Defending Citi Open champion Jessica Pegula rolls in the first round

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Jessica Pegula, the top-ranked American woman in professional tennis, warmed up Monday ahead of her first match as the top seed and defending champion at the 2022 Citi Open, looking like the consummate professional — poised on and off the court.

All of that was on display during her 6-2, 6-2 first-round victory DC’s Hailey Baptiste. Although Baptiste, in her first match since injuring her ankle at the French Open, pushed the world No.7 hard at the start of each set, Pegula calmly displayed her smooth serve, strong return and longevity when Baptiste came out. longer and the day was warmer.

“I put a lot of pressure and extended a lot of her service games and I know from experience that she’s really hard to hold,” Pegula said. “It can definitely take a toll, physically and mentally, and when it got a little warmer outside, I was able to move a little better.”

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Three years ago, another Pegula auditioned in DC. In 2019, when the Citi Open previously hosted a WTA tournament, Pegul’s first and only WTA Tour singles victory came at Rock Creek Park Tennis Center and helped define her burgeoning career.

That year looked like a mixed bag for the Buffalo native. Her first entry into the WTA top 100 led to a top-75 finish when she upset then-No. 12 Anastasija Sevastova at the Charleston Open, but those highs were marred by first-round exits at the French Open and Wimbledon – her first main draw appearance at either Grand Slam.

And on the court, Pegula struggled with an identity crisis. She recalled the criticism she received back then — that she appeared negative or like she “didn’t want to be there” during matches — and tried to counter it with fake fist pumps, wild maneuvers and other unnatural bursts of energy. game.

She herself admitted that she did not play the way she wanted.

“I’d be too energetic or try to be too much, then I’d be exhausted because I’d waste all my energy on all these things,” Pegula said. “And naturally I’m not really like that.

Pegula decided to take full control of her career. She hired a new coach, David Witt, who was fresh off a long stint coaching Venus Williams. She started planning her own training regimes and booking her own trainers. At one point she was even her own agent, planning her own trips and signing up for tournaments.

In the midst of this process, Pegula realized—whether she was returning a serve or booking a flight to France, she was still Jessica Pegula.

“That [process] let me not think about who I am on the court,” Pegula explained, “because now I was like, ‘Oh, I’m responsible for my career.’ And I think that’s how I always wanted it.’

The 2019 Citi Open was her first week and first tournament with Witt as her coach. During a routine practice leading up to the event, Witt said something that stuck with Pegula.

“There’s no reason why you can’t win this tournament,” Witt told her.

With a new outlook on her career and a new coach in her corner, Pegula found Witt right – there was no reason why she couldn’t win her first WTA title. And when she defeated Camila Giorgio in the final, she did exactly that.

During her trophy presentation, her miniature Australian Shepherd Maddie ran onto the court and hugged her, creating a lasting image of the turnaround in Pegula’s career.

“It kind of changed from that week on, trying to improve every day, but also thinking, ‘There’s no reason why you can’t be at the top of your game,'” she reflected. “And now here we are, a couple of years later, and I’m at my highest place – top 10 in the world.

It’s a renewed Pegula who arrived in D.C. last weekend as the defending Citi Open champion — she’s reached three Grand Slam quarterfinals in the past two years and reached the pinnacle of American tennis at the relatively senior age of 28. And although Pegula said her dog didn’t make it to the capital, the changes over the past three years were on full display Monday.

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Criticism of her perceived negativity and nonchalance has done a complete 180 in her experience.

“People come up to me, they’re like, ‘Lord, you’re so calm and confident and have such a great attitude,'” she said. “And I’m just laughing because it’s been the other way around for so long and it’s been so frustrating to hear that.”

And it showed on the court. Facing a hostile crowd rooting for her hometown hero, Pegula never looked flustered or overwhelmed against Baptista, but instead kept a stoic and measured face. She only seemed to improve as the match went on, using every long deuce and break point as a way to gain an advantage.

“It was hard.” [for Baptiste], who is coming back from injury,” said Hyattsville native and ATP No. 27 Frances Tiafoe, who watched the match from the stands. “Pegula is a great friend of mine, top 10 in the world and playing some of the best tennis of her life. It was always a tough game.”

Pegula gave only the lightest of fist pumps after each hard-fought point, and the world’s best American let a soft smile spread across her face, nothing but victory.

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