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Jessica Pegula claims the first WTA title of her career at the Citi Open

Jessica Pegula brought her dog, Maddie, to the Citi Open trophy presentation Sunday at Rock Creek Park Tennis Center. (Katherine Frey/The Washington Post)

Jessica Pegula has spent nearly her entire life around sports, be it in the tennis academies where she spent hours training daily as a preteen or the Buffalo locker rooms and stadiums of the NFL’s Bills and NHL’s Sabres, both owned by her parents, Terrence and Kim Pegula.

But the 25-year-old counts herself as a late bloomer in her chosen athletic pursuit, not fully grasping — by her own admission — the intricacies of the game and dedication required to be a tennis pro until she was 17 or 18. Then came a rash of injuries that delayed her development even more.

On Sunday at Rock Creek Park Tennis Center, Pegula’s patience paid off. She defeated Italy’s Camila Giorgi, 6-2, 6-2, in the final of the Citi Open to claim not just the first WTA title of her career but one of her first tennis championships, as well.

After she served an ace on match point, she fell to her knees and wiped away tears before greeting her dog, Maddie, ahead of the trophy presentation.

“Never,” Pegula said with a laugh when asked the last time she won a title at any level. “Well — juniors, I won like a Grade 3 or something. It was a long time ago. … There was definitely a time where I was thinking about it. I lost in the finals at Newport. I lost in the finals at Midland this year. I lost in the finals at Quebec last year. I’ve lost in finals of singles at a couple Challengers when I was younger. So it’s definitely always been in the back of my mind. This week felt different. I felt like I was ready.”

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Winning the trophy Sunday was the culmination of a long two years for Pegula, who had surgery to repair the labrum of her right hip in January 2017 and resumed playing tennis that fall with a new approach and new motivation. She started taking nutrition seriously, overhauled her prematch routine and started more intensely studying the sport she fell in love with during after-school lessons as a 7-year-old.

A naturally powerful player and quick learner, Pegula had been solid on nearly all strokes but lacked a standout shot. She focused on improving her serve and mixing up shot selection and pace — work that was evident against Giorgi, who didn’t play at her normal level of all-out aggression and had to contend with Pegula’s creativity.

Pegula’s willingness to vary her game and her drive after years spent toiling in lower-level tournaments were what stood out to Venus Williams’s former coach David Witt when the pair started working together just last week.

“She’s thinking about things that we’ve started working on already, which is not easy to do — to add things in when you’re in the heat of the battle out there,” Witt said. “[Pegula] has all the shots, which is good, so when you want her to add this in there or, ‘Hey, try this,’ she has the shot to do it. It’s just a matter of her mixing it in and seeing it work.”

That game served Pegula well this week in a wide-open draw. No. 1 Sloane Stephens, No. 2 Madison Keys and No. 3 Sofia Kenin fell early, and only one seeded player — No. 4 Su-Wei Hsieh — made it to the quarterfinals.

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Yet the early exits of the tournament’s top players smoothed Pegula’s path very little. She weathered two three-set matches and a brief lapse of focus in Saturday’s semifinals against Anna Kalinskaya, played in midday heat and humidity.

For a player who hadn’t made it past the third round of a WTA Tour-level event since September, Pegula felt her week in Washington was a testament to her perseverance. “To push through this week and push myself to the limit to be stronger than I almost thought I was at times really makes it amazing,” she said.

Against Giorgi, who usually is all power, all the time, Pegula made it a point to be the aggressor. She dictated points throughout and jumped on balls early, sending them whizzing past the Italian, who might have had a slight edge entering the match if only because of her experience.

In addition to her two WTA titles, Giorgi owns wins over former No. 1 players Caroline Wozniacki, Maria Sharapova, Victoria Azarenka and Garbine Muguruza. The 27-year-old can be lethally aggressive when she wants despite her generously listed 5-foot-6 stature, but Pegula proved Sunday she has the power and timing to match. And now she has a title to show for it.

With that milestone reached and a rankings bump that will send her from No. 79 to a projected No. 54, which would be a career high, Pegula heads to the Western & Southern Open in suburban Cincinnati with newfound confidence.

“This is what you work for, you know, to win tournaments,” she said. “The journey — it sounds cliche, but the journey makes it that much sweeter.”