MELBOURNE, Australia (AP) — It's a long way from Buffalo, New York, to the second week of a Grand Slam, which may be why Jessica Pegula's journey took a while.
The No. 61-ranked Pegula reached the fourth round at the Australian Open by drubbing Kristina Mladenovic 6-2, 6-1 Saturday.
Even Pegula, 26, seemed surprised by her best career showing at a major tournament. She beat two-time Australian champion Victoria Azarenka in the first round, and has dropped a total of four games in the past two rounds.
“I don’t really expect to be playing this good next match,” Pegula said.
She's a Buffalo native and the daughter of Terry and Kim Pegula, owners of the NFL Bills and NHL Sabres. She trains in Florida, and while there were no spectators at Melbourne Park to applaud her latest win, she felt plenty of support from across the Pacific.
“Some in Buffalo, some in Florida — everyone is watching back home and cheering for me," she said, before adding with a laugh, “and happy the matches have been quick."
There were no fans in the stands due to the start of a five-day lockdown imposed by the Victoria state government in response to a COVID-19 outbreak at a hotel. Up to 30,000 spectators daily — 50% of capacity — had been admitted on previous days.
Another American, No. 22-seeded Jennifer Brady, joined Pegula in the round of 16 by beating qualifier Kaja Juvan 6-1, 6-3. Brady next takes on No. 28 Donna Vekic, who rallied to beat Kaia Kanepi 5-7, 7-6 (2), 6-4.
On the men's side, unseeded American Mackenzie McDonald matched his best Grand Slam result by reaching the round of 16 when he beat Lloyd Harris 7-6 (7), 6-1, 6-4.
No. 25-seeded Karolina Muchova staged an astounding second-set comeback from a 5-0 deficit in near silence, which only made the turnaround seem more bizarre as she beat No. 6 Karolina Pliskova 7-5, 7-5.
Muchova played in an empty Rod Laver Arena.
“It’s a big difference,” the Czech said. “I was actually getting, like, happy yesterday morning that I’m finally going to play on a bigger court and there’s going to be a crowd. But unlucky now for five days here. Hopefully then it’s going to be back again.”
Muchova waged her comeback against a fellow Czech and former world No. 1.
“I’m a little sad,” Muchova said. “We are very good friends. But it’s a game, so I’m definitely happy I made it through. I think we were both a little nervous.”
Pegula will next play No. 5-seeded Elina Svitolina, who beat No. 26 Yulia Putintseva, 6-4, 6-0.
Pegula lost the first six points but then began to dominate with her versatile game. She hit 21 winners to just 13 unforced errors and won eight points at the net.
Pegula's career has been slowed by injuries, and her previous best showing at a Grand Slam tournament was a run to the third round at last year’s U.S. Open.
“People still think I'm young; I'm not that young anymore," she said with a smile. “But because I was out at pivotal times when I was younger, these are all new experiences.”
Maturity has changed Pegula's perspective on her famous parents' role in her career.
“When I was younger, I wanted to make a name for myself,” she said. “Then I realized, as I got older, that I should embrace the family aspect and have fun with it.”
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