Pegula gives MW Academy first win at the Cup

Jessica Pegula pose with fans for a selfie after winning her first-round match in the Family Circle Cup qualifying tournament Saturday. Photo by James Beck

Saturday was one of the most memorable days on the Althea Gibson Club Court — thanks to four wild cards, three with Family Circle Tennis Center connections.

Ellie Halbauer and Sam Crawford went down as did 15-year-old CiCi Bellis, but Jessica Pegula is still swinging in the Family Circle Cup qualifying tournament.

Pegula made everyone at host MWTennis Academy proud Saturday. M&W duo Bryan Minton and Jeff Wilson were smiling from ear to ear when one of their proteges gave the 10-month-old academy a present money couldn’t buy Saturday with a first-round win in the qualifying tournament.

All the daughter of Terry Pegula, owner of the NFL’s Buffalo Bills and NHL’s Buffalo Sabres, needs to do is win one match on Sunday to advance into the main draw of the $731,000 Family Circle Cup. The MW crew will be out in full force again Sunday.

But winning here is nothing new to Pegula. Two years ago, she not only advanced through qualifying but also won two rounds in the main draw.

A right knee injury slowed her progress down. But when she learned that her coach then and now, MW pro director Michael Joyce, was moving from Los Angeles to Charleston to join a new academy at Family Circle Tennis Center, Pegula signed on.

“I love Club Court,” she said after pulling off a 6-3, 7-6 (4) upset of qualifying tournament second seed Lin Zhu of China on Saturday before the home crowd.

Showing her true clay-court colors, the 21-year-old Pegula rallied from 5-2 down to win the second set.

“I grew up on clay at Hilton Head Island. I learned how to play on clay.”

Yeah, like the last point of the match when she scrambled to her backhand to get one looming winner by Zhu back into play, then repeated the effort on a follow up potential Zhu winner by going beyond the backhand ally to chase down the ball and deliver a heavy top-spin backhand to Zhu’s forehand corner. Zhu, who had rallied from 5-0 down in the tiebreaker, could only watch Pegula’s match winner.

Pegula admitted that she “played really well” to spring the upset. She was prepared for the match after winning two matches in a clay-court qualifying tournament in Osprey, Fla., earlier in the week.

“I just played that tournament to get some matches,” she said.

What the talented ball-striker really wants is another shot in the main draw.

Pegula now faces Lesley Kerkhove of the Netherlands, who scored a 7-5, 6-3 upset of Ukraine’s Maryna Zanevska, for a spot in the main draw.

Ranked No. 652 in the world, Pegula got into the qualifying only as a wild card. She still has a long way to go. But don’t count her out.

Meanwhile, you also can count on hard-hitting Samantha Crawford to win something significant on hard courts. The 20-year-old former U.S. Open junior champion didn’t have the patience to overcome the consistent double-fisted game of Kristina Kucova of Slovakia.

Now ranked 250th in the world, Crawford demonstrated a big-time game. All she needs is confidence in it.

Before arriving at MWTennis in December, the 6-2, 20-year-old Crawford spent four years at the USTA training center in Boca Raton, Fla.

“I just need to play more consistently,” she said after a 7-6 (3), 6-4 loss to the seventh-seeded Kucova.

But hard courts are Crawford’s love. “I like one-shot tennis,” she said.

And that wasn’t all that happened on the Althea Gibson Club Court Saturday. World’s No. 1 junior Bellis, just a few days away from her 16th birthday, showed off her crafty game, but suffered a 6-4, 6-2 loss to Kateryna Bondarenko of Ukraine.

Family Circle junior tournament champion Ellie Halbauer fell behind 4-0, but still made things interesting in a 6-2, 6-4 loss to qualifying top seed Lucie Hradecka of the Czech Republic.

Halbauer, who grew up playing at Family Circle Tennis Center before moving to Boca Raton and now Atlanta, lost in the first round for the second straight year. At 17 years old, Halbauer will have to decide if she’s a hard hitter or a crafty top-spinner. Hradecka hit two-handed from both sides, and nearing her 30th birthday was too experienced and strong for Halbauer on this day.

Reach James Beck at jamesbecktennis@gmail.com.