NEW YORK—Football and tennis don’t often get mentioned in the same breath. But in the case of Jessica Pegula, it’s only natural. Her father, Terry, is a multi-billionaire through oil and gas engineering and the owner of the National Football League’s Buffalo Bills—along with the National Hockey League’s Buffalo Sabres. Last year, he let his daughter know the good news with a simple text: “We own Bills.”
After Jessica qualified for this year’s U.S. Open, the Bills—or, @buffalobills on Twitter—summed up the good news simply:
But despite some obvious financial advantages, the 21-year-old’s road to the 2015 main draw has been anything but simple. Born in Buffalo, N.Y., Pegula was inspired to play by her older sister, who played Division I tennis at the University of Pittsburgh. She picked up the game and eventually caught the eye of Billy Stearns of the Smith Stearns Tennis Academy in Hilton Head Island. The coach noticed Pegula's talents and invited her to South Carolina, where she came to realize the potential she exhibited as a pre-teen. Pegula was so good during her time down south that she made an appearance on “Good Morning America” to hit balls with Robin Roberts.
At the 2011 U.S. Open, Pegula, then 17, chose to turn professional after winning her first-round qualifying match and reaching the third round of the doubles main draw with Taylor Townsend.
“I was thinking about college a lot,” Pegula says. “I was thinking even if I just got in, then I could leave [to play pro] and go back. But my parents said we can afford to help you with this. If you want to go for it, go for it.”
By 2013, Pegula was closing in on the Top 100 (her career-high ranking is No. 123). But at Wimbledon, she suffered what would become a major setback. A knee injury forced her to retire in qualifying, but it turned out to be much more complicated than that. A significant amount of on- and off-court time was lost figuring out what was specifically wrong, amidst countless opinions from doctors.
Pegula continued playing in 2013, but wrapped up her season outside the Top 200 and with another mid-match retirement. She eventually underwent knee surgery to have her joint cleaned out and plica tissue removed. When it was all said and done, the ordeal forced her out of the game for a year and a half, and from the 2013 and 2014 U.S. Opens. Her outlook on sport changed from thriving to surviving.
“My goal was just to be healthy at the end of the year, and that would be a good year,” Pegula says about the 2015 season, after missing nearly all of last year.
Playing with a protected ranking this year, Pegula won two rounds of qualifying at both Roland Garros and Wimbledon. Unable to punch through at the final stage of those summer Slams—one of the toughest losses a pro must deal with—Pegula completed the trifecta at Flushing Meadows. After a three-set win in her first match, Pegula beat the top seed in the qualifying tournament, Margarita Gasparyan—a Russian ranked 216 spots above her—6-3, 6-3. She qualified for the big show with a 7-6 (8), 6-0 win over fellow American Melanie Oudin.
“I think I enjoy it more now than I did before,” Pegula says about the game. “Just from being hurt I think I appreciate it more.”
Pegula has worked her way back to No. 257 alongside a name you may recognize, Michael Joyce, the former coach of Maria Sharapova. The two started working together in Charleston a few years ago, when a mutual friend suggested it over Facebook.
“I thought she had a lot of potential,” Joyce says. “I thought it was kind of cool to work with somebody young again. [Sharapova] was so young when we started. It’s cool to start so young and see how far it can go.”
“He was with me during my whole knee ordeal, which was pretty awesome,” says Pegula, who will play 54th-ranked Alison Van Uytvanck on Monday. “Having that support gave me a lot of confidence to come back this year.”
With that confidence, Pegula is looking to make the most of her singles main-draw debut at the U.S. Open.