegula is descended from an athletic breed of a different kind. Her father, billionaire Terry Pegula, and mother, Kim, sit at the helm of a sports empire, co-owning the NFL’s Buffalo Bills and National Hockey League’s Buffalo Sabers.
Her father, who has a net worth of about $6.7 billion, according to Forbes, made his oil and gas fortune through East Resources. After selling the company’s assets, her parents bought the Sabers for $189 million in 2010 and the Bills for $1.4 billion in 2014.
“She really serves as a workhorse that I think challenges a lot of the stereotypes and expectations you might have with someone from her background,” Ben Rothenberg, senior editor at Raquet magazine, told CNN Sports.
Tennis star Pegula is a huge fan of the Bills, often juggling tennis obligations to make time to watch matches.
Outside of tennis, she owns her own skincare brand, Ready24. She also has a soft spot for furry friends and founded A Lending Paw, a charity that connects people with rescued and trained service animals, with her husband, Taylor Gahagen.
Pegula got her start in tennis at the age of seven, playing because her older sister, Laura, was also involved in the sport.
“I played junior and college tennis, so I was always around the tennis courts, watching their matches, watching their practices. I remember thinking to myself, ‘Oh my God, I will never be able to hit as hard or be as good as them,’” according to Forbes.
“But I stuck with it, started taking lessons after school three, four days a week, and doing some tennis boot camp. That’s really how it got started.”
Her journey hasn’t always been smooth, and injuries have derailed her career. She told reporters that a knee injury in 2014 kept her off the tour for a year and a half, while hip surgery in 2017 was the “hardest thing to come back from”.
I didn’t even know if I wanted to go back. I admit that this will be very difficult. But then, “I think I just got over it. I was like, ‘Whatever it is, I’m going to fight through it again. ‘”
After her injuries and because of her unique family background, it was easy to assume she would “step back from court,” according to Rotenberg.
“Unlike a lot of players, she wasn’t playing to support her parents and family,” he explained. “But she really showed incredible commitment, dedication and passion for tennis, overcame all the different injuries she had, dedicated herself and played completely so far.”
In addition to being number three in singles, she is one of the busiest players on tour and “often plays a very professional double role,” he added.
Pegula’s breakthrough finally came in 2021, as she – after starting the year ranked No. 62 – finished the season in the top 20 after five quarterfinals, a pair of semifinals and seven top-10 finishes.
“She’s just a down-to-earth, hard-working person,” her coach, David Witt, said in 2021, according to the USTA. “It’s so easy to get along with. We have fun while we work hard. And we just clicked.”
Rothenberg agrees. “It’s been a couple of years in a row now, people really think she’s been kind of oscillating above what people probably think is her ceiling. She continues to defy the bars that were set for her, which are the limits that forecasters have set in the sport.
“You bet on it at your own risk, even if it comes off from increasingly strong places. And it started out pretty strong,” he said.
He said this is shown by the reliability of her game.
He explained, “Pegula has been incredibly consistent in taking down the guys she was supposed to beat in major events, she has lived up to her rating, she hasn’t been upset – that’s really rare and really impressive”.
In three of last year’s Grand Slams, Pegula lost in the quarterfinals to the eventual champion, was defeated by the now-retired Ash Barty at the Australian Open, and Švedek at the French Open and US Open. She joked that getting to this stage in the tournament became her “MO”.
“My goal all year was to start winning more championships, to keep going all year, and at the end of the year it was more rewarding,” Pegula said in the 2022 recap. It came in Guadalajara, where she achieved her biggest win and the trophy.
Now comes the Australian Open.
Eurosport expert Laura Robson, a former British No. 1 and Olympic silver medalist, told CNN Sports that Pegula is “definitely” one of the main contenders for the women’s title.
“She’s always been an incredible striker of the ball but has improved her stability and movement a lot over the past year,” said Robson.
“She hits the ball better than ever and beating Swiatek in the Nations Cup will give her a great deal of confidence to believe she can finally make that big slam breakthrough.”
“If the conditions in Melbourne are the same as they were in Sydney, I think that really suits her game. Playing low, flat and fast is exactly what she likes, what suits her striking,” but added that her success can depend on who she gets them in the lottery.
“There are a lot of strong players out there, sure. But her fortitude is her best weapon in many ways.”