For many, the New Year is a chance to get better – at work, in relationships, or to achieve their wildest dreams.
America’s top-ranked tennis player Jessica Pegula appears to have received the memo.
The 28-year-old got off to a flying start in 2023, securing her first career win over Iga Światek when she beat the world no. 1 6-2, 6-2 in the opening game of the United Cup semi-finals in Sydney earlier this month .
And with the Australian Open in full swing, the American, who has reached the quarterfinals of the tournament for the past two years, could be even more successful. On Friday, Pegula easily won her game in the third round against the Ukrainian Marta Kostyuk 6:0, 6:2.
Eurosport pundit Barbara Schett told CNN Sport: “Jess definitely has a chance to win her first Grand Slam title.
“I saw her play against Iga Światek and she really surprised me. She literally knocked Iga off the field. If she can repeat that level, she can win the Australian Open.”
Pegula, ranked number three in the world, comes from a different kind of athletic dynasty. Her father, billionaire Terry Pegula, and mother Kim are at the head of a sports empire and co-own the NFL’s Buffalo Bills and national hockey’s Buffalo Sabers league.
Her father, who is worth around $6.7 billion according to Forbes estimates, made his fortune in oil and gas through East Resources. After selling company assets, her parents bought the Sabers for $189 million in 2010 and the Bills for $1.4 billion in 2014.
“She really is something of a workaholic, which I think defies a lot of the stereotypes and expectations that you might have with someone from her background,” Ben Rothenberg, managing editor of Raquet Magazine, told CNN Sports.
Tennis star Pegula is a big Bills fan, often juggling tennis commitments to make time for games.
Outside of tennis, she owns her own skincare brand, Ready24. She also has a thing for furry friends and founded A Lending Paw with her husband Taylor Gahagen, a charity that connects people with rescued and trained service animals.
Pegula started playing tennis at the age of seven because her older sister Laura took part in the sport.
“She played tennis through junior days and college, so I was always on the tennis courts, watching her games and watching her practice. I remember thinking to myself, ‘Oh my god, I’ll never be able to hit as hard or be as good as her,'” Pegula said, according to Forbes.
“But I stuck with it and started taking classes after school three, four days a week and going to some of the tennis camps. That’s really how I started.”
Her journey hasn’t always been smooth, and injuries have stalled her career. A knee injury in 2014 kept her off tour for a year and a half, while hip surgery in 2017 was the “hardest thing to come back from,” she told reporters.
“I didn’t even know if I wanted to come back. It was just going to be so difficult,” she admitted. But then: “I think I just got over it. I was like, ‘Anyway, I’m just going to fight my way through one more time.'”
Given her injuries and her unique family background, it would have been easy to assume that she would “resign from court,” according to Rothenberg.
“Unlike many other players, she didn’t play to support her parents and family,” he explained. “But she’s really shown incredible commitment, dedication and passion for tennis, going through all the different injuries she’s had, giving in and really playing to her best so far.”
As well as being number three in singles, she is also one of the busiest players on the tour and “often plays a very professional doubles game,” he added.
Pegula’s breakthrough finally came in 2021, where – after starting the year at number 62 – she finished the season in the top 20 after five quarterfinals, two semifinals and seven top 10 finishes.
“She’s just a down to earth, genuine person and she works really hard,” her coach David Witt said, according to USTA in 2021. “She’s just really easy to get along with. We have fun while we work hard. And we just clicked,” he added.
Rothenberg agrees. “It’s been a few years in a row now that people really thought she was kinda pushing past what people probably thought was her ceiling. She continues to defy the standards set for her, the limits set by the forecasters in sport.
“You bet against her at your own risk, even if she’s starting from stronger and stronger places. And it started off very, very strongly,” he said.
This, he said, shows in the reliability of their game.
“Pegula has been really incredibly consistent in beating the players she was supposed to be beating in the big events and she’s met her seeding list, she doesn’t get upset – that’s really rare and really impressive,” he explained.
In three of last year’s four Grand Slams, Pegula lost in the quarterfinals to the eventual champion, who was beaten by the now-retired Ash Barty at the Australian Open and by Światek at the French Open and US Open. Reaching that stage of the tournament, she joked, had become her “MO.”
“My goal all year has been to win more tournaments, stay put all year, and finally be more rewarding at the end of the year,” Pegula said in a flashback to 2022. This happened in Guadalajara, where they had their biggest Victory secured and trophy.
Now the Australian Open is coming.
Eurosport pundit 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 ball striker, but she’s improved her consistency and movement so much over the last year,” Robson said.
“She’s hitting the ball better than ever and beating Swiatek in the United Cup will give her a lot of confidence to believe she can finally have that big break in the Slams.”
“If Melbourne’s conditions are similar to Sydney’s, I think that really suits their game. Playing really low and flat and fast is just what she likes and what suits her ball-stroke,” Rothenberg said, but added that her success could depend on who she puts in the draw.
“There are definitely a lot of strong players. But their steadfastness is really their best weapon in many ways,” he added.