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On Kobe Bryant Day—and every other day—Jessica Pegula remembers one of her biggest inspirations
“Kobe’s journey really was the entire dream for him,” says the top-ranked American, who helps carry on his legacy.
Published Aug 24, 2023
WATCH: Tennis Honors—Kobe Bryant, creator and influencer in our sport
NEW YORK—In a section of the city squarely identified with basketball, even the third-ranked player in women’s tennis was talking hoops.
She wasn’t a huge fan of the sport growing up. She didn’t attend many games. But the Floridian by way of Buffalo—a city without an NBA franchise since 1978, 16 years before she was born—was talking hardwood as much as hard courts.
Such is the enduring power of Kobe Bryant.
Jessica Pegula, the WTA No. 3, knows that today, 8/24, is Kobe Bryant Day. The numbers are the digits Bryant emblazoned on the back of his Los Angeles Lakers jersey during a prolific career that saw him win NBA championships, Olympic gold medals and set innumerable scoring records.
His last NBA game was in April 2016. Less than four years later, in a staggering moment most will never forget where they were when they heard the news, Bryant, his daughter Gianna and seven other passengers tragically passed in a helicopter crash.
None of that horrific history, though, stops Pegula from invoking Bryant when his perspective feels appropriate, or to celebrate the man and athlete for what he left behind. He is seen atop her X/Twitter profile, she shares Bryant content on social media, and she consumes everything she can about the lost legend.
“He was always one of my biggest inspirations,” Pegula tells me in a shaded corner of Harlem’s Howard Bennett Playground. “When he retired, I read so much about his career, his game and his mindset—his Mamba Mentality of having to be the best version of yourself every single day and every moment. That just really spoke true to me.”
Along with tourmates Danielle Collins, Alycia Parks and coach Judy Murray, Pegula made the trek to Manhattan’s 135th Street Wednesday for a hitting session on a flawless summer morning. The day was made even brighter by the zeal and verve of local kids, eager to show their stuff to the US Open title contender. Children of wide age range wore t-shirts touting the “Come Play” clinic, to benefit the Harlem Junior Tennis & Education Program, and filled the two tennis-court space.
An adjacent basketball court sat vacant, with a tattered net fluttering in the breeze. For these two hours, it was tennis in Harlem—and Kobe, a noted tennis fan, would have approved.
“He was the same person that said,” reminded Pegula, “‘If you’re not giving back to your sport or the next generation, then what are you really doing this for?’”
“To hopefully be an inspiration for them”
Pegula arrived at the park around 11 and dutifully fulfilled an ever-expanding set of media requests: Television spots with local networks, social media hits for the tour, perhaps a sequence for an upcoming episode of Netflix’s Break Point. By the time the clock struck noon, she had enough—not of the event, but just standing and talking. She wanted to hit some tennis balls.
It was on brand for the 29-year-old who has never met a tournament she didn’t like. Normally one to play singles, doubles and even mixed at the majors, Pegula’s schedule in Flushing Meadows remains to be seen. In Harlem, she didn’t stop playing for the next 40 minutes, gladly trading groundies with eager young competitors. This was no brief appearance for the top-ranked American and her colleagues; it was another opportunity to immerse herself in the sport she loves.
“I just love playing games with them,” she says with a laugh, “and having fun on the court. That’s what it’s all about.”
Working with underserved communities is a core value for Pegula, who is on the Asian American Pacific Islander Tennis Association’s board of directors.
“It’s important to keep growing the game and giving these kids an opportunity to have a tennis racquet in their hand, and fall in love with the sport,” she says. “And for me and few other of the girls to hopefully be an inspiration for them.”
The dream and the journey
In a few days’ time, Pegula will get her latest opportunity to capture a title that’s eluded her in any discipline. She’s yet to lift a Grand Slam trophy, even though she’s made the singles quarterfinals in five of the last seven majors.
Reaching that round will not be satisfactory for Pegula, given that she is 0-6 in Grand Slam quarterfinals. After her most recent shortcoming at that stage—a loss to eventual champion Marketa Vondrousova at Wimbledon, in which Pegula nearly led by a double break in the final set—she posted a quote on Instagram:
“Those times when you get up early and you work hard; those times when you stay up late and you work hard; those times when you don’t feel like working, you’re too tired, you don’t want to push yourself, but you do it anyway; that is actually the dream. That’s the dream. It’s not the destination, it’s the journey.” Kobe Bryant
Pegula has pushed herself at tournaments that require the most pushing, only to come up short at the same, cruel juncture. But she’s never entered a US Open with more momentum. Her 1000-level title run in Montreal—somehow just the third tournament victory of her career—was a necessary balm on the wound left at Wimbledon.
“I didn’t really overthink it that week,” she says of Montreal. “Just tried to work myself into the tournament and see what happened.”
What happened? She beat red-hot Coco Gauff in three sets. Then, she beat world No. 1, and defending US Open champion, Iga Swiatek in three sets.
In the final, Pegula faced Liudmila Samsonova, who due to unfortunate scheduling was forced to complete her semifinal just hours earlier. There were no excuses to not finish the job. Pegula took care of business in an absurdly quick 49 minutes, 6-1, 6-0.
“I think was really enjoying competing in a lot of tough matches, especially against Coco and Iga, who are probably the most in-form right now,” says Pegula. “Getting through those matches was tough, but those are the weeks where sometimes I play my best. Being able to find that gives me a lot of confidence.”
Bryant was a five-time NBA champion; Pegula, like her family’s Buffalo Bills and their mafioso fanbase, would be thrilled to just win one big title. But whatever happens, it’s less about the destination, and more about steps, and swings, it takes along the way.
“Kobe’s journey really was the entire dream for him,” Pegula says. “I think that was really cool, and spoke true to how I want to have my career.”