NEW YORK -- Jessica Pegula needed a break from the WTA this summer. She'd fallen one match short of qualifying for the main draw at the French Open and Wimbledon, and took six days to go home to Buffalo and relax. What happened next shows you that Pegula isn't like other players.
Her parents, Terry and Kim, own the Buffalo Bills and Sabres, so her break was spent at an NFL training camp meeting the players and their new coach, Rex Ryan. And that's when Ryan challenged Pegula to a future pingpong battle.
"I don't play pingpong, I play tennis," Pegula said, "but I think I could probably take him."
There's a reason loud guys like Ryan challenge professional tennis players to pingpong matches: It seems like a smaller version of their sport, one that doesn't require the same athletic output on the amateur level. It usually boils down to fear of losing, which Ryan explained is why he challenged Pegula to a pingpong game and not a tennis match.
"I one time made the mistake," Ryan began, meandering through a story from his football playing days in high school. He won one set from a girl on the tennis team and was thinking pretty highly of himself. "I was talking noise and they had this little freshman girl that had little ponytails -- and I don't think I ever scored a point on her. Her name was Andrea Jaeger. So I made that mistake once one other time. I don't think I will make it again."
Jaeger, of course, went on to play in the WTA. Ryan went on to coach in the NFL and sample the best Mexican food in each NFL city. But Ryan couldn't resist smack-talking Pegula about pingpong.
"I would crush her," he said.
Pegula completed her R&R and returned to the WTA. Even though her parents are billionaires, money that comes from natural gas drilling and investment, Pegula herself is a blue-collar player. At the US Open this year, she won her way in through the qualifying tournament before winning her first-round match 7-5, 6-3 over Alison Van Uytvanck. It was her first win in the women's singles main draw of a Grand Slam tournament.
"There's nothing like earning your way into a Grand Slam," Pegula said. "I think at some point everyone's done it."
Pegula will play Dominika Cibulkova in a second-round match on Wednesday. Notably, the unseeded Cibulkova upset No. 7 Ana Ivanovic to reach the second round.
"I was happy that I qualified, but I'm here to win my first round," Pegula said. "I'm not just here to qualify."
And now, she's here to win the second round. At the US Open and other tournaments, the 21-year-old Pegula isn't a daughter of privilege; she's one of a dozen promising American up-and-comers. The exclusive tennis clubs that would have welcomed Pegula 100 years ago are now open to women of varied social, economic and cultural backgrounds, and today they all compete on a level playing field.
"She wants to make a name for herself, a career for herself," said her coach, Michael Joyce. "She's worked for it since she was 6 years old. I have a lot of respect for her. She's worked as hard as any I've worked with."
And not all of that work took place on the court. On April 23, 2014, Pegula needed knee surgery, which led to a stem-cell infusion. She was off the court for a year and a half. She jokes that she wasn't one for taking a class at a local college during her recovery -- hitting up a music festival is more her speed. But then, there was something else going on.
"When my family bought the [Bills], I wasn't playing, so I got to experience all that, which was a lot of fun," Pegula said. "It was definitely cool to be there for that because a lot of stuff I missed because of traveling."
So she got to see the intense process that potential NFL owners go through, and then she got a behind-the-scenes look at an NFL training facility -- and as a professional athlete, the facility was somewhat stunning.
"I was telling my parents, I was like, I feel like they have it so much easier," Pegula said. "Because you walk into the stadium and they have these nutritionists and their own private lunches made for them. All of us here don't get that."
Massage therapists, yoga classes, hot and cold therapies after practice -- tennis players can't usually manage all those perks because their lives take place in tournament cities all over the world rather than mostly in a training facility.
"What I've learned about athletes is they're very into other athletes," Pegula said. "So they're very, 'How's the tennis going? How's this, how's that?' It's cool that they have a lot of respect, just like I have a lot of respect for all they do."
Her family kept the NFL franchise in Buffalo, and that's endeared them to a lot of people. When she won her first-round match, a storm of congratulatory tweets came in from Bills fans.
"Buffalo fans are so into their sports teams," Pegula said. "It's what they live off, so it was huge when that happened. They're very supportive; I'm getting tweets from every fan in Buffalo."
Today, Pegula gives them another chance to root for the hometown favorite.
"I want to win," Pegula said. "I'm proud of what I've done, but I think I realize I'm a good player and I have a chance."