By: Ben Raby (www.twitter.com/benraby31)
Jessica Pegula says she feels right at home at the Citi Open. As the reigning women’s champion, Pegula is back in Washington for the first time since earning her maiden pro title in 2019.
“I think every player kind of has that one tournament, few tournaments, where they love to play,” said Pegula. “This tournament, I've always just had good vibes here.”
For DC native Hailey Baptiste, the comforts of home are everywhere. Over the weekend, the 20-year-old literally walked to the Rock Creek Park Tennis Center from her childhood home, surrounded by friends and family at her home town tournament.
“Growing up here,” Baptiste said, “coming to the tournament when I was younger, being in awe of all the players and now actually being one of the players, it’s just amazing.”
On Monday, Pegula and Baptiste will meet in a much-anticipated first-round showdown between two Americans who are seemingly plenty comfortable playing in the nation’s capital.
“I’ve always played well here,” Pegula said. “I've always had really good results here in the past. Even before I won the tournament, I had some really good wins here.”
Few weeks, though, compared to her triumph in 2019. Pegula earned five wins in seven days to secure that elusive first career title. Prior to that maiden crown, there was knee surgery in 2014, a leg injury in 2016 and hip surgery in 2017. By October 2017, Pegula’s ranking was down to 870th in the world.
But for Pegula, her title run in Washington was not only a significant benchmark after years on the Tour. It was also a springboard for the success that would follow.
“It was a huge breakthrough for me, just winning actually my only pro title,” said Pegula, now 28. “Even on the ITF tour I lost in quite a few finals. It was kind of getting the monkey off my back and giving me a big confidence boost. It was a huge, huge moment for me, being my only title. But kind of catapulted me into a lot of confidence to get a lot more success. So it was a big moment for me.”
Already in 2022, Pegula has reached the quarterfinals at both the Australian Open and French Open. She also advanced to her first career WTA-1000 Final in Madrid.
Those results have helped catapult Pegula, 28, to a career-high World No.7. This week’s Citi Open also marks Pegula’s first tournament since taking the reigns as the No.1 American- a title she doesn’t take lightly.
“Yeah, it's pretty crazy to think,” said Pegula, who turned pro in 2011. “It's so cool to be going into the American swing, U.S. swing, with that kind of next to my name. It's really special.”
Like Pegula, Baptiste also enjoyed a personal breakthrough at the 2019 Citi Open. Making her WTA main draw debut as a 17-year-old wild card, Baptiste earned her maiden win with a first-round upset of Madison Keys.
“I’ll always have that memory when I step back on the court here,” said Baptiste. “But I also think I’ve grown a lot as a person and a player- I’ve gone through a couple of pretty tough injuries and some others battles- but overall, I’m pretty happy with where I’ve come in the three years later.”
In Pegula and Baptiste’s only prior meeting on Tour (Berlin, 2021), Baptiste was forced to retire with a partially torn MCL. And after qualifying for the French Open in June, Baptiste retired from her opening match with a sprained ankle. This week’s Citi Open marks her first competition since.
“You re-teach yourself certain things and get your timing back,” Baptiste says of returning from an injury, “but getting back into tournament-[mode] and feeling the pressure again, those are things you have to get used to. So, it’s a challenge, but I’m excited to get going and it’s good that I get to it in my home town where I’m comfortable.”
Given Pegula’s own injury history early in her career, the No.1 seed has empathy for her first-round opponent.
“I've seen her get hurt a lot,” Pegula said. “I hope she can kind of find some time to really kind of evolve her game more because I think she's got a great game. Again, really, really talented.
“I know she'll be getting up to play me, being the higher-ranked person. I know she's going to want to play well. I'm used to people kind of lifting their level to play me. I think it will be really exciting, but I think it's a fun matchup, especially coming back to D.C. It will be fun.”