A Charleston Challenge

By Jane Voigt

Daniel Island, S.C., April 6, 2023 – The toughest task for a pro tennis player is winning when the chips are down. Jessica Pegula had that type of day on Thursday at the Charleston Open. After surviving a tough first set and cruising to a 4-0 lead in the second, she hit a wall and dropped the next 10 games against Irina-Camelia Begu. Astonishingly, the tournament’s top seed was down 4-0 in the third set as a heavy favorite. Just as surprisingly, she responded to the loss of 10 straight games by winning the last six games to take the match. Her reward? A spot in the quarterfinals.

“It was just tough,” Pegula said, after putting the match to bed over Begu, 7-5, 4-6, 6-4. “I’ve played a lot of crazy matches lately. I keep saying that’s one of the craziest matches, but then every week keep saying the same thing. But, yeah, that was really a roller coaster.” 

Pegula’s mind raced, “I can’t believe I’ve lost six games in a row, eight, nine, ten. It wasn’t very positive, to be honest. I can’t remember the last time I’ve been up like that and then consecutively lost that many games as well.”

Her frustration was palpable. Her head dropped as point after point and game after game went to Begu, the 15th seed and a seasoned clay-courter.

Down 0-4 in the third, Pegula was “able to relax and play a pretty good game,” getting on the scoreboard. “I knew that if I could get one game, like stop the bleeding, I had a chance to get back into it.”

At one point Pegula heard the crowd’s cheers, recognizing that they wanted her to win. Yet the frustration lingered. Then she felt embarrassed, “like I can’t win a game.” What saved her was her tenacity, drive to win, and mental toughness. “It’s something I’ve had to learn and it’s become a weapon for me.” 

Waiting for her Friday is Paula Badosa (No. 12). The Spaniard thrashed 19-year-old Diana Shaider 6-1, 6-3, in an hour and a half while Pegula fought for two hours and a half. The quick turnaround coupled with the fact that Badosa finished her match four hours earlier than Pegula could affect their meeting. Then again, from a fan’s point of view, Pegula pulled off a miracle Thursday; who is to stand in her way now?

Badosa’s win over Shaider was expected, but the unexpected constantly lurks in the shadows, as Pegula found out Thursday. In other words, take nothing for granted until the last point is recorded. 

“Being in the quarterfinals again is special,” Badosa said. “I feel comfortable on clay; I grew up on clay. So I really like it and understand the game [on clay].”

This is the first time since February that Badosa has strung together three consecutive matches, hampered early in the year by a right thigh injury. She has played her first three rounds on Stadium Court with the same start time each day: 11 a.m.

“I like that stadium,” she said. “I feel very comfortable as well with the fans. Maybe this year was a little bit tougher for me because I wasn’t coming with a lot of matches. So it’s not the same as last year when I was maybe [more of] a favorite.”

Badosa’s winning percentage on her first serve was 83.3, a strong statement from the Spaniard. She also saved 100% of break points, 5 for 5. She smacked 5 aces. Her desire to move her game to a level equal to her No. 2 world ranking in 2022 is definitely coming into focus. 

“Yeah, you have to start somewhere. So it’s step-by-step, day by day,” Badosa began. “I hope I can sit here and chat in a few months and say, okay, I’m already where I want to be.”

Make no mistake: Badosa is a seasoned tennis pro who won’t let that expectation cloud her vision in the quarterfinals, especially with Pegula waiting in the wings. They’ve played each other only once, in 2022 at the Miami Open, when Badosa retired in the first set. A knowledgeable prediction isn’t possible. 

“It’s still a long journey ahead, but the first steps are made and I’m making them,” Badosa added. “I hope it continues.”

Badosa is thrilled to be back in the quarterfinals, her competitiveness seeming to peak in the later rounds of tournaments. “Every day the level is a little bit more, a little bit more. I always like the quarterfinals, semifinals, and finals. That’s where I play the best.”

Ups and downs in matches are like waves in an ocean. They come and go. But as Pegula said, “It doesn’t always go your way. But if you just keep that mentality that you’re not going to roll over then chances appear.” You can bet that Pegula will try to take the momentum into Friday’s quarterfinal. 

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