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Major Takeaway: Li, Pegula pull off shocking upsets Down Under

Watching players like Ann Li and Jessica Pegula work hard to improve, and see the results, should make us feel good about the state of the game in the U.S.

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If you go to the Australian Open website and look at the online commentary for yesterday’s match between Ann Li of the U.S. and Shuai Zhang of China, you’ll notice a pattern to the way the points are described. It goes roughly like this:

A. Li hits a forehand winner

A. Li hits a forehand winner

A. Li hits a forehand winner

A. Li hits a forehand winner

A. Li hits a forehand winner

Li finished the match with 22 winners to Zhang’s two, and after 47 mercifully brief minutes, she walked off a 6-2, 6-0 victor. The speed and brutality of the 20-year-old’s win came as a surprise to many; Shuai Zhang, after all, was a quarterfinalist at the Australian Open in 2016, and Li is ranked 69th and is playing in only her third Grand Slam main draw. But this result was just the latest and most visible sign of her progress. 

A native of the Philadelphia suburbs and a Wimbledon junior runner-up in 2017, Li has made her steadiest inroads at the pro level since the pandemic lockdowns ended last summer. She reached the third round at the US Open, won an $80,000 ITF event in Tyler, Texas, and beat her fellow Pennsylvanian Jennifer Brady to make the final of the Grampians Trophy at Melbourne Park last week. It was a final that, for scheduling reasons, was never played, but Li had fun pretending to fight over the trophy with her fellow finalist Anett Kontaveit.

Making the best of any given situation seems to be the Li way. Forced to do a hard quarantine in her hotel room after arriving in Australia, she said she came away stronger for the experience. She worked out twice a day, using her mattress as a backboard; after her win over Brady, she cited those training sessions as reasons for her success so far Down Under.

“I didn’t get riled up about the situation,” she told TENNIS.com. “I’m actually pretty proud of the work I put in in that room.”

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Li normally trains at the USTA campus in Orlando, Fla., and whatever she has been doing there has been paying dividends. She plays an exciting, attacking game and has an instinct for when to press forward and take the initiative, especially with her forehand. Perhaps most appealing is the forceful, upbeat, no-nonsense demeanor she brings to the court.

It’s a trait that Li shares with the latest mini-wave of successful U.S. women players. In the last two years, we’ve seen the rise of Brady, Sofia Kenin, Alison Riske, and Danielle Collins into the Top 40, and Li looks destined to follow them there soon. Of those players, only Kenin has won a Slam so far, and none look as if they’re going to dominate the sport in the way past U.S. women’s champions like Chris Evert and Serena Williams have. But they all do something else that makes them almost as fun to watch: They make the most of their games.

So does Jessica Pegula. The Buffalo native’s 7-5, 6-4 win over two-time champion Victoria Azarenka may have been the biggest surprise of the Australian Open’s second day. But like Li, Pegula’s big win was just the most visible manifestation of the 26-year-old’s slow, but steady improvement since the lockdowns ended. Last summer, working with Venus Williams’ former coach David Witt, Pegula came out of qualifying to reach the quarterfinals at the Western and Southern Open, and won two matches at the US Open.

But it wasn’t until last week in Melbourne that I noticed a significant uptick in Pegula’s game—in her consistency, her placement, her ability to find the right shot for the moment, and to stand up to the top players’ games. At the Yarra Valley Classic, she led Kenin by a set and 4-1, before freezing up just enough to let her countrywoman back in the match and losing in three sets. 

When Pegula went up a set and a break against Azarenka on Tuesday, I wondered if something similar might happen. For a minute, it looked as if it would. Down a set and 2-4, Azarenka was granted a medical timeout for a breathing problem; when play resumed, Pegula immediately dropped the next two games. But at 4-4, she calmed back down and went back to doing what she was doing: Building rallies, staying patient, moving the ball around, and finding openings. Azarenka has long been one of the WTA’s biggest hitters, but Pegula finished with more winners in this match, 24 to 21.

Pegula says that improving in one part of her game has allowed her to improve in others.

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“I think my fitness and my movement is a lot better,” she said. “Now that I’m moving better, I’m also kind of learning how to win points on the defense and changing it into offense, which I thought I did pretty well today.”

“It’s a different element of my game that I’ve learned to incorporate and use and win matches that way. It wasn’t something I could do a few years ago.”

Next up for Pegula is Sam Stosur; next for Li is Alizé Cornet. They’re two of 12 U.S. women to reach the Australian Open’s second round. They won’t all continue on, of course, and if an American doesn’t win the tournament, that may be seen as a failure. If so, our expectations are skewed: Watching players like Li and Pegula work hard to improve, and see the results, should make us feel good about the state of the game in the U.S., and about what can be accomplished in the tough circumstances that we all face these days. It should make us want to watch these players as they try to fight their way up the rankings. There are success stories in tennis that have nothing to do with becoming No. 1.

Whether they go deep at the Australian Open or not, I’m looking forward to seeing Li rifle more forehand winners in the future, and Pegula continue to discover how far her game can take her. 



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