Pegula marches way through FCC qualifying

Charleston has a new tennis prodigy.

Welcome, Jessica Pegula.

Touring tennis pros come to Daniel Island from all over the world, many of them just in hopes of qualifying for the main draw of the $731,000 Family Circle Cup. Just qualifying is a tall order.

But Pegula didn’t have to travel here. She’s a resident of Mount Pleasant, and represents Family Circle Tennis Center’s MWTennis Academy. After qualifying for the main draw of this week’s big tournament, she’s the face of the academy.

“This (Pegula’s success) is significant. I think it’s great to see the results coming from a lot of effort,” MWTennis CEO Jeff Wilson said about the 10-month-old academy. As he spoke, Wilson was leading a group of 65 MWTennis juniors through a drill in Family Circle Stadium Sunday afternoon.

Pegula’s straight-set march through two weekend qualifying matches was the biggest thing that happened to the tournament this weekend. Well, except maybe Martina Hingis’ entry into the doubles draw.

The 21-year-old daughter of the owner of the Buffalo Bills/Sabres (Terry Pegula) is the first local player to come through the qualifying tournament into the main draw. Shelby Rogers has made it a couple of previous times as a wild card before earning her way into the main draw this year as a result of her world ranking.

That makes Pegula a pretty special player to the legion of supporters who surrounded the Althea Gibson Club Court on Sunday afternoon to watch her 7-6 (5), 6-3 conquest of tall Lesley Kerkhove of the Netherlands in the second round of qualifying.

Now on a hot streak that has seen her win four of her last five matches (all on clay), Pegula has advanced to her second Family Circle main draw. She made the main draw’s round of 16 two years ago, but later underwent knee surgery that had her on the mend until late last year.

Pegula’s first-round match in the main draw is scheduled for Monday as the third match on the Althea Gibson Club Court (play starts at 10 a.m.) against hard-hitting young American wild-card entry Sashia Vickery.

A crafty strategist with big-time groundstrokes off both wings, Pegula broke out of a 2-2 deadlock by winning three straight games in the second set. She wasted two match points in the eighth game before finishing the job in the ninth game.

“The first set wasn’t very good tennis,” Pegula said about a set in which she wasted two set points in the 10th game and another one in the tiebreaker before closing out the first set.

“I think our serves kept us in the match the first set cause neither of us played well. I just got kind of nervous trying to close out the first set. I kind of told myself I had to step it up. I only played well on big points. I thought I played well in the tiebreaker.”

Pegula was one of eight qualifiers for the main draw on Sunday. The other seven were: (1) Lucie Hradecka of the Czech Republic, (3) Sesil Karatantcheva of Bulgaria, (13) Laura Siegemund of Germany, (7) Kristina Kucova of Slovakia, (8) Danka Kovinic of Montenegro, Sara Sorribes Tormo of Spain and (15) Kateryna Bondarenko of Ukraine.

Reach James Beck at jamesbecktennis@ gmail.com.