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Charleston Serves as Springboard for Crawford, Pegula

October 2, 2015 12:41 PM

By James Beck/Special to USTA Southern

Family Circle Tennis Center in Charleston has a great deal in common with big-time women's tennis, other than just occupying the same site as the oldest running WTA Tour women's event in the United States, the newly named Volvo Cars Open.

Former men's top 50 player Michael Joyce and his two protégés, up-and-coming 21-year-old Jessica Pegula and 20-year-old former U.S. Open junior champion Samantha Crawford, call Charleston and Family Circle Tennis Center home when they aren’t globe-trotting on the WTA Tour. Joyce, perhaps, is best known as the former coach of Maria Sharapova.

“Michael does all of the work with Jessie and Sam. When they’re in town, this is where they come,” said Jeff Wilson, the CEO of Family Circle Tennis Center-based MWTennis Academy.

“When they’re in town” are the key words. Touring professional tennis players travel the world for months at a time.

But when Crawford and Pegula are around, Family Circle Tennis Center members are awed as they practice and hit their professional-level shots. The members think of the two touring pros as “our girls.” Family Circle general manager Bob Moran was thrilled to be able to watch them playing in the US Open.

The members think nothing of it when they greet or cross paths with Crawford or Pegula. But very soon, these two young women could be occupying places among the top 100 women’s players in the world.

Of course, Family Circle members still reserve a special place in their tennis hearts for touring professional Shelby Rogers, who grew up on Daniel Island and at Family Circle Tennis Center, even though she now trains in Carson, California.

Crawford and Pegula have seen their tennis fortunes rise in recent months.

Pegula fought through qualifying to earn a berth in the US Open, while Crawford picked up a wild card into the Grand Slam event by coming in first in the summer's US Open Wild Card U.S. Pro Circuit segment.

Samatha Crawford hit her top ranking of no. 178 in September 2015. Photo: Steven Ryan/USTA

Crawford cites Georgia upbringing

Crawford was still sparkling in mid-September in the $250,000 Coupe Banque Nationale WTA Tour event in Quebec, Canada. She advanced through qualifying all the way to the Quebec quarterfinals with an upset of 89th-ranked Evgeniya Rodina of Russia.

It was the fourth straight win in Quebec for Crawford. The big-serving (seven aces against Rodina) qualifier is currently ranked No. 188 in the world.

Tennis success is nothing new to the 6’2” Crawford, who started playing tennis at age 4 in Georgia where she grew up.

“My mom was the one who introduced me to the game. She learned how to play in grad school and still plays almost every day,” Crawford said.

“I started drills at age 4 at Jerry Baskin's tennis academy in Marietta, Georgia. I then went on to train at Universal Tennis Academy, then with Rebecca Jensen, and then Stephen Diaz's tennis academy while still working with Rebecca, all in Georgia.”

“When I was 10, I lived in China for almost a year and trained while I was there. Shortly after I got back from China I moved to Florida to train at Nick Saviano's tennis academy.”

She then trained full-time at the USTA training center in Boca Raton, Fla., with Kathy Rinaldi.

What were Crawford’s notable moments as a junior? Winning the 2012 US Open girls’ title was a giant moment that capped her junior career.

“My biggest moments I think from my junior career are winning 16s Eddie Herr, the grade 1 ITF in Carson and winning (USTA national) hard-court doubles in San Diego two years in a row,” she said.

“I decided to turn pro in January of 2013, shortly after the US Open after giving it a lot of thought.”

Jessica Pegula has found a home in the Low Country. Photo: USTA

Pegula leaves behind western New York roots

Meanwhile, Pegula followed up her second-round appearance in the US Open by fighting through qualifying and upsetting 128th-ranked Nicole Gibbs in the Quebec first round by winning six of the last seven points in a third-set tiebreak.

On the rise after sitting out most of 2014 with a knee injury that required surgery, Pegula has climbed to No. 161 in the world on the strength of eight wins her last 10 matches.

Pegula has been around big-time sports since late in her teen years when her parents, Terry and Kim Pegula, purchased the NHL’s Buffalo Sabres hockey team.  The Pegulas added to their sports empire a year ago with the purchase of the NFL’s Buffalo Bills.

That was perfect timing for Jessica, who at the time was still rehabilitating her right knee after undergoing surgery in April, 2013. She was back home in Buffalo, enjoying the excitement that came with her family owning a National Football League team.

She had missed much of the excitement of the Sabres’ ownership because she was trying to make her own way in the sports world as a tennis player, a path she started out on as a 6-year-old.

She wants to make a name for herself, rather than just to be known as the daughter of Terry Pegula, who made his own fortune in oil and gas before being able to live the dream of purchasing the Sabres and Bills.

Obviously, Pegula isn't in this grind called professional tennis just for the money. She is determined to make her own mark in the field of athletics.

Her tennis game is strong enough to stand on its own. She has climbed more than 600 places in the world rankings in 2015 alone.

Yet, it doesn’t hurt to be part of a multi-billionaire family.

The Pegula clan is celebrating these days as Jessica appears to be just a hop-skip-and-a-jump away from cracking the world's top 100, hopefully before the year ends. Pegula and Crawford prepared for the Quebec tournament at an indoor facility in Buffalo before making the short trip across the border.

To make things even better for the Pegulas, the Bills got off to a 2-1 start.

Pegula has made an amazing comeback. Two years ago at Wimbledon in the last few months of her teen years, Pegula took a tumble that injured her right knee. She tried to keep playing for awhile, but the knee kept nagging her and prevented her from playing at a high level. She was ranked 123 at the time.

Finally, after nearly a year of struggling with the knee, Pegula underwent surgery by noted knee surgeon James Andrews in Pensacola, Florida.  She played only two matches in 2014.

Joyce expects Pegula to make a charge deep into the top 100 by the time the first renamed Family Circle Cup is held next April as the Volvo Cars Open.

Pegula is powerful, yet crafty; definitely a student of the game. "I have been around the best players in the world. I was a good player as well. I think through it (situations), and I think Jessie does that, too," Joyce said.

"She has easy power. I love the way the ball comes off of Jessie's racket. She hits a clean ball. I think she can be in the top 50 at least. Just staying healthy is the big thing.  She has a big serve for being so short (5-6). She gets a lot out of her serve.

Pegula has trained long hours during the last year at Family Circle Tennis Center under the watchful eye of Joyce, and now travels the globe to play in small and large tournaments while attempting to  qualify for the majors. She came within one win of qualifying at both the French Open and Wimbledon, dropping three 7-5 sets in two losses.

And finally, in New York on American tennis' grandest stage, the perseverance paid off for Pegula. She appeared to be back to where she was two years ago.

“The sky's the limit for Jessie,” Joyce says. “It’s just how badly she wants it  … and staying healthy.”

James Beck is the longtime tennis columnist for the Charleston (S.C.) Post and Courier newspaper. He can be reached at jamesbecktennis@gmail.com. See his latest Grand Slam Tennis stories at www.ubitennis.com/english and his Charleston (S.C.) Post and Courier columns at www.postandcourier.com.