With an 11-month season and new tournaments starting every week, perspective can be a tough thing to come by in tennis. Lose a match and you're packing up your bags and rearranging flights to get to your next city. Win a tournament and, well, you're packing up your bags and getting on with your schedule. There's not much time to dwell on the past. It's all about moving forward.
So when I caught up with Monica Puig last week from her training base in Bradenton, Florida, it was time for the 20-year-old to reflect on her past 12 months, a span that saw her rise from outside the Top 100 to her current ranking of No.57. She was just starting her first full year on the WTA last season when she was able to secure a wildcard into qualifying at the BNP Paribas Open. Her successful qualifying campaign, which saw her defeat Andrea Petkovic in the final round, earned her a spot in the main draw of the biggest tournament of her career.
"I think a year ago there was obviously a lot of inexperience," Puig said. "I qualified and got really nervous in the main draw. Once I got to compete more at that level I started to get more comfortable and I started to understand what it was all about. Later on in the year it really helped with the experience and helped me with my composure. Now coming in with a different mindset with a whole new team around me it's definitely a breath of fresh air and whole new outlook and discipline going into, what I call, my actual beginning of the season."
That whole new team includes her new coach, Antonio Van Grichen, the man who took Victoria Azarenka from No.1 junior to the WTA Top 10 (Puig's former coach, Alain de Vos, is now coaching young American prospect Victoria Duval). Van Grichen, who has worked briefly with Ana Ivanovic, Vera Zvonareva, and Jarmila Gajdosova after splitting with Azarenka in 2009, has joined Team Puig on a full-time basis. The two paired up after her second round exit at the Australian Open and have been training together in Florida ever since. Puig says it was a drastic but necessary change.
"I felt like I needed a change in my game to take me to the next level," she said. "I thought I needed a fresh voice and a new face on the team so I'm really excited to have started work with him and really excited to start our first tournament together at Indian Wells."
After a solid training block, Puig returns to Indian Wells on her own merit. She's earned her place in the main draw thanks to a 2013 season that saw her make her first WTA quarterfinal at the Portugal Open and make the third round of the French Open. The highlight of her season came two weeks later, where she notched her first win over a Top 10 player, defeating Sara Errani en route to the fourth round of Wimbledon. Now she can take a moment to pat herself on the back for a job well done.
"We knew Charlie Pasarell when he was running the tournament and he was fortunate enough to give me a wildcard to Indian Wells for two years," she said. "I really took advantage of the opportunity. But I really wanted to make the main draw on my own and stop relying on the wildcard."
"To have some wildcards to have a taste of what it's like to be in the main draw is great, but you also need to go through the struggle of having to qualify or playing the lower levels to earn experience to make it into the main draw on your own. I think there's a more special feeling when you've earned it yourself."
That grinder's mentality is virtually her namesake. If you follow Puig on Twitter you're well aware of her own personal hashtag "Pica Power". It comes from the Spanish word "picar", which means to chip or grind away at something. "It's like to pick away at the stone until it's perfect," she explained last year. "You keep picking away, you keep picking away. I just got 'Pica' out of there and it just really stuck with me."
"I had my mini-breakthrough last year and obviously I'd like to get a little bit higher but I think I'm a person that goes little by little," she said."I'm still getting used to how things on the tour. I'm not going to pressure myself into making things happen right away. I know it's a lengthy career that I'll have so I'm focused on taking my time and improving my game."
~ Courtney Nguyen is a freelance tennis writer based in Northern California. She is the blogger behind Sports Illustrated's Beyond the Baseline and co-host of the No Challenges Remaining podcast.