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Tuesday February 7th, 2023 5:11PM

Buffalo’s Pegula eyes 1st Slam semifinal at Australian Open

By The Associated Press
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MELBOURNE, Australia (AP) — At the draw ceremony for the season-ending WTA Finals in October, the emcee called Jessica Pegula to the front of the room and asked the 28-year-old American about her championship at an event in Mexico a handful of days earlier.

He called it the “biggest title” of her career. Pegula politely corrected him: “Biggest title so far,” she said, emphasizing those last two words.

Pegula chuckled when asked about that exchange during an interview with The Associated Press.

“I didn’t mean to say that, but that’s good that I said that,” she said. “So far, that IS my biggest title, so that’s factual and true — but also, hopefully, definitely not the last.”

Pegula's had a winding journey in professional tennis and, at the Australian Open, she is hoping to add by far her most significant trophy yet. When she steps on court to face 2012-13 champion Victoria Azarenka on Tuesday at 7 p.m. (3 a.m. EST), Pegula will be appearing in the quarterfinals for the third year in a row at Melbourne Park — and for the fifth time overall at a major, all in the past 24 months.

The No. 3 Pegula is the highest-seeded woman remaining, with No. 1 Iga Swiatek and No. 2 Ons Jabeur eliminated.

“I have a great shot here. ... All around, throughout the whole tournament, I’ve been playing the best I have,” she said Sunday after beating 2021 French Open champion Barbora Krejcikova 7-5, 6-2 in the fourth round.

Pegula relies on terrific returning (she’s won a tournament-high 64% of games served by opponents) and strong defense. She uses a flat forehand and backhand slice (she’s won 61% of points played at the baseline, second-best so far).

“She plays quite simple, which is, I would say, a compliment,” Azarenka said, likening that aspect of Pegula’s approach to former No. 1 Ash Barty, who “just did certain things so well, over and over and over again.”

Pegula is 0-4 so far in Slam quarterfinals, with losses to Jennifer Brady at the 2021 Australian Open, Barty at the 2022 Australian Open, and Swiatek at the 2022 French Open and 2022 U.S. Open.

“I guess, currently, seeding-wise, I’m the favorite,” Pegula said. “I would say it feels different.”

And it's a long way from her trying times over the last decade. There was a 2013 knee problem that required surgery, but she worked her way back from that and earned a Grand Slam main-draw debut at the 2015 U.S. Open by beating 2009 U.S. Open quarterfinalist Melanie Oudin in the last round of qualifying.

Then came another health setback: A hip operation that kept Pegula out of action for more than half of 2017, dropping her ranking to No. 860 and sending her to lower-level ITF events.

Again, she regrouped and returned, claiming her first WTA title at Washington in 2019. That came shortly after beginning to work with Venus Williams' former coach, David Witt, who has pointed to the way Pegula “started believing in herself more that she belongs up there.”

In Grand Slam action, Pegula went through a seven-match losing streak that ended with a third-round showing at the 2020 U.S. Open, and she delivered her initial major quarterfinal five months later in Australia.

More steps have followed — she called them “mini-breakthroughs” — including cracking the top 10 last year.

“I was like, ‘Wow, I broke through there,’ because I didn’t have a great Slam record. Then after that, it was ... winning my first WTA event. That was a big one,” Pegula said. “So there’s all these little ... milestones, I guess you could call them. I think it just kept building my confidence as I went along. I wouldn’t say there was like a huge turning point.”

Another could come this week: The Pegula-Azarenka winner will face whoever emerges from Tuesday’s quarterfinal between 2022 Wimbledon champion Elena Rybakina and 2017 French Open champion Jelena Ostapenko.

The fourth-round matches on the bottom half of the draw were scheduled for Monday: Aryna Sabalenka vs. Belinda Bencic, Donna Vekic vs. Linda Fruhvirtova, Caroline Garcia vs. Magda Linette, and Karolina Pliskova vs. Zhang Shuai.

Pegula’s own calendar included two sporting events Monday. At 7 a.m. local time (3 p.m. Sunday EST), the NFL team that's owned by her parents, the Buffalo Bills, hosted the Cincinnati Bengals in the playoffs — and Pegula was planning to wake up early so she could watch. Buffalo lost 27-10.

She caught part of the Bills' AFC wild-card win over the Miami Dolphins before playing her first-round match in Melbourne, and has been wearing a patch on her skirt with the No. 3 jersey number of Buffalo safety Damar Hamlin, who went into cardiac arrest during a game three weeks ago.

Then, on Monday afternoon, Pegula and Coco Gauff teamed up to reach the quarterfinals in women's doubles by beating Aldila Sutjiadi and Miyu Kato 6-4, 6-2.

“I hope,” Gauff said about Pegula’s singles title ambitions, “she wins it.”

___

AP tennis: https://apnews.com/hub/tennis and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports

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