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Jessica Pegula defuses powerful Danielle Collins in Roland Garros opener
As the top-ranked American's 6-4, 6-2 victory demonstrated, no tournament reveals one’s level of match toughness more vividly than Roland Garros.
Published May 28, 2023
WATCH: Jessica Pegula defeats Danielle Collins in the 2023 Roland Garros first round
Shortly after 8:30 p.m. Sunday night, two American women entered Court Suzanne Lenglen to play a first round match at Roland Garros. One, Jessica Pegula, is seeded third at the tournament, but to date is 0-5 in Grand Slam quarterfinals, including a defeat last year in Paris to eventual champion Iga Swiatek. The other, Danielle Collins, is currently ranked No. 46 and as recently as January ‘22 reached the finals of the Australian Open.
Even if Pegula had won all four of their prior matches, the threat of Collins’ firepower, particularly off the backhand, posed the possibility of this being a tricky and even dramatic matchup.
Another X factor was Pegula’s health, as just a week ago, she’d suffered a case of food poisoning. “There's been a lot of obstacles,” said Pegula following the match. “I feel like the last couple of weeks specifically have been really tough physically and then taking their toll mentally because of that.”
But as Pegula’s 6-4, 6-2 victory demonstrated, no tournament reveals one’s level of match toughness more vividly than Roland Garros. Everyone is fresh for the Australian Open. Sheer bravado has carried more than one contender to great results on the lawns of Wimbledon. And by the time the US Open comes around, the entire circuit is both seasoned and scarred.
Collins had played only one clay-court singles match this year, losing her Charleston opener back in early April (an injury forced Collins’ withdrawal from Madrid and Rome). Pegula had played nine, a diligent clay season, highlighted by a semifinal run in Charleston and a quarterfinal effort in Madrid. Adding to Pegula’s pre-Roland Garros mix was that she had paired with Coco Gauff for ten clay court doubles matches, the two reaching the finals in Madrid and Rome. Even if she didn’t feel quite right upon arrival in Paris, Pegula certainly had competed far more of late than Collins.
The first six games of this match were marked by nerves and erratic play from both. Serving at 2-1, 30-love, Pegula lost four nervous points, the last an overhead rarely missed by a pro. At 2-all, Collins double-faulted twice. Up a break for the third time, Pegula surrendered her serve at love.
But at 3-all, Collins’ serve betrayed her once more. A double-fault on the first point, then another at 30-all, and soon Pegula began to assert herself in the toothpick-by-toothpick manner that’s taken her up the ranks. Fighting off a break point at 4-3 and eventually holding, Pegula comfortably served out the set at love.
By this stage, Pegula’s subtle yet forceful ability to assert herself had also begun to pry open the fissures in Collins’ game. One notable first set data point: On her second serve, Collins won just two of 18 points. As the singer Neil Young once titled an album, rust never sleeps.
From there, the second set went swiftly. Pegula rapidly took a 5-1 lead and served out the match at 15, the final shot a crisp forehand winner.
“I'm glad I got through today,” said Pegula. “I still feel good, but the last couple of weeks have been definitely interesting. The first time, too, playing Madrid and Rome two weeks and being American, we don't really love being in Europe that much. So it's definitely been different I think than last year.
“I'm happy that I was able to kind of shift my perspective, at least today, and be able to play really great tennis. Hopefully now that I have two days off, I can kind of take that into the next match.”
Come June, Collins will hopefully resurface on the grass, keen to play her brand of forceful tennis. For now, though, Pegula advances to play an even more lively ball-striker, Camila Giorgi. Given that these two have played one another nine times, Pegula winning seven, it’s a pairing defined heavily by familiarity. But Giorgi’s streaky style—right down to an appetite for hitting her second serve harder than the first—also makes the matchup tilt on the unpredictable. Their most recent match came at Indian Wells this March, Pegula winning 3-6, 6-1, 6-2.
Pegula has mastered tennis so well that she knows precisely how to handle such volatile players as Collins and Giorgi. Neither of those two has played consistently enough over time to derail someone as mobile, fit, and aware of the court as Pegula. And make no mistake: Pegula is scarcely defensive. Her flat drives are often quite penetrating—deep and accurate, struck early and hard.
But it’s the higher-level power players—Swiatek, Aryna Sabalenka, Elena Rybakina—who have what it takes to thwart Pegula in the late stages of major events.
All great players rely on patterns and discipline to carry them far. Certainly, that’s been Pegula’s success recipe. But my belief is that those who go even further find new ways to broaden their own line of attack and therefore surprise opponents with a few tactics that defy the pattern and break open a match; not merely winning a single point, but also redefining the terms of combat.
As Roland Garros continues, it will be intriguing to see what new wrinkles Pegula brings to the mix.