NEW HAVEN, CT, USA - It’s not an Olympic year, but Monica Puig is riding high on another gold medal performance. This time around, however, she's determined to translate her big results at the Games into WTA success.
Puerto Rico’s golden girl, Puig brough euphoria to the island in 2016 when she played the best tennis of her career to clinch the gold medal at the Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro - the country’s first-ever Olympic gold. She defeated four Top 20 players en route, including World No.4 Garbine Muguruza in the third round, and No.2 Angelique Kerber in the final.
And then came the letdown.
Puig has been open about her struggles to recreate the magic of her 2016 run, reaching only one final since then and plummeting from a career-high of No.27 to 82 in the world.
Winning gold at 2018 Central American and Caribbean Games in Barranquilla, Colombia a few weeks ago, was a welcome break from the weekly tennis grind - and, according to Puig, the perfect way bounce back after a disappointing first half of the season that was cut short due to injury.
“It was really important for me to play well in Barranquilla, especially from the standpoint of competing for Puerto Rico - and especially after everything they’ve been through with the hurricane and everything,” Puig said in New Haven, where she’s into the quarterfinals as a qualifier. “We wanted to bring our best team to the Games, and we did. We exceeded a lot of expectations, especially with the medals.
“But it was also important for me. Being laid off, not having that many matches, and then playing a total of seven matches, singles and doubles, in the span of four days was good for me. It was good court time, it was good to get the rust out, shake out a few of the nerves that I might feel when I’m coming back to compete. It was a great boost in the right direction for me.”
Puig started out the season in good form, reaching the fourth round of the Miami Open - notching a stunner World No.2 Caroline Wozniacki along the way - and backing it up in Monterrey where she made a quarterfinal appearance. But a hip injury in Rome sidelined her for two months, forcing her to miss the clay and grass seasons.
In Miami, Puig said her run to the fourth round “felt like Rio all over again,” which made her injury lay off even more frustrating.
“This year was a bit of a letdown after Rome with my injury so I feel like I’m just starting to get into the groove of things again,” Puig said. “Hopefully if I can find this consistency and continue to do things the right way I can find my groove again and hopefully be up there again.
“I need to do what I’m doing this week, but more consistently. And then those results will come. I think that’s what happened in 2016 for me when I got to 27 in the world: I was consistent in a lot of tournaments, making into semis and finals and quarters of events consistently.”
Even two years removed from her heroics in Rio, Puig still struggles to put into words what that magical moment felt like - and she’s been trying to recapture those emotions ever since.
Today marks 2 years since the most amazing day of my life. August 13, 2016 was without a doubt a dream come true. It has been a difficult journey since then and I am working endlessly to try and get back to this moment and feel these feelings again. Happy Anniversary Rio ❤️🥇 pic.twitter.com/Q9U5Yx833D
— Monica Puig (@MonicaAce93) August 13, 2018
“It’s something that everyone talks to me about and says, they’re like ‘You just have a different demeanor, different face, different drive when you play for Puerto Rico.’ And honestly, I’ve been trying to find that same feeling so I can bring it to the tour. And you know, little by little I’m going to find it.
“But… I don’t know. It’s just something so special for me when I play for Puerto Rico. I just feel like I have the whole country on my shoulders, and rather than that dragging me down it just lifts me up and gives me extra motivation to play for all the people in Puerto Rico and lift their spirits.”
She might have found a hint of it this week in New Haven, where she qualified for a WTA main draw after four failed attempts. She rode the high of Barranquilla 2018 - where she claimed the gold medal in singles and bronze in doubles - all the way to her second quarterfinal of the season. This time around, she’s determined to stay under the radar and put in the hard work on court, away from the spotlight.
— Monica Puig (@MonicaAce93) July 30, 2018
“I think the qualifying here was good for me to get three matches just to keep the rhythm going,” she said. “And in the main draw I just tried to continue to play as solid as possible and get better with each and every match. I think I’ve been doing that well, and I just want to continue to take every single opportunity that I get on the court to play better and be better - that’s my main focus.
“I also think that it’s good to be here this week and away from all the hustle and bustle in New York. I was thinking about it earlier, and I was saying it just feels so much more relaxed here. When you go to a Grand Slam, you’re just kind of overwhelmed with everything, the atmosphere and you feel more tired at the end of the day.
“Here, I’m playing matches and competing, and also, I’m just in my element over here instead of getting lost in the concrete jungle. Obviously, it’s inevitable - I’m going to have to go there sometime. But as long as I can stay here and continue to do what I’ve been doing so far, it’s a plus.”