The week in tennis: Jess Pegula and Tommy Paul win big, while Caroline Wozniacki makes her return

Sports

For much of the 2023 season, the talk in women’s tennis has centered around the emergence of the “Big Three” — Iga Swiatek, Aryna Sabalenka and Elena Rybakina — and their collective dominance. But, all year long, Jessica Pegula has been ranked in the top five, and has spent a large portion of the season ranked at No. 3. She is also one of the most consistent players on tour.

Pegula reached the quarterfinals at both the Australian Open and Wimbledon as well as made deep runs at many events, but the 29-year-old has largely shrugged off not being part of the conversation with her fellow high-ranking peers. “I think they’ve earned that right,” Pegula said in May. “Hopefully, I can be part of that, but I think either way it’s still great for women’s tennis.”

But after her impressive week in Montreal, it might be hard to not include Pegula going forward. She was all but unstoppable at the Canadian Open, as she recorded wins over her doubles partner Coco Gauff and world No. 1 Swiatek en route to the final. She even overcame a midpoint and instantly viral interruption of “Cotton Eye Joe” over the loudspeaker during the second-set tiebreak in her match against Swiatek.

Looking for her second 1000-level title, Pegula made a statement with a 6-1, 6-0 win over Liudmila Samsonova in just 49 minutes in Sunday’s final. The victory was celebrated in the stadium with the playing of — what else? — “Cotton Eye Joe” as she waved to the crowd.

While Samsonova was clearly fatigued after controversially playing her semifinal match against Rybakina earlier in the day due to inclement weather Saturday, Pegula still left nothing to chance in the championship match — and proved exactly where she belongs in the tennis landscape in the process.

“This is the time to start talking about the Big Four,” said former top-10 player Andrea Petkovic during the Tennis Channel broadcast of the match.

While Pegula herself didn’t make any bold claims afterwards, she was clearly thrilled by the title and her accomplishments throughout the tournament.

“Beating Coco and beating Iga were two really tough wins back-to-back, and being able to do that and then just come out today and play a really clean match was kind of great,” Pegula said Sunday. “Even when you’re winning a lot of matches, you’re still not winning tournaments, so it can get tough. Winning a week like this week makes it all worth it and makes you want to keep going for more.”

Pegula later took to Instagram to dedicate the title to her late dog Dexter, who unexpectedly passed away last month. “From 2 weeks ago crying on my couch for days wondering how the hell I was going to start this swing — to this week — this one’s for you Dex, thanks for looking out for me down here,” she wrote.

Pegula’s latest title and viral moment were just some of the storylines worth knowing about last week. Here’s what else you might have missed:


American history

Pegula wasn’t the only American player to defeat a world No. 1 last week. Her semifinal win over Swiatek came a day after Tommy Paul upset Carlos Alcaraz, 6-3, 4-6, 6-3, in the quarterfinals in Toronto. It marked the first time Americans defeated both the WTA and ATP top-ranked players in the same week since 2008 (!) when Serena Williams and Andy Roddick did so in Miami over Justine Henin and Roger Federer.

Paul ultimately fell in the next round but he still improved to a new career-high ranking of No. 13 at week’s end and gets to be a part of tennis trivia for years to come.


Sinner, Sinner, Chicken Dinner

While Pegula was dominating in Montreal, Jannik Sinner was having one of the best weeks of his career 300 miles away in Toronto. Playing in his third Masters 1000-level final, the 21-year-old needed just 90 minutes to win his first title at the level (and eighth overall) with a 6-4, 6-1 victory in the Canadian Open final against Alex de Minaur on Sunday. He is now at a career-high ranking of No. 6.

Throughout his run, Sinner also collected wins over fellow Italian Matteo Berrettini, Gael Monfils and Paul in the semifinals — and his overall success clearly gave him some confidence as the US Open nears.

“Every opponent here is tough to play against,” Sinner said. “I felt the pressure, but I think I handled it very well. Trying to play point after point. Treating everyone with respect on the court, so I am happy with how I handled the situation.”

And if the shiny hardware and newfound momentum weren’t enough, Sinner also got to celebrate the achievement with an adorable — and scene-stealing — Golden Retriever. Talk about a great day at the office.


Tell a friend to tell a friend (she’s back)

After announcing her impending comeback in June, former world No. 1 Caroline Wozniacki officially made her return to competition in Montreal. Playing her first match in over three-and-a-half years, and having given birth to two children during her time away, the 33-year-old didn’t take long to rediscover her form in her opener against Kimberly Birrell on Tuesday.

After being broken in the first game, Wozniacki quickly shook off the rust and dominated the rest of the match, ultimately securing the win, 6-2, 6-2, in an hour and 37 minutes. Her elated reaction at the end showed just how much it meant to her.

Wozniacki later told reporters she was nervous heading into the match but calmed down once play got underway.

“It’s like riding a bike basically,” Wozniacki said. “You know, you never forget it once you’re in there, but at the same time it is different. When you play the important points or when you see an opening, you get really excited, and then you may not hit it as clean, and you are like, ‘Ah, I have to start from scratch in the rally.’

She ultimately lost to reigning Wimbledon champion Marketa Vondrousova, 6-2, 7-5, in the second round but was back in action this week at the Western & Southern Open. After rain delayed her opener on Monday, she is slated to take on Varvara Gracheva on Tuesday.


Don’t call it a comeback

Venus Williams looked resurgent in her first-round match in Cincinnati on Monday. Recording her first top-20 win since 2019, the 43-year-old contended with two rain delays to earn the 6-4, 7-5 victory over Veronika Kudermetova. Perhaps most impressive, Williams overcame a 4-1 deficit in the first set, and a 5-1 deficit in the second, for the straight-set win.

“I just kept telling myself, ‘I just want to win this point — not the match, just one point,'” Williams said after the match. “When you break things down like that, big problems become small problems. That’s how I did that.”

The seven-time major champion will next play on Wednesday and will have a chance to record back-to-back wins for the first time this season.


New Canadian icon

At this point we all know Casper Ruud is a man of many talents. He’s a strong golfer, has a surprisingly good throwing arm, knows all the words to The Weeknd’s songs and is pretty good at this tennis thing too. But somehow, there’s even more.

After winning his opening match against Jiri Lehecka at the Canadian Open on Tuesday, Ruud was asked to write something on the camera lens. While most players write a funny or inspirational message — or a “Hi mom” like Paul after his win over Alcaraz — Ruud couldn’t help but further enamor himself to the Toronto crowd by drawing a maple leaf.

The concentration, the painstaking attention to detail, the furrow in his brow as he attempted to get it just right. This man is a true artist — and has been perfecting this very image for two years.

Ruud lost in his next match to Alejandro Davidovich Fokina, 7-6 (4), 4-6, 7-6 (4), so he was unable to show off any other works but Marcos Giron, an American qualifier, followed suit Wednesday and drew a moose on the camera lens after his upset victory over Holger Rune.


Roddick’s message to Jabeur

Few can relate to Ons Jabeur’s heartbreak after losing her second straight Wimbledon final last month, but one person who knows exactly what it feels like is Andy Roddick. The American fell in back-to-back finals at the All England Club in 2004 and 2005 (and lost again in 2009).

Knowing what she was going through, Roddick reached out to Jabeur shortly after her loss with some words of encouragement. He shared some of what he said to her in his column last week for Betway.

“I actually sent her a message after the final and said, ‘Listen, if you ever want to chat, I’ve been where you are right now. But I have more faith in you winning Wimbledon than I ever had in myself winning Wimbledon.'”

Speaking to the media Sunday ahead of the Western & Southern Open, Jabeur said she was touched by the message from Roddick, who she has previously called her idol.

“I got a lot of amazing messages, Andy was one of the ones I was surprised with,” Jabeur said. “And obviously I was crying, you know, happy crying. I don’t know what it was, but it was very nice of him.”

Since Jabeur also reached the US Open final in 2022, could a conversation with Roddick, who won the US Open title in 2003, be the difference for Jabeur this time around? Stay tuned.


What nightmares are made of

Most tennis players will tell you how intimidating it is to be on the other side of the net from Sabalenka, but few have experienced the terror that one poor individual did last week.

During an exhibition event for fans at the Canadian Open, the world No. 2 was asked to hit balls at the tournament’s mascot. And Sabalenka didn’t back down from the challenge — striking ball after ball in the fuzzy creature’s direction.

Sabalenka apologized after the video went viral. “They want me to hit this beautiful and friendly mascot, sorry,” she wrote, alongside multiple crying laughing emojis. “I hit him with a lot of love.”

However much this mascot is paid is nowhere near enough.


Impossible racket challenge

As two of the most — if not the most — exciting young players on the ATP Tour, the budding rivalry between Alcaraz and Rune has already provided some entertaining moments, and anytime they face off is must-watch tennis.

So, with that said, how would the two 20-year-olds fare against one another in a match using rackets with less than half of their normal strings? That’s right. Alcaraz and Rune played in a tiebreak-to-ten format but with what are deemed “Impossible rackets.”

Is it silly and kind of stupid? Yes. Does it count for anything? No. But it somehow gives surprising insight into both players as they narrate how they’re playing in this ridiculous match, and it’s genuinely fun to see both of them act their age with a peer and friend.

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