PARIS — Jessica Pegula is forging a path not only as an accomplished tennis player but also as a figure of representation for the Asian American community. As a successful athlete of Korean descent, she is hoping to foster an awareness of the intersections of culture and sports.
Pegula’s journey to connect with her Korean heritage has been inextricably linked to sports. Her mother, Kim, was born in Seoul and abandoned outside a police station by her birth parents. She was adopted by an American family at 5 years old and grew up in New York.
“I don’t know a lot of my heritage because she really didn’t want to know that much and she didn’t really grow up in it,” Pegula said.
This week, Pegula is the No.3 seed at Roland Garros where she was a quarterfinalist last year. She opened her campaign with a 6-4, 6-2 win over Danielle Collins on Sunday and will face Italy’s Camila Giorgi in the second round.
Pegula’s first trip to Korea was also her mother’s first trip back to Seoul. Pegula played the Hana Bank Korea Open in 2019 specifically to build a family trip around the event. They even visited the orphanage where her mother was taken in.
“I think that experience made me realize the importance of my heritage,” Pegula said. “Asian people love other Asian people and Koreans loved her. She doesn’t speak Korean, but they were so proud.”
“Around that time is when I started to realize how important it was.”
Pegula may not have grown up with the stereotypical hallmarks of an Asian American household, but her mother’s trailblazing career as a sports executive and her own ascendancy up the rankings to become the top-ranked American has crystalized the importance of being seen.
“Sometimes I forget the impact you have on people,” Pegula said. “Especially when I see a young Korean girl or family, they come up to me and they love my mom and they love me just because they see themselves being represented on a bigger stage or in an area where there’s not a lot of Asian Americans, let alone Asian American women, especially in sports.
“You realize the importance of representation.”
When Kim became the president of the NFL’s Buffalo Bills and NHL’s Buffalo Sabres, she was the first woman and Asian American woman to hold that title in either league. She went on to join the NFL’s Workplace Diversity Committee and the NHL’s Executive Inclusion Council.
Pegula’s own leadership decisions have followed her mother’s example. She has been a member of the WTA Player’s Council since 2020 and recently joined the Asian American Pacific Islander Tennis Association as a founding member of the board of directors.
“Even though I didn’t exactly grow up fully Korean,” Pegula said, “it’s something that now I think me and my family and my sister have also wanted to learn more about because we realize how important it is for those that come over here and those that are in Asia, they see us in these different lights representing them when there’s not a lot of us.”
As she works to bring her focus to a strong showing at the second Slam of the season, Pegula’s win over Collins was a welcome salve for what has been a trying five-week stretch leading into Paris. She’ll now have two days of much-needed rest and recovery.
“I had a little bit of a nagging injury in Madrid and Rome,” Pegula said. “Then the two-week tournament [format]. Then I got food poisoning last week. There’s been a lot of obstacles, I feel like, the last couple of weeks specifically that have been really tough physically and then taking their toll mentally because of that.
“It’s not easy, especially playing Danielle today, I was just happy I was able to really hunker down and focus because I don’t think I came in this week feeling my best or feeling the most prepared. But sometimes that happens.
“I’m glad I got through today. It’s been a long few years of a lot of matches. I still feel good, but the last couple of weeks have been definitely interesting.”