Jessica Pegula, the World No 3, is now, at least on paper, the favourite to land the Australian Open title next Saturday, after she quietly dismantled former Roland Garros champion Barbora Krejcikova in their first meeting on John Cain Arena on Sunday, but she must get past two-time Aussie champion Victoria Azarenka next in order to have any chance of doing so.
It feels like there's still a long ways to go, to be honest. I look at the draw, you have Rybakina, who won Wimbledon last year, you have Vika [Azarenka], who does really well here, Caroline [Garcia] won the [WTA] championships. It doesn't really feel like I'm the highest left, even though, I guess, that's a cool stat. Jessica Pegula
It is the American’s third straight year in the quarter-finals at Melbourne Park after her 7-5 6-2 defeat of the Czech 20th seed in an hour and 41 minutes.
“I thought it was really high level, first set especially,” Pegula said afterwards. “Got a little tricky there trying to close that first set out.
“It’s tough when you play someone that has a lot of experience, that it can flip a match. I’m glad that I was able to fight, and win that first set, then kind of go on a roll from there.”
Playing impeccable tennis, Pegula is now 5-0 in her 4th-round matches at Grand Slam events, although she is still aiming to garner her first match-win in a major quarter-final.
Her 3 singles quarter-finals at the Slams in 2022 ended in straight-sets defeats to the top seed and eventual champion, Ash Barty at Melbourne Park, then to Iga Swiatek at Roland Garros and Flushing Meadows.
A break to love gave her a 4-3 lead in the first set, and sturdy groundstrokes helped her reach double set point at 5-3, but Krejcikova successfully chased down multiple drop-shots and flustered Pegula with her creative replies, pulling back to level at 5-5.
The American remained composed, and she converted her 5th break point of an 11-minute game with a passing winner to break again for a 6-5 lead.
On her 3rd set point, Pegula’s inside-out forehand clipped the corner to wrap up the closely-contested opening frame.
“I think the court felt a little bit faster than the other courts, which I think helped me a lot,” Pegula said. “Tried to not give her a lot of time to set up and angle me off the court, where she can work the court really well. Her court sense is really good.”
Pegula let 11 of her 13 break points in the first set go begging, but she was far more stingy in the second, converting 3 of her 5 break points on her way to another trip into the Last 8 in Melbourne.
She has yet to drop a set and was a leading light among the US team’s United Cup triumph on the eve of the season’s first major.
Now, with World No 1 Iga Swiatek’s loss in in the 4th-round, and the earlier departure of Ons Jabeur, ranked No 2, Pegula is the highest-ranked player left in the draw.
“It feels like there’s still a long ways to go, to be honest,” Pegula said. “I look at the draw, you have Rybakina, who won Wimbledon last year, you have Vika [Azarenka], who does really well here, Caroline [Garcia] won the [WTA] championships.
“It doesn’t really feel like I’m the highest left, even though, I guess, that’s a cool stat.”
Pegula prefers to play matches than to practice, and she will be back on court for her 3rd-round doubles match with compatriot Coco Gauff on Monday.
“Honestly, I don’t [enjoy practice], it’s terrible,” Pegula said, following her win over Krejcikova, a former World No 2. “I don’t really want to go out and hit for 45 minutes, it’s so boring. I’d much rather play doubles with Coco. We’ve had great crowds here, it’s been awesome.
“It definitely is more fun to compete, and keep playing to me on those off days ,than just sitting around and letting the stress build, and nitpick everything that can go wrong, so I just like to play.”
The 28-year old need only look at her 4th-round opponent’s record, Krejcikova having claimed her Grand Slam singles breakthrough in Paris 2 years ago after she had already landed 2 women’s doubles and 3 mixed doubles title at majors.
As she awaited the result of the match between 2-time Australian Open champion Azarenka and China’s Zhu Lin, , the conqueror of 6th-seeded Maria Sakkari, for a place in her first Grand Slam singles semi-final, Pegula said: “I have a great shot here.
“I think I’m playing, probably, all around throughout the whole tournament, I’ve been playing the best I have in any of my other Grand Slam quarter-finals. That I think helps.”
Pegula had to wait until well past 2am to find out that her opponent in Monday’s quarter-final will be Azarenka, who had to battle for 2 hours and 40 minutes to stop Zhu Lin, 4-6 6-1 6-4, and book her 6th AO Last 8 spot.
“She never gave up, no matter what the score was,” Azarenka said on court. “With this tennis, she has to be Top 20, because she played amazing.
“I’d never heard of her before, I know she’s coming from China — but there are so many players who can come out here and produce an amazing level.
“Sometimes it helps when you know your opponent, but I didn’t know much about her and I had to adjust on the go. Today was blinding for me. She’s an amazing player, I wish her luck for the rest of the year and I hope we’ll see a lot more of her.”
Zhu, ranked 87, was making her first appearance in the second week of a major, and she put on late-night show by going toe-to-toe with a higher-ranked player.
Azarenka, twice a winner of the title in Melbourne, started slowly and lost the opening set but stormed through the second to take the 4th-round match into a decider.
Neither could hold serve in the third set, but Azarenka’s greater experience finally pulled her through, although the Belarusian wobbled when serving for the match at 5-4 before striking back from 15-40 down to complete the victory at 2.15am local time with an angled crosscourt backhand winner.
After struggling to read the direction and pace of Zhu’s compact strokes initially, Azarenka had adjusted over the course of numerous multi-deuce battles to pull through a the match in which she tallied 41 winners to her 28-year-old opponent’s 45.
“I feel so relieved,” Azarenka said. “It was 2 hours and 40 minutes of complete pressure point by point, momentum shifts, there was everything in this match. I’m so happy I was able to manage it.
“At the beginning of the year there were a couple of very close matches that didn’t turn my way, so I’m very happy that I took my chances.
“I was down 15-40 [in the last game] and I was like, ‘You have to take it, nobody’s going to give it to you.’ I’m very proud of myself for that.”
Looking ahead to her quarter-final Azarenka said it would be a more familiar opponent in Pegula.
“I’ve practised a lot with Jess, and I’m going to enjoy that one. If I do lose I would rather lose to Jess, but I’m going to give her hell!” she added.