Top seed and defending champion Jessica Pegula got off to a flying start at the Citi Open in Washington, DC, on Monday, with a 1st-round win over fellow American, qualifier Hailey Baptiste, 6-2 6-2, while Simona Halep, the 3rd seed from Romania, was a 6-3 7-5 winner over another qualifier, Spain’s Cristina Bucsa, but Venus Williams, playing her first singles match in over a year was beaten by a 3rd, Canadian Rebecca Marino, 4-6 6-1 6-4.
People come up to me, they’re like, ‘Oh, my gosh, you’re so calm and you’re so confident and you have such a great attitude about you’. And I just laugh because it was so the opposite for so long and it was so frustrating to hear. Jessica Pegula
Also finding the sidelines at the WTA 250 event was Britain’s Harriet Dart, who fell to China’s Zhu Lin, 6-4 6-3.
The 28-year-old Chinese sailed through her opening round with relative ease, swatting Dart aside after an hour and 46 minutes, the two having split their previous 2 encounters.
Zhu used dynamic returning and her smooth serve to dismantle Dart, who could not find the form that saw her power into the 4th-round of Indian Wells on hard courts earlier this year.
Next up for Zhu is Kaia Kanepi, the tricky 6th seed from Estonia, who took out Belgian Greet Minnen, 6-3 6-3.
Pegula, now the highest-ranked American woman, was pushed hard at the start of each set by local hope Baptiste, who has been off since injuring her ankle at the French Open, but the World No 7 had switched gears, using both powerful serving and returning to score her opening win.
“I put on a lot of pressure and elongated a lot of her service games, and I know from personal experience that it’s really tough to hold,” Pegula said. “It can definitely take a toll, physically and mentally, and as it got a little hot out there, I was able to move a little better.”
Pegula, who won her first WTA singles title at the most recent edition of the Citi Open in 2019, took an hour and 13 minute to get past the World No 148, never facing a break point as she won 18 of her 23 first-service points in the match.
She advances to a 2nd-round meeting against Daria Saville, after the 88th-ranked Aussie edged herself past Swedish qualifier Mirjam Bjorklund, 3-6 7-5 7-6(4).
Pegula has undergone a bit of a transformation since her last visit to Washington, coming to terms with the criticism levelled at her at the time over of her supposed negativity and nonchalance.
“I would be too energetic, or try to be too much, then I would be exhausted because I’d be wasting all this energy doing all this stuff,” Pegula said. “And naturally I’m not really like that.”
She decided to take full control of her career, hiring a new coach, David Witt, who was fresh off a long stint coaching Venus Williams, and began planning her own training regimens and booking her own trainers.
For a time, she was even her own agent, scheduling her travel and registering herself in tournaments.
In the midst of it all, she re-discovered herself as a person, and the rest is history as she has rocketed up the rankings.
“That [process] let me not think about who I am on court,” Pegula explained, “because now I was like, ‘Oh, I’m responsible for my own career.’ And that’s, I think, how I always wanted it to be.”
The 2019 Citi Open was her first week and first tournament working with Witt as her coach and, during a routine practice leading up to the event, he said something that stuck in Pegula’s mind.
“There’s no reason you can’t win this tournament,” Witt told her, and she did.
“It kind of changed starting that week, trying to get better every day but also being, like, ‘there’s no reason you can’t be at the top of the game’,” she reflected. “And now, here we are, a few years later, and I’m at my highest ranking — top 10 in the world.”
She has made 3 Grand Slam quarter-finals over the past 2 years, and reached the apex of American tennis at the relatively senior playing age of 28.
“People come up to me, they’re like, ‘Oh, my gosh, you’re so calm and you’re so confident and you have such a great attitude about you’,” she said. “And I just laugh because it was so the opposite for so long and it was so frustrating to hear.”
In the face of a hostile crowd rooting for a hometown hero, Pegula never looked flustered against Baptiste, but kept her form tight and her face measured, improving her game as the match wore on, and with the lightest of fist pumps until the match was her’s, when she let a soft smile drift onto her face.
Meanwhile, Halep’s straight sets win over Bucsa saw the Romanian making a sound adjustment to a different surface following the grass-court season in her her first match on a hard court since March.
“I had a good run in Wimbledon, so it’s always tough to start,” Halep said. “But I’m really happy I won the match, and I can play another match here.”
She had to overcome a lapse in focus to turn back the Spanish qualifier in what was Halep’s first match since a semi-final loss at Wimbledon to eventual champion Elena Rybakina, and she credited the advice of her coach, Patrick Mouratoglou, with getting her back on track after frittering away a 5-2 second-set lead.
“At 5-all, I told myself what, actually, he was telling me when I have panic moments during the matches,” the Romanian explained. “Calm down and just do what I have to do. Just focus on what I have to do, and be brave to do it — even if sometimes I miss.”
At 30, nearly every facet of Halep’s life has changed in the past 10 months, marrying in September, and then parting ways with longtime coach Darren Cahill, with whom she won the 2018 French Open and 2019 Wimbledon titles.
After competing for a stretch without a coach, Halep announced on social media in April that she had hired Mouratoglou, known primarily as the coach of Serena Williams, who was in the midst of an extended break from competition.
“I’m excited about it,” Halep said, enumerating the flurry of changes in her life. “But it’s not easy. That’s why I always try to be nice to myself, to give time to get used to everything.
“I always thought, inside myself, that I have to be more aggressive. But now with someone that really believes that, with Patrick, gives me more confidence that I’m able to do it.”
Elsewhere, there was disappointment for Venus Williams after the former World No 1, who is now 42-years old, suffered an opening round defeat at the hands of Marino under the lights in Washington.
“Just a little rusty,” Williams told reporters. “I really put myself in good positions in the third set, too.
“Just trying to shake off some rust. That’s just to be expected. All I can do is just play another tournament and play better.
“I wish I could have pulled this match through for the crowd, and for the tournament. But [it] doesn’t always work out.”
The 7-times Grand Slam winner is set to play in WTA 1000 events in Toronto and Cincinnati over the next two weeks.
It took nearly 2 hours for the Canadian to prevail, as Williams double-faulted 13 times, creating just enough of an opening for Marino to tough out the 3-set win.
“She’s an absolute legend of the game,” Marino said during her on-court interview, calling it a privilege to compete against Venus for a second time.
After rising to No 38 in the world, Marino put the brakes on her promising career in 2013 at the age of 22, citing online bullying and depression among the reasons.
She returned to the tour after a nearly 5-year hiatus, during which she attended college and competed on the rowing team.
Now 31, Marino demonstrated on Monday that her powerful forehand and serve remain intact, and that she is not over-awed or rattled by anyone on court.
Because the margin for error on both players’ groundstrokes is slim, the points tended to be short, ending on outright winners or errors, with few extended rallies and scant variety in shot-making.
When Marino tried to pull Williams forward with a slice or a drop-shot, the crowd roared, encouraging the American to run it down but, at the end of the day, it was Marino who advances.
Her sister, 23-time Grand Slam champion Serena, has been helping her older sister to prepare.
“I think it was a real thrill for the crowd to see us hit together,” Venus said. “I think, more than anything, it was just very exciting for the tournament.”
In other Monday results, Liudmila Samsonova upset 5th-seeded Elise Mertens from Belgium, 7-6(4) 6-4, while Croatia’s Donna Vekic up-ended Mayar Sherif, the No 7 seed from Egypt, 6-4 6-1.