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Home cooking: Gauff, Pegula lead U.S. in pursuit of 2023 Billie Jean King Cup Finals

Victoria Chiesa | April 12, 2023


DELRAY BEACH, Fla. - After a tough weekend for local interests in the NCAA men’s basketball Final Four, Coco Gauff joked that she and Jessica Pegula brought “redemption” to south Florida sports when they won the Miami Open doubles title last month.

 

If all goes according to plan, particularly after a loss for the Miami Heat in the first game of the play-in round of the NBA playoffs on Tuesday night, they’ll be doing the same this weekend at the Billie Jean King Cup.

 

The two Top 10 stars will lead the U.S. team against Austria at the Delray Beach Tennis Center on Friday and Saturday, in the hopes of securing the team a place in November’s Billie Jean King Cup by Gainbridge Finals. The U.S. has won a record 18 titles in this storied competition in its 60-year history, and winning this weekend is the first step on the road to another title.

 

With Gauff and Pegula joined on captain Kathy Rinaldi’s team by Danielle Collins, Sofia Kenin and Caty McNally, the U.S. are firm favorites against visiting Austria, which is led by world No. 78 Julia Grabher—the country’s only player ranked in the WTA’s Top 150. But the Americans aren’t overlooking their opponents, who are seeking their best showing in this competition in nearly 20 years. (The U.S. is 7-2 against Austria all-time in Billie Jean King Cup, but lost the last two ties between the two countries in 2002 and 2004.)

“We can't take them lightly because we know what can happen in Billie Jean King Cup,” Rinaldi said Wednesday in a pre-event press conference. “We respect them. We can't underestimate our opponents. They've come here, they've got one team with one goal, as well. 

 

"We know that Billie Jean King Cup play can bring out the best in players. So we're expecting them to be at their best, and hopefully we're at ours.”

 

Despite their lofty positions in both the WTA singles and doubles rankings, neither Gauff nor Pegula have much experience donning the red, white and blue in Billie Jean King Cup: Gauff is playing just her second tie, in her third nomination, and seeks her first-ever win in singles in this event this weekend, while Pegula is in her third tie.

"Even though you feel like you're on a team, when you step on the court, you're back in that mindset you are for the rest of the season," Gauff said. If anything, the team environment makes it even more entertaining, even more fun because you do have teammates on the sideline cheering for you, and you're cheering for teammates on the sideline."

 

Twelve months ago in this round, Pegula shined: She anchored the U.S. in a 3-2 win over Ukraine by chipping in two victories, including a fifth and final doubles win with Asia Muhammad to clinch the tie. The 29-year-old is, in fact, growing into a role as a bonafide American team leader since establishing herself in the world's Top 10. In January, she also led the U.S. team to victory at the inaugural mixed-gender United Cup alongside top-ranked American men. 

 

"Especially at the beginning, when you do the walkouts and everything, I think it's always pretty emotional," Pegula said of competing for her country. "When you go back into the setting of you and another person across the court, you do sink back into, 'I need to win this match. This is what I do 99% of the year.' I think you always come back to that. I think you're always balancing your emotions of playing for a team and your country and not just yourself. I think that's always different for everybody.

 

"I always quite enjoyed it. I think it's a fun atmosphere. I love playing on a team. I love team events. For me, it's extra motivation and extra fun, but I think everyone's different."

 

For what they lack in collective experience in the Billie Jean King Cup arena specifically, Gauff and Pegula make up for in both world-class status and local familiarity. The tie represents a bit of a homecoming for both players; Gauff and her family all call Delray Beach home, and Buffalo, N.Y. native Pegula now lives in nearby Boca Raton.

 

In addition to a U.S. victory, Gauff says she's most looking forward to playing for two days in front of a packed house of familiar faces. 

 

"I was super excited when I found out the tie was going to be here," Gauff said. "I have a lot of family coming. [It's] special to be in your home country playing, but even more in your home city, so I'm super excited for Friday and Saturday."

 

The 2023 Billie Jean King Cup Qualifier between the U.S. and Austria will air live on Tennis Channel on both Friday and Saturday. Play begins at 6 p.m. EDT Friday and 2 p.m. EDT on Saturday. For more from the tie, visit the USTA's Billie Jean King Cup homepage.

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