Q&A: Coach David Witt on Jessica Pegula
David Witt, who worked with Venus Williams as a hitting partner and then coach from 2007-18, joined Jessica Pegula's camp in the summer of 2019. The pair enjoyed immediate success, with Pegula winning the Citi Open in Washington, D.C., in their first tournament together.
Pegula went on to reach the final of the Auckland WTA 250 event in January 2020, falling to Serena Williams in the final, but mixed results left her WTA ranking at No. 80 entering the pandemic shutdown in March. A 7-2 record during the New York double—including a quarterfinal run as a qualifier at the Western & Southern Open and a third-round showing at the US Open—proved to be a sign of more success to come in 2021.
This season, Pegula has been one of the most successful players on the WTA. She backed up an Australian Open quarterfinal appearance, her career-best major performance, with more big wins in the month of March. Throughout the month, she reached the Doha (WTA 500) semifinals, the Dubai (WTA 1000) quarters and the Miami (WTA 1000) Round of 16, beating Karolina Pliskova at each event. That stretch of results earned the Buffalo, N.Y., native Team USA Player of the Month honors for March, alongside Sebastian Korda, and a career-high ranking of No. 32 earlier this month.
After spending the first three months of the 2021 season on the road, Pegula and Witt have taken some time off the court, with Pegula maintaining her fitness work as she gears up for the European clay-court swing. USTA.com caught up with Witt at home in Jacksonville, Fla., where he's been enjoying some time with family and on the golf course, to chat about his recent success with Pegula.
Q. Jessica has really stepped it up a level since coming back from the pandemic, and particularly this season. What do you think has been the key factor in in her recent success and having such good results week in, week out.
David Witt: Well, I think a lot of it is confidence. We worked on a couple different things during the pandemic really hard. Transition stuff, her serve, slice backhand, just a lot of stuff. But I really think it comes down to me kind of getting her to know that she belongs at the top and she should be at the top. I think as soon as the results started to come and she started winning matches, she started gaining confidence. And then from there... I think now, honestly, every time she goes on the court, I plan on her winning and I think she does, too, which is a big part.
Q. She had the title in WTA 250 event in Washington, D.C., when you guys first linked up in 2019 and then a final in Auckland in 2020. More recently, maybe there's no signature trophy, but it's been extremely consistent week in, week out, including the big tournaments. Is that almost more pleasing to you in a way, to see that she's producing on such a consistent basis?
David Witt: Oh, yeah. I'd much rather her be consistent, just keep knocking on the door. And if she continues to play like she's playing, she's going to win tournaments. I'd rather it be like that than win a tournament and then you lose in the first round or second round. So she's in it every week.
I think her mindset, mentally and physically, that's where we're at, where she goes into every match and takes one match at a time. And she really feels like she's planning on winning that tournament, which is the right way. I mean, if you're not planning on winning the tournament, you probably shouldn't play that week.
Q. What is it about her game, or maybe her attitude and her personality, that gives you confidence that this trend is going to continue and she can get to an even higher level and start winning some of these tournaments as we get later in the year?
David Witt: She's just a down-to-earth, real person, and she works really hard. She's just very easy to get along with. We have fun. We have fun while we're working hard. And we've just clicked. We're both down to earth, pretty relaxed.
We talk a lot of tennis together, as far as strategy, We like watching matches together and just trying to pick apart things here and there, you know, whether we play that person down the road or not, you know, it's good to talk about.
Q. How did you first link up in the summer of 2019?
David Witt: We did about two weeks before Washington. We did a trial block, went down to Boca [Raton] and we worked out together for about a week and it went well. We both seemed like we worked well together, got along, and then Washington was the first tournament.
I think in Washington, from what she said, I think in an interview... It was like the first round, and I was looking at the draw and I kind of looked at her and I just said, "You know, there's no reason why you can't win this tournament. You're just as good as any person in the tournament." And she said that kind of clicked in her head and was like, "Yeah, I guess you're right."
I don't know if that's where it started, the whole belief thing. And like, "Damn, I can actually beat these girls and compete at every level." I think winning that tournament just gained a lot of confidence in her head that she does belong. And then we moved on from there. And I think gradually it's become better and better, as far as her mindset and her consistency with going out on the court and competing.
Q. Jessica's played a lot of doubles recently. Just about every tournament that she's played singles, at least of late, she was also in the doubles draw. What's your take on that combination? Do you think the doubles experience is important as it translates to the singles court, as well?
David Witt: Yeah, I mean, her doubles ranking wasn't high enough to play every week back in like 2019 and some in 2020. It's not that she didn't want to play. I think we were trying to pick and choose different partners to try to get in tournaments... you know how that is.
And then 2020 with the whole pandemic suspension and then coming back, it's harder to move up in singles that whole time because no one was losing points. You could gain points, but no one was losing any. So it was really hard to move up. I mean, she technically should be a lot higher right now.
But the doubles, you know, I think it's great to play and work on her volleys, work on just different shots and touch and movement at the net. And I think she enjoys it. It's the type of thing where you go out there with one of your good friends and you play doubles, and they have fun away from the pressure and the seriousness of the singles. But, yeah, she loves playing doubles and we plan on continuing to play doubles every time and she can get in.
Q. Just looking out at the rankings... and you mentioned she probably would be higher if there wasn't this revised system. Right now she's the No. 6 American, and of course the Top 4 are most likely going to go to the Olympics. Is that something that you guys have discussed or thought about, trying to make a late push for an Olympic spot here?
David Witt: Oh, yeah, that's definitely on our radar, and I think it's very achievable now that points are coming off. She really has nothing to defend. All the points leading up to the French Open—where that ranking cutoff is for the Olympics—is nothing for her. And I do know some of the other American girls have a lot of points coming off. So it's very achievable. It's just a matter of if she can go out and continue to be consistent with her results. The next few tournaments leading up to the French and then the French, she can make a move. She really doesn't have any points to defend. And it really depends on how other players do also.
Getting seeded at the French would be huge. That was our goal at the beginning of the year, looking forward to start getting seeded at these big tournaments so you don't have to play a top speed in the first two rounds.
Q. And speaking of the majors, and of course that awesome run to the quarters in Australia... How did you guys continue to build on that? She backed it up very well with some more deep runs in Qatar, Dubai and Miami, beating Pliskova three times in a row. So how did you guys handle backing up that career-best major performance and keeping the level high following the AO run.
David Witt: We saw a draw that came out at the Australian Open and she played Azarenka, who is an unbelievable player. We've practiced with her before, so it's not like she didn't believe she could beat her. It was just a matter of going out and do it. And I looked at her and I said, "Look, you've got to make your own draw." Sometimes in these tournaments you beat somebody that's ranked really high and sometimes then it opens the draw up so you don't have to play somebody as tough, at least on paper, but you've still got to go out and win the matches.
And I think after getting to the quarterfinals of the Australian, it almost made her hungrier. It was awesome that she got to the quarters, but at the same time, she was kind of like, "I really could have done better. I had a decent chance to win a Grand Slam here, to be honest with you. Three more matches." And so I think that in her head it was kind of like, "Damn, I had an opportunity there and I'm not really satisfied."
And that kind of took us to the next tournament, and she used that. She didn't slow down. Beating Pliskova three tournaments in a row... Personally, I think that's a bad match up for Pliskova, a good one for us. Not taking anything away from Pliskova, she's a great player and she's Top 10 in the world, she's been No. 1 in the world. But to me, I just think it's a great matchup for Jess on how she plays the game. And, you know, it comes down to strategy and how we played her and how Jess competed and went out and, you know, just took it from her.
Q. You had plenty of success at the Slams with Venus Williams in your time with her. Looking back on that, what are some of the lessons that you take from from your time with her into what you're doing now with Jessica.
David Witt: Working with Venus, it's different because I went in to working with Venus and she had already won a few Slams and she was already established. You've got to deal with every single person differently. And, you know, Venus had a lot of experience. And it was almost like when I jumped in there, I was trying to say things a little, a little here, a little there. We worked on a lot of things.
But now with Jessica, I think we talk a lot more. We go over stuff a lot more—matches, strategy. I think Jessica's more of more of a sponge and she takes it all in and uses what she wants. So I think it's more on a level of just we talk it out a lot, which is good. When you can take somebody and you see the success that Jessica's had moving from when we started, where she was ranked around 80, 100, and now she's close to Top 30. The feeling is she can go a lot higher, and who knows how high she can go since, honestly, and I feel like she can beat anybody on the tour any time. Like you said, it's a matter of consistency, right, and how consistent you can be in tournaments week in and week out.
Q. What about your coaching style? You said you're pretty laid back, which meshes well with Jessica. How would you describe your coaching style and your approach? Are there certain aspects of the game that you like to key on in your practice sessions?
David Witt: When I was growing up playing, I always serve and forehand were like those two huge weapons. Nowadays, in women's tennis, the backhand is like huge. I think we've developed her slice backhand and transition game a lot, but my philosophy is try to keep it simple with your player; don't make things complicated and overthink stuff and try to over-coach. I see a lot of that out there, where people are sitting and talking about either a win or a loss for hours. To me that I think almost does more damage than good. So we keep it pretty simple. You've got to know when to say things, when not to say things. And that's just getting to know your player and knowing when to say something to cheer them up when they're down or trying to keep them positive.
But I think the bottom line is just keeping it simple and and just relaxed. And I think if I'm relaxed, she's relaed, and then it opens her up to go out and play her best tennis.