What A Difference A Year Makes, Ask Pegula

Jessica Pegula (photo: Natasha Morello/Tennis Australia)

MELBOURNE/WASHINGTON, February 15, 2021 (by Michael Dickens)

My, how things can change in a year. Just ask American Jessica Pegula.

A year ago, Pegula bowed in the first round of the Australian Open to fellow American Taylor Townsend in straight sets. Fast forward 12 months, and on a mostly cloudy afternoon in Melbourne Park, the 26-year-old Buffalo, N.Y. native, whose parents own the NFL Bills and NHL Sabres, took out World No. 5 Elina Svitolina of Ukraine, 6-4, 3-6, 6-3, in a very entertaining and competitive fourth-round match. The reward for Pegula was her first Top 10 win, and it earned her a first Grand Slam quarterfinal berth.

“I can’t get more confident, it is my best result yet and I’m playing good tennis,” Pegula said during her post match press conference. “Today was a hard-fought win, so, yeah, feeling pretty good.”

Svitolina, who didn’t drop her serve at all in her win against Pegula in Abu Dhabi last month – and had been broke just three times during the first week of the Happy Slam – saved a couple of break points to hold for 3-2. However, she was broken by the American thanks to a double fault, who went ahead 4-3 and won on her first set-point opportunity by playing solid but not spectacular through the opening set. Pegula set up the set point by enduring a 31-shot rally that seemed to be a portend of good things to come.

That was a huge point. Obviously, I would say the longer the rally goes, it probably favors her,” Pegula told Tennis TourTalk. “I kind of knew winning that point, like, I needed to win it there. I knew we just had a really, really long rally. That’s going to favor her. I don’t really want to play this game where all of a sudden, we’re in these super long rallies, it’s 5-4, I’m trying to serve it out. That’s a big momentum game there. That could have been a huge difference.

“For me to stay in that rally and win it was obviously really important. I knew I needed to most likely try and, I need to buckle down and win this game right here on the first try.

“It’s definitely one of those things where that’s when you can feel the momentum. You do the best you can.

“Yeah, I’m glad that I won that long rally because I needed to take a breath after that (smiling).”

In Pegula’s previous six matches against Top 10 players, she’d managed to win only one set – against defending Australian Open champion Sofia Kenin during the third round of the recent Yarra Valley Classic in Melbourne. In Svitolina’s last half dozen losses at Grand Slams, all of them came in straight sets. At least this time, if she was going to go down, it would be going the distance – and the last time she lost a three-setter at a major was back at the US Open in 2018.

Svitolina rallied to win the 40-minute second set from a break down, lifting her level along the way. So, it was on to a third set with Svitolina looking to reach her third Melbourne quarterfinal and Pegula her first major last eight after reaching the second week for the first time. Pegula brought with her a 13-10 record in three-set matches while the more experienced Svitolina was 86-51.

Pegula broke to go ahead 3-1 by rediscovering what worked for her in the opening set, and immediately consolidated the break for a 4-1 advantage. “She remembered what got her the first set,” said Tennis Channel commentator Brett Haber, in calling the successful break-point conversion for the young American.

Could the fifth-seed from Ukraine mount a comeback? Almost. Svitolina held and broke to get back on serve at 3-4. However, Pegula converted her fourth break-point opportunity in the eighth game to go ahead 5-3 – and with the match and a berth in the quarterfinals sitting on her racquet.

Quickly, Pegula fell behind 0-30. However, she turned it around with a forehand winner to level the game score at 30-30. Then, she hit a solid backhand winner to set up match point. Make no mistake, Pegula didn’t waste her shot – or the opportunity. She squarely placed her second serve in play and Svitolina promptly whiffed at it, netting a solid forehand return.

After congratulating Svitolina at the net, Pegula returned to her bench and gave a celebratory left fist pump and smiled for the benefit of the court side camera.

Despite the second set drop off, Pegula was steady as she goes when it mattered the most. The victory represented a big breakthrough for Pegula – her first Top 10 win and it earned her a first major quarterfinal berth against fellow American Jennifer Brady. The No. 22 seed from Harrisburg, Pa., defeated No. 28 seed Donna Vekic of Croatia, 6-1, 7-5, in one hour and 34 minutes following Pegula’s triumph.

I’m just happy that I reset at the start of the third,” Pegula said. “I think that’s huge. Obviously, you know you’re going to go three sets eventually. I think the way I kind of switched the momentum and turned it around was really, really important.”

Looking back, Pegula’s match statistics were solid: She placed 70 percent of her first serves in play, won 67 percent (38 of 57) of her first-serve points and saved three of six break points she faced. Pegula overcame 40 unforced errors by hitting 31 winners. Svitolina hit four aces and 19 winners but committed 25 unforced errors. Pegula outpointed her opponent 91-87.

“I thought I served really well pretty much the whole time,” Pegula said. “I think that I kind of got a little tentative in the second set. I played a good game to break her, then I didn’t hold serve. That was huge.”

Svitolina gave props to Pegula during her post-match press conference. “I think she also played quite good today,” she said. “It was very tough for me to find the rhythm because she was playing good in the first set, not very well in the second. Then she came back.

“I didn’t feel very good today on the court. I don’t know. It’s disappointing because I’ve been playing very good. I feel it was that kind of day where nothing was going my way.”

Svitolina was asked what makes Pegula tough to play. She said: “Well, she has her own game style. She hits the ball quite flat. Of course, she can rally with the spin. But a lot of the time her ball skids. Especially on these courts right now, like today, I couldn’t adjust my game. I think this was really not good from my side because her ball skids a lot. It was very tough for me to do something on that.”

Summing her feelings, Pegula, who has one career WTA title (the 2019 Citi Open), said: “I think my mentality was just to go out and play my game, then kind of adjust as things went on. I think I did a pretty good job of that.”

Brady overwhelms Vekic with solid effort

No. 22 seed Jennifer Brady ensured an all-American quarterfinal on Wednesday with her 6-1, 7-5 victory over No. 28 Donna Vekic, who battled throughout with a heavily-bandaged right knee that required a second-set medical time out to reinforce.

Brady won with a solid effort and her serve, which produced nine aces and contributed toward 22 winners – was her weapon of choice. She won 73 percent (46 of 63) of her service points. On her return, she converted four of six break-point chances and took advantage of Vekic committing 37 unforced errors.

“It was a really tough match,” Brady suggested during her on-court interview after the victory. “I really had to stay focused in the second set. I was getting a little ahead of myself, but I was able to break and then serve probably my best game at the end.

“I think in the first set, I came out really strong, wasn’t really making many errors. She was giving me a few free points here and there, and I was taking advantage of that. In the second set, she stepped up and started playing better. When she took the medical, I went out, hit some serves, and I was actually starting to feel my serve a lot better.”

Brady and Pegula meet in two days for the second time – the first head-to-head was won by Pegula, 7-6 (5), 6-4 at last summer’s Western & Southern Open – and expect to see good camaraderie. “I think it’s great to see we’re all here in Australia making the second week and there’s going to be an American in the semifinals,” Brady said.

Barty eases into third-straight AO quarterfinal

World No. 1 and top seed Ashleigh Barty needed just one hour and 11 minutes to beat unseeded Shelby Rogers of the United States, 6-3, 6-4, to reach her third consecutive Australian Open quarterfinal.

The victory was Barty’s second straight against the 60th-ranked Rogers, whom she beat 7-5, 2-6, 10-4 in the quarterfinal round earlier this month in Yarra Valley Classic. This time, Barty put together a solid effort – five aces, 21 winners and three-for-six in break-point conversions. The Queenslander controlled the net, winning 11 of 13 opportunities, and she outpointed Rogers 63-51. The American finished with five aces, 14 winners and 25 unforced errors.

“Always a tough one, knowing the ability that Shelby has to take a match away from you very quickly,” said Barty in assessing the match from her perspective afterward during her press conference. “It was important for me to serve well and try and bring it on my terms as often as possible. …

“I knew it was going to be vital to serve well tonight. That was something I really wanted to try and focus on, just to try and give myself a chance to be in control of more points. There were a couple of runs of points [and] games in our match last week that Shelby was able to get on a roll and run away with it a little bit. I wanted to try and avoid that and just bring it back on my terms as much as I could, and try and be the aggressor when I could.”

Muchova ends Mertens’ winning streak at eight

No. 27 seed Karolina Muchova has quietly but effective gone about her business during the Aussie fortnight, winning all four of her Australian Open matches in straight sets – against Jelena Ostapenko, Mona Barthel, Karolina Pliskova and now No. 20 seed Elise Mertens, whose winning streak was snapped at eight following the Czech’s 7-6 (5), 7-5 victory in one hour and 56 minutes on Margaret Court Arena Monday evening.

Muchova overcame a shaky 0-4 start in the opening set en route to winning it in a tie break. In the second set, after an exchange of service breaks early, Muchova broke Mertens again, in the 11th game, and won on her first match-point opportunity for her seventh victory of the young season. Her only losses have been due to walkovers, in Abu Dhabi and earlier this month in the Gippsland Trophy while she was dealing with an abdominal injury.

The 24-year-old Czech serve four aces and hit 25 winners to 31 unforced errors. She converted five of six break points against the Belgian No. 1, who will now focus her effort on doubles where she and Aryna Sabalenka are the highest remaining seeds.

“I was a little bit slow there start from my side, but Elise played good,” Muchova told reporters after reaching the quarterfinals. “I think she didn’t make any mistakes and she was pushing me.

“Got back on the track on 4-love and kept fighting, kept playing every ball, trying to put it in and then go for my shots. It worked out in the first and then in the second; second was as well pretty close. But I’m happy, yeah, that the end of the first and even of the second that I was able to manage it and win it.”

Looking ahead to Wednesday’s quarterfinal match with Barty, Muchova said: “Well, she’s the World No. 1 now in tennis. It’s a big challenge, and I definitely will have to bring my best tennis to compete with her and to have a good match out there.”

Muchova and Barty have met once before, in the third at the 2018 US Open and it was the Czech’s Grand Slam debut. Barty won the match 6-3, 6-4.

Monday’s results

Tuesday’s order of play

Doubles reaches quarterfinal round

Three of the top four seeded doubles teams remain as the quarterfinal round will take place at Melbourne Park on Tuesday. No. 2 seeds Elise Mertens of Belgium and Aryna Sabalenka from Belarus, the highest remaining seeded team, will take on No. 7 seeds Shuko Aoyama and Ena Shibahara. Also, No. 3 seeds Barbora Krejcikova and Katerina Siniakova and No. 4 seeds Nicole Melichar of the United States and Demi Schuurs of the Netherlands remain in contention.

What they’re saying

• Jessica Pegula of the United States on the camaraderie of the American women:

• Patrick Mouratoglou, Serena Williams’ coach, was asked about the improved movement the 23-time Grand Slam champion has shown during her run at this year’s Australian Open:

“First of all, it’s something that we have put the emphasis on because in tennis that’s probably one of the most important things. If you are late on the ball, you can’t do what you want to do.

“Sometimes you don’t even touch the ball, so …

“I mean, it’s a sport where you have to be able to move fast from side to side and long enough. It’s something that probably in the last two, three years, this had consequences for Serena.

“Even more, when you’re not in a good day, you need a Plan B. To be able to have a Plan B, you have to be able to move well. If you can’t move well, there is no Plan B. The only plan is attack. I think it cost her a few important matches. So, we have decided to find a way to bring back the footwork that she used to have in the past. I feel like she’s done a great job. She’s moving much better.”