MELBOURNE, Australia – As a Pittsburgh Steelers fan whose parents ended up buying the NFL’s Buffalo Bills, Jessica Pegula had to adapt. But she’s deep in it now, praising quarterback Josh Allen’s leadership skills even as she competes in the Australian Open tennis tournament, taking the field in an outfit whose red, white, and blue hues evoke the colors of the Bills, thinking ahead thanks to her sponsor.
“It was so random, but I think this is perfect,” Pegula said.
She even signed the camera lens after her third-round singles win with a neat note that read, “Bills you’re next.”
“I’m like, come on, I backed myself up, now you guys have to take the win,” Pegula said with a chuckle ahead of the Bills playoff game against the Kansas City Chiefs on Sunday.
Accumulating wins would be a godsend for the Pegula family to enjoy, and Jessica has delivered another strong run down under.
It was in Australia that she launched her breakthrough season in 2021 by reaching the quarter-finals. At 27, she’s about to jump back into the top 20, win or lose in her fourth-round rematch with Maria Sakkari, who saved six match points before beating Pegula in the round of 16. at last year’s Miami Open in a memorable whirlwind duel.
But Pegula has come back from worse. She is a privileged child, by her own admission, she has shown perseverance and audacity in her quest to become a Grand Slam contender. Yes, she had access to private coaching and abundant support from her family: Her 70-year-old father Terry is a billionaire businessman who made his $5.7 billion fortune primarily from natural gas and real estate development.
But Pegula had to overcome major knee and hip surgery in her late teens and early 20s that required extensive rehabilitation before finally breaking through to the elite.
“She was on her way up twice and had to start over,” said Michael Joyce, who coached her for six years starting in 2011 after coaching Maria Sharapova. “Of course, Jessie could have easily thrown in the towel with her family and her situation, and the fact that she kept coming back was special. A lot of people would have said, ‘Wrong this, I’m done’, especially in her position.”
Tennis, with significant coaching and travel costs, is an expensive sport to master at a high level, but highly regarded stars from ultra-rich backgrounds are rare on the tour. Pegula may be the first on the women’s tour since Carling Bassett, daughter of Canadian brewery director John Bassett, broke into the top 10 in the 1980s.
“I know a lot of people from very wealthy families who are pretty good, good enough to play in college or something, but most of the time they die,” Joyce said.
Pegula said she sometimes felt self-conscious about her family’s wealth, worried that it would make others uncomfortable. Joyce said she was often hesitant to organize training sessions with outsiders at the family’s luxurious home in Boca Raton, Florida, with its two tennis courts – clay and hard.
“Maybe I was trying to hide it a bit,” Pegula said. “Then I think I kind of embraced it, not like exaggerated, but I think once I was more comfortable and I knew I was doing the hard work and everything I was doing, like, hey, I got another story, but maybe it’s a nice story. Maybe it’s okay if I embrace the Bills and the teams a bit more and things like that.”
She added: “But I’ve always been a little low key. I don’t like to show off, and I think that’s why I was able to be successful.”
Terry and his wife, Kim Pegula, who was born in Seoul and raised in Fairport, NY near Rochester, bought Buffalo Sabers from the NHL in 2011, when Jessica turned 17. They bought the Bills in 2014 for $1.4 billion.
It was only then that Pegula said she became acutely aware of her family’s fortunes, but it didn’t change how she felt about tennis.
“I’ve always been super driven, before the bills and the money and all that stuff,” she said.
“This is always what I wanted. So when all these things happened to me later in life, people would ask me, ‘Why are you doing this?’ And I’d say, ‘I don’t understand. This hasn’t changed since I was 6 or 7 years old. Why should it change now?’”
Pegula said she has come to believe she has a responsibility to live up to her benefits.
“I get this great opportunity. Why would I want to sabotage that if I really love what I do?” she said. “I don’t shy away from people getting fewer opportunities, and I think people are more aware that giving everyone equal opportunities is important. But I didn’t choose the life I should have. You’re kind of born into it, and I think everyone gets a different hand. It’s how you deal with it, and I’m glad I was able to do it justice and not take it for granted. To me it would be selfish to do that a disservice.”
Pegula said she’s learned to “embrace the grind” — the fitness training, exercise sessions and preventative work now needed to keep her healthy after the injuries that could have ended her career.
At six feet tall, she’s not the most imposing athlete on a women’s tour that is increasingly populated by taller players with explosive power and movement. But she has excellent timing, excellent fundamentals, an understanding of tactics and an even temperament.
“It always drove me crazy,” Joyce said. “She could play an entire tournament without one punch.”
Equanimity can be helpful in a relentless competitive sport where success is precarious. One of Pegula’s best friends, Jennifer Brady, was an Australian Open finalist last year but has now missed the last two majors with a chronic foot condition.
It can all seem fragile, all the more so given the coronavirus pandemic. Pegula married her longtime boyfriend Taylor Gahagen in October at the Biltmore Estate in Asheville, NC, but her coach, David Witt, tested positive for the coronavirus and she, as close contact, withdrew from the Billie Jean King Cup team event.
The next day she tested positive. So did her husband. “We actually had a Covid honeymoon,” Pegula said. “We were in our house for two weeks.”
Although Pegula said it took her “a few weeks” to recover, she enjoyed the extended off-season and the chance to spend time with her three dogs in Boca Raton: Maddie, a miniature Australian Shepherd; Dexter, a German Shepherd; and Tucker, a chocolate Labrador.
“Lots of different personalities,” Pegula said. “As three children I think. But you have to adapt.”
Consider that her catchphrase. She used to have a dog named after Sidney Crosby, the hockey star of the Pittsburgh Penguins. The connection to Pittsburgh was real: Her father is from Pennsylvania and a graduate of Penn State. Although Jessica was born in Buffalo, the Pegulas lived in Pittsburgh when she was young.
“To be honest we weren’t really Bills fans but that has clearly turned around,” she said, as she prepared to check the time difference with Australia closely and watch Sunday’s big game.