NEW YORK – No one noticed.
Jessica Pegula is seated at a table in the middle of a crowded Manhattan dining hall, across the street from her trendy but not outlandish hotel. It’s lunchtime, and she’s waving your Mediterranean bowl.
Pegola, 28, is one of the best tennis players in the world. You may also be, as the British press in particular like to speculate, the richest. When she lost in the third round of Wimbledon in July, the Daily Star referred to her as “the richest tennis star in the world” and “American heiress”.
But in Manhattan on a late August morning—and everywhere, really—a Pegula with no heiress. She flew in from Buffalo two hours ago with her husband, Taylor Gahagen, and settled on what she hopes will be a three-week stay at the US Open. Nothing about her orders Attention: she has no retinue; Only her husband. She’s wearing a gray tank top and blue shorts, and in this place she’s more easily taken as a tourist than she really is: an athlete climbing to the top of her sport.
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Aside from her wedding ring, Pegula doesn’t own luxury jewelry – and there are no visible indications that her parents are billionaires for two professional sports teams. Nothing but a pair of beaded bracelets. “Maybe a 12-year-old could do it,” she said with a smile.
But the meaning is a little deeper than a simple childhood craft: a single bracelet in yellow and blue – the colors of Buffalo Sabers, which her parents Terry and Kim Pegula bought in 2011, when Jesse, as her family calls her, was 17 years old.
The other bracelet, in red and blue, was bought by her parents in 2014. It was made by her friend and competitor, Australian tennis player Daria Savile.
Pegula, who received the bracelets from Savile prior to the 2021 Australian Open, said. Pegula advanced to the quarterfinals of that tournament, one of the four major tennis tournaments. She wore the Beaded Bills and Sabers during her matches – “(Saville) was watching me on TV and said, ‘Oh my God, you’re wearing my bracelets! ‘” Pegula remembers—and she still fumbles with it today.
Despite their thinness, these bracelets may be the only indication during a tennis match of the Pegula family’s connection to the NFL, the National Hockey League, or the sheer wealth. In most matches, you won’t see either of her parents in the crowd.
Not that they are not watching. Terry Pegula, a passionate fan of tennis even after his professional daughter, watches almost every one of her matches on TV or live stream, which is easier than ever, due to her high ranking in the Women’s Tennis Association – 8th in the world in singles; Sixth in doubles. And the highest American woman – means that she always appears on broadcasts.
Jessie said Kim Pegola, who has been battling an undisclosed medical condition this summer, is “too nervous to watch.” When Bills and Sabers president Kim Pegula has attended tournaments in the past, she’ll walk away from Jesse’s matches to check concessions.
She likes to think of it that way; Jesse said. “She’s going to eat. Literally, she can’t watch. She’ll just sit there, fidget.” Jesse added that her mom at home scores matches but only tends to watch if her daughter wins. “She likes to know the score if she watches,” Jesse said.
Jesse is one of five siblings: older brother Michael and sister Laura from her father’s first marriage. Younger sister Kelly and brother Matthew. They’ll occasionally appear in tournaments, and Jesse will get them tickets – but usually not guest passes that allow them access to the players’ lounge.
“I like to stay in my routine,” Pegola said. Last month, after winning the doubles title with New Zealander Irene Rotliff at the Citi Open in Washington DC, but losing her second singles match to Saville – the bracelet maker – Pegula was headed to tournaments in Toronto and Cincinnati before she got here. US Open Championship. She told Kelly, “You can come, but I just want to stay in my little bubble for the next few weeks.”
Pegula advanced to the singles semifinals in Toronto and to the quarterfinals in Cincinnati, winning the doubles title – her fourth this year – with fellow American Coco Gauff in Toronto.
“I think I perform better when there are fewer people, and less fuss,” Pegula said. “My family, I’m trying to keep them out of sight.”
She laughs lightly again. Pegula is simple, and with the exception of when the match is going poorly and she hits her fist or hits her racket on the court, she appears relatively stress-free. That’s what it conveys, but it’s not how life was. Pegula’s career up to this point – including today, even when she is finally working near the top of her sport – has been challenging.
These are challenges that her family’s resources cannot fix.
The opening chapters to her story are the easy ones: Pegula, who was born in Buffalo and spent the early part of her childhood in Pittsburgh while her father ran the oil and gas operation that made him rich, began playing tennis at the age of seven. She showed tremendous talent and moved her family to South Carolina for high-level training. Pegula went on to rise through the tennis ranks, turning professional in 2009. She eventually moved to Boca Raton, Florida, where she lives and trains today when not traveling.
This is the simple part. Here’s the hardest: In her early twenties – the age at which most tennis players make their biggest moves in the professional rankings – Pegula battled through numerous injuries and medical procedures. She underwent knee surgery in 2014, followed by a leg injury in 2016 and hip surgery in 2017, which stripped her of her job for at least two years. Pegula intensely thought about whether to continue in this sport, and her parents also doubted this.
Last summer, as Pegula headed to the Olympics as a member of Team USA, her mother recalled those days in an interview with ESPN: “I remember thinking, ‘Why do you want to keep doing this?'” Kim Pegula said. “There are other women that their families depend on through tennis, but she doesn’t have that concern. She doesn’t have to do this and her life would be so much easier if she didn’t. But that’s because she loves the sport and she’s really doing it for herself.”
This was an obvious choice Jesse Pegula had to make. She remembers her parents asking her, “Are we going to keep doing this? Are we going to keep trying?”
“I think they probably want a little more – I don’t want to say commitment, because I was – but I think at the same time maybe I wasn’t as professional as I could,” she added. “I don’t think it was intentional. I don’t think I knew all the other things I could do. I’ve always worked really hard. I’ve always put a lot of effort into it and wanted it. But I think it’s all the little things that add up at the end of the day.”
Pegula is careful not to overstate the moment: There wasn’t a single transformative conversation. Instead, during the months and years of injury—which she also spent launching a skincare line, Ready 24, and with Kelly, the since-closed Healthy Scratch restaurants in Buffalo—she thought and decided to take charge of her career.
“I decided for myself: I do everything for myself,” Pegula said. “I make decisions. I pay for them. Everything is mine.”
The years since recovering from those injuries have been the best in Pegula’s career. In 2019, she hired a new coach, David Witt, who had previously spent 11 years with tennis star Venus Williams. Soon after Witt’s appointment, Pegula won her first – and still only – singles title at the City Open in Washington.
Pegula has been on the rise ever since. It broke into the top 20 in the singles and doubles rankings in 2021, and then into the top 10 this year. Almost half of her $5.3 million career earnings were collected this year. She has sponsorships with Adidas and racket company Yonex; She’s also sponsored by Imagine Staffing of Buffalo and just signed a deal with sports nutrition company Ready.
“This is her job. She’s the manager, and I think she takes pride in that both on and off the field,” said Witt, her coach. “She’s proud to be able to be her boss and do it as she does.”
During lunch in New York, Pegula joked with her husband, Gahagen, an investment analyst who studied business at NYU Fredonia and holds an MBA from Canisius College, saying, “I’m the CEO, and he’s my commission-free agent.” She’s been leading her career at a high level during a personally challenging time: The family kept detailing Kim Pegola’s health issues, which first surfaced in late June, and Jesse admitted that she had learned how to “fragment” and separate her mother’s medical condition from her tennis career.
Over the years, Pegula said, her mother was “good,” “at knowing where to be involved emotionally, and not letting it affect her work.”
Pegula added that the routine of training and playing matches focus her attention, and the sport itself is “therapeutic”.
“When I play tennis, I kind of forget everything else,” she said. “Once I get up there, I don’t really think about anything else.”
She carries a mole-skin diary with her and opens it after matches and on non-tennis days, too. “I always try to write down three things for which I am grateful,” she said, giving examples that day:
• “I am happy to have my husband here with me.”
• “I am grateful that someone is watching my dogs in the house.” (Pegula and Gahagen have three dogs in Florida.)
• “I am grateful to go to the baseball game tonight.” (They were headed to a Yankees Mets game at Yankee Stadium.)
“That’s something I’ll probably be doing for the next two weeks,” said Pegula, who after several days had a mostly strong start at the US Open, winning her first two singles matches and her first mixed doubles match alongside her American partner Austin. your karage. Her doubles match with Gauff wasn’t either: The pair, seeded No. 2, was upset in the first round.
But there is more tennis ahead, both in New York and abroad. Although Pegula reached the top of her career at a relatively older age for a tennis player, if she stays healthy, she has time to permanently establish herself at the forefront of her sport.
“It’s kind of under the radar,” Witt said. “Like it or not, I think she’s definitely starting to get respect, both on and off the field, for what she’s accomplished. She should, because she deserves it.”
If her course continues, Pegula will be less likely to be able to sit in a crowded New York restaurant and receive no notice from passersby. The attention that could come her way is part of the game as well, but it’s an item Pegula has steadfastly refused to rush or buy. She made a decision years ago not to funnel money into tennis by hiring a larger entourage or surrounding herself with more luxury. “I don’t want to be that person with the upper hand to be good,” she said, referring to the past. “I want to earn it.” Today, she added, “I’ve earned my strips.”
But those streaks shouldn’t be rewarded with anything shiny or glamorous. A pair of beaded bracelets—made by a fellow gamer, who represents her family’s business—would be fine.