At the height of her tennis career, Jessica Pegula balances big matches, personal challenges | Local News

NEW YORK — Nobody notices her.

Jessica Pegula is sitting at a table in the middle of a busy Manhattan food hall, across the street from her trendy-but-not-outlandish hotel. It's lunchtime, and she's poking at a make-your-own Mediterranean bowl.

Pegula, 28, is one of the top tennis players in the world. She may also be, as the British press in particular loves to speculate, the wealthiest. When she lost in the third round of Wimbledon in July, the Daily Star referred to her as "the world's richest tennis star" and an "American heiress."

But in Manhattan on a late August morning – and everywhere, really – Pegula is decidedly un-heiresslike. She flew in from Buffalo a couple of hours earlier with her husband, Taylor Gahagen, and is getting settled for what she hopes is a three-week stay in the US Open. Nothing about her commands attention: She has no entourage; just her husband. She's wearing a gray tank top and blue shorts and, in this setting, could be more easily taken as a tourist than what she actually is: an athlete climbing to the apex of her sport.

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Aside from a wedding ring, Pegula has no fancy jewelry – no visual indicators that her parents are the billionaire owners of two professional sports teams. Nothing except a pair of beaded bracelets. "A 12-year-old could probably do these," she said, smiling.

But the meaning runs a little deeper than a simple childhood craft: One bracelet is yellow and blue – the colors of the Buffalo Sabres, which her parents Terry and Kim Pegula purchased in 2011, when Jessie, as her family calls her, was 17.

The other bracelet is red and blue, for the Buffalo Bills, which her parents bought in 2014. They were made by her friend and competitor, the Australian tennis player Daria Saville.

"She used to make these – she was doing it when she was hurt and wasn't doing anything, and I was like, 'Oh, make me Bills and Sabers colors,'" said Pegula, who received the bracelets from Saville before the 2021 Australian Open. Pegula advanced to the quarterfinals of that tournament, which is one of tennis' four major championships. She wore the Bills and Sabers beads during her matches – "(Saville) was watching me on TV and said, 'Oh my God, you're wearing my bracelets!' ” Pegula recalled – and she still slips them on today.

Subtle as they are, those bracelets may be the only indicator during a tennis match of Pegula's family connection to the National Football League, National Hockey League, or extreme wealth. For most matches, you won't see either of her parents in the crowd.

Not that they aren't watching. Terry Pegula, who is a passionate tennis fan even beyond his daughter's career, watches almost every one of her matches on TV or livestream, which is easier than ever to do, because of her high Women's Tennis Association ranking – eighth worldwide in singles; sixth in doubles; and the top American woman – means she's always on the broadcast.

Kim Pegula, who has been battling an undisclosed medical situation this summer, gets "so nervous that she can't watch," Jessie said. When Kim Pegula, who is the president of the Bills and Sabres, has attended tournaments in the past, she'll step away from Jessie's matches to check out the concessions.

"She likes to think of it like that; it's fun for her,” Jessie said. "She'll just go eat. Literally, she can't watch. She'll sit there, fidgeting." At home, Jessie added, her mom records matches but tends only to watch if her daughter wins. "She likes to know the outcome if she watches," Jessie said.

Jessie is one of five siblings: Older brother, Michael, and sister, Laura, from her father's first marriage; and younger sister, Kelly, and brother, Matthew. They'll sometimes show up at tournaments, and Jessie will get them tickets – but typically not guest passes that allow them to access the players' lounge.

"I like to keep in my routine," Pegula said. Last month, after winning the doubles title with New Zealander Erin Routliffe at the Citi Open in Washington, DC, but losing her second singles match to Saville – the maker of her bracelets – Pegula was heading to tournaments in Toronto and Cincinnati before arriving here for the US Open. She told Kelly, "You can come, but I kind of just want to stay in my own little bubble for the next few weeks."

2020 Women's ASB Classic: Day 6

Jessica Pegula, shown at the 2020 Women's ASB Classic at ASB Tennis Centre, has advanced to the quarterfinals of the Western and Southern Open.

Pegula advanced to the singles semifinals in Toronto and quarterfinals in Cincinnati, and won the doubles title – her fourth this year – with her fellow American Coco Gauff in Toronto.

"I think I do better when there are less people, less commotion," Pegula said. "My family, I try to keep them at arm's length."

She laughs lightly again. Pegula is easygoing and, with the exception of when a match is going poorly and she pounds her fist or slams her racquet on the court, seems relatively stress-free. That's what she conveys, but it's not how life has been. Pegula's career to this point – including today, even as she is finally operating near the top of her sport – has been stacked with challenges.

And they are challenges that her family's resources cannot fix.

The opening chapters of her story are the easy ones: Pegula, who was born in Buffalo and spent the early part of her childhood in Pittsburgh while her dad ran the oil and gas operation that made him wealthy, began playing tennis at age 7. She showed prodigious talent and her family moved to South Carolina to get her high-level coaching. Pegula kept ascending the tennis ranks, turning pro in 2009. She ultimately moved to Boca Raton, Fla., where she lives and trains today when she's not traveling.

That's the simple part. Here are the tougher ones: In her early 20s – the age when most tennis players make their biggest moves in the pro rankings – Pegula fought through multiple injuries and medical procedures. A knee surgery in 2014, followed by a leg injury in 2016 and a hip surgery in 2017, stripped at least two years out of her career. Pegula reflected intensely on whether to continue in the sport, and her parents questioned it too.

Last summer, as Pegula headed into the Olympics as a member of the United States team, her mother recalled those days in an interview with ESPN: "I remember thinking, 'Why would she want to keep doing this?' Kim Pegula said. "There are other women whose families are relying on them through tennis, but she doesn't have that worry. She doesn't have to do this and her life would be so much easier if she didn't. But it's because she loves this sport and she's truly doing it for herself.”

That was a clear choice Jessie Pegula had to make. She remembers her parents asking her, "Are we going to keep doing this? Are we going to keep trying?”

She added: "I think they maybe wanted a little more – I don't want to say commitment, because I was committed – but I think at the same time maybe I wasn't as professional as I could be," she said. "I don't think it was intentional. I don't think I knew all the other things I could be doing. I always worked really hard. I always put a lot of effort into it and wanted it. But I think it was all the little small things that add up at the end of the day."

Pegula is careful not to overstate the moment: There was no single, transformational conversation. Instead, through months and years of injury – which she also spent launching a skin care line, Ready 24, and with Kelly, the since-closed Healthy Scratch eateries in Buffalo – she reflected and decided to take charge of her career.

"I decided myself: I'm doing everything for myself," Pegula said. "I'm making the decisions. I'm paying for it. Everything is mine."

The years since recovering from those injuries have been the best of Pegula's career. In 2019, she hired a new coach, David Witt, who had previously spent 11 years with tennis superstar Venus Williams. Shortly after hiring Witt, Pegula won her first – and still only – singles title at the Citi Open in Washington.

Pegula has been on the upswing since. She broke into the top 20 in singles and doubles rankings in 2021, then into the top 10 this year. Nearly half of her $5.3 million career earnings have been collected this year. She has a sponsorship with Adidas and the racquet company Yonex; she is also sponsored by Imagine Staffing of Buffalo and just inked a deal with the sports nutrition company Ready.

"It's her business. She's the boss, and I think she takes pride in that on and off the court," said Witt, her coach. "She's taken pride in being able to be her own boss and do it like she is doing it."

During lunch in New York, Pegula joked with her husband Gahagen, an investment analyst who studied business at SUNY Fredonia and holds an MBA from Canisius College, that "I'm the CEO, and he's my agent with no commission." She has been steering her career at a high level during a time that is personally challenging: The family has kept private the details of Kim Pegula's health issues, which first emerged in late June, and Jessie acknowledged that she learned how to "compartmentalize" and separate her mother's medical situation from her own tennis career.

Over the years, her mother has been "good," Pegula said, "at knowing emotionally where to be involved, and not letting it affect her work."

The routine of practicing and playing matches focuses her attention, Pegula added, and the sport itself is "therapeutic."

"When I play tennis, it's where I kind of forget about everything else," she said. "Once I get out there, I'm really not thinking about anything else."

She carries with her a moleskin journal and opens it after matches, and on non-tennis days, too. "I always try to write down three things I'm grateful for," she said, offering that day's examples:

• "I'm happy that my husband is here with me."

• "I'm thankful that someone is watching my dogs at home." (Pegula and Gahagen have three dogs in Florida.)

• "I'm thankful for going to the baseball game tonight." (They were heading to the Yankees-Mets game at Yankee Stadium.)

"That's something I'll do probably for the next couple of weeks," said Pegula, who several days later, had a mostly strong start in the US Open, winning her first two singles matches and her first mixed doubles match alongside American partner Austin Krajicek. Her doubles match with Gauff didn't turn out as well: The pair, which was seeded No. 2, was upset in the first round.

But there's more tennis to come, both in New York and beyond. Although Pegula is hitting the apex of her career at a relatively older age for a tennis player, if she stays healthy, she has the time to establish herself permanently at the top of her sport.

"She kind of flies under the radar," Witt said. "Whether she likes that or not, I think she's definitely starting to get the respect, on and off the court, for what she's accomplished. She should, because she deserves it."

If her trajectory continues, it'll be less likely that Pegula can sit in a busy New York eatery and command no notice from passersby. The attention that could come her way is part of the game, too, but it's an element Pegula has steadfastly refused to rush or buy. She made a choice years ago not to aim for money at tennis by hiring a bigger entourage or surrounding herself with more luxury. "I don't want to be that person who's getting an upper hand to be good," she said, referring to the past. "I want to earn it." Today, she added, "I've earned my stripes."

But those stripes needn't be self-rewarded by anything glitzy or glamorous. A pair of beaded bracelets – made by a fellow player, representing her family's businesses – will do just fine.

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