The first memory that springs to Jessica Pegula’s mind from her breakthrough run to the Mutua Madrid Open final last year was a moment at the very start of her tournament.
The American was facing Camila Giorgi in her opening round and found herself staring down a match point late in the third set. Pegula saved the match point, went on to break Giorgi to level the decider at 5-all, took the next two games and slipped through to the second round.
“I think that (match) kind of got me to the finals, to be honest, because I probably should have lost (to Giorgi) and it was a crazy match. That kind of turned the whole tournament around for me. So that definitely that match is a moment I remember very specifically,” reflected Pegula on Tuesday.
After her great escape against Giorgi, Pegula’s path kept getting tougher and tougher, but she pulled off straight-sets wins over Kaia Kanepi, Bianca Andreescu (who remembers Pegula sitting on her bench and counting the 17 break point chances she had in the first set on her hands?), Sara Sorribes Tormo and Jil Teichmann to earn a place in a WTA 1000 final for the first time in her career. In the championship match, Pegula fell to Tunisian Ons Jabeur in three sets.
While she didn’t walk away with the winner’s trophy, Pegula took a lot from her runner-up showing in Madrid.
“That was my first 1000 final, definitely was a big step for me, let alone being on clay, I think was kind of a little bit of a surprise, to myself and other people. But it gave me a lot of confidence I think, starting the whole clay swing going into the French Open, it really helped,” said the world No.3.
“It definitely changed my perspective of what I could do at big events. I was always close but I think making that final was a big deal. And I had a really good match with Ons, who had a really great clay-court season that year, I think final in Rome as well. So definitely gave me a lot more confidence on the surface.
“And I think that helps when you’re looking at the year, knowing that you could still do well on the clay is always helpful.
“I think it just kind of knocks down a barrier in your brain a little bit about where your perspective is and where you can go when you’re playing these big events.”
Pegula has been one of the most consistent players on tour over the past couple of seasons and she has hit several new milestones along the way; like clinching a maiden WTA 1000 title in Guadalajara end of last year, and cracking the top five in the world rankings for the first time.
She started 2023 by guiding USA to the United Cup title and reaching the Australian Open quarter-finals. She made the semis or better in four of her next five events.
The 29-year-old, who opens her Madrid campaign against Jasmine Paolini or Magdalena Frech, credits her better movement and open-minded approach for her progress on clay (she made the Roland Garros quarter-finals last year).
“I think I was more open to what I need to do differently (on clay); which wasn’t that much. I guess when you’re looking you probably don’t notice but I think just little mental things, where to serve, where to return what to do when the conditions get heavy, adding more drop shots, which I always did drop shot but maybe doing it more,” she said.
“So I feel like just really minor adjustments and just kind of having the right mindset coming in that, okay, it’s clay but you know, if you come in with a negative attitude, I feel like some players do that don’t like the surface, then you’re kind of losing before you even get there. So I think it was just keeping a really good open mindset.”