Defending Citi Open champion Jessica Pegula rolls into the first round

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Jessica Pegula, the highest-ranking American in professional tennis, looked like a consummate pro ahead of her first match as a top seed and defending champion at the 2022 Citi Open on Monday — at ease on the court and sociable off it.

It all showed in their 6-2, 6-2 win in the first round DC’s own Hailey Baptiste. Despite Baptiste back in her first match since injuring her ankle at the French Open, pushing the world No. 7 hard at the start of each set, Pegula calmly demonstrated her smooth serve, powerful return and longevity, taking Baptiste throughout the game Games apart longer and the day got hotter.

“I put a lot of pressure and extended a lot of their holds and I know from personal experience that they’re really hard to hold,” Pegula said after the match. “It can definitely take a toll physically and mentally and as it got a little hot outside I was able to move around a bit better.”

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Three years ago, another Pegula was vying to compete in DC. 2019, when the Citi Open last held a WTA event, Pegula’s first and only WTA Tour singles win came at Rock Creek Park and helped define her burgeoning career.

This year seemed to be a mixed year for the Ox native. Her first entry into the WTA Top 100 resulted in a top 75 finish when she beat then-No.12 Anastasija Sevastova at the Charleston Open, but those highs were tarnished by back-to-back first-round exits at the French Open and Wimbledon – her first appearances in the main draw at both Grand Slams.

And on the pitch, Pegula struggled with an identity crisis. She recalled criticism she’d received at the time of appearing negative during games or “like she didn’t want to be there,” so she tried to counter that by adding artificial punches, wild maneuvers, and other unnatural bursts of energy to her game instilled .

By her own account, she didn’t play the way she wanted.

“I would be too energetic or try to be too much, then I would be exhausted because I would be wasting all this energy doing all these things,” Pegula said. “And of course I’m not really like that.”

Pegula decided to take full control of her career. She hired a new coach, David Witt, fresh from a long stint as coach of Venus Williams. She began planning her own training programs and hiring her own trainers. She was even her own agent for a time, booking her own travel and registering for tournaments.

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

“That [process] Don’t make me think about who I am on the pitch,” explained Pegula, “because now I’m like, ‘Oh, I’m in charge of my own career.’ And that’s how I think I always wanted it to be.”

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

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

With a fresh look at her career and a new coach in her corner, Pegula found Witt was right – there was no reason she couldn’t capture her first WTA title. And with a straight-set loss to Camila Giorgi in the final, she did just that.

During her trophy ceremony, her Miniature Australian Shepherd, Maddie, rushed onto the pitch and hugged her, creating a lasting image of the turning point Pegula’s career took.

“Starting this week it kind of changed, I tried to get better every day but also said, ‘There’s no reason you can’t be at the top of the game,'” she mused. “And now here we are, a few years later, and I’m at my highest rank — the top 10 in the world.”

It’s the renewed Pegula, who arrived in DC last weekend as the defending champion of the Citi Open – reaching three Grand Slam quarterfinals in the last two years and reaching the pinnacle of American tennis at the relatively old age of 28. And although Pegula said her dog wouldn’t be making the trip to the capital, the changes of the past three years were on full display on Monday.

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In her experience, criticism of her supposed negativity and nonchalance has reached a full 180.

“People come up to me and say, ‘Oh my god, you’re so calm and you’re so confident and you have such a great attitude about yourself,'” she said. “And I’m just laughing because for so long it’s been the opposite and it’s been so frustrating to hear that.”

And that showed on the pitch. Faced with a hostile crowd standing up for a hero of their hometown, Pegula never seemed nervous or overwhelmed against Baptiste, but kept her toned form and determined face. She only seemed to improve as the game progressed, using every long deuce and break point to give herself the advantage.

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

Pegula delivered only the lightest of punches after each hard-fought point, and it was only in victory that the world’s best American would let a gentle smile creep onto her face.

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