As the Tokyo Olympics loomed, Monica Puig promised herself not to wallow in the glorious past – or her less-than-perfect present. She wouldn’t watch the tennis competition that five years ago defined her life. Her social media touches, she hoped, would be few.
But when Naomi Osaka withdrew from the French Open, citing the need to nurture her mental health, Puig recognized a struggling kindred spirit. When Osaka transitioned from the incandescent honor of igniting her country’s Olympic flame in the Opening ceremony to a soul-squashing third-round defeat, Puig saw herself. And when American gymnast Simone Biles – among the most decorated in the history of her sport – took herself out of the team competition Tuesday because she was not in the right “mental [state],” Puig felt her pain, too.
“Look,” she said Tuesday, “I won the Olympics back in 2016 and it was great and everything. But all the pressure and the recognition that comes with it afterwards, it’s really hard to deal with. Sometimes in the moment, you’re not ready for all that to be thrown your way."
This is five years of hard-won wisdom talking. You could hear the emotion welling in her voice.
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In the aftermath of winning the gold medal for women’s singles in Rio de Janeiro, Puig, too, experienced doubts. And worse. She has constantly battled with the profound weight of trying to repeat the unrepeatable. When you finally crash through to the top, the zenith of your profession, there is nowhere to go but down.
“Believe me,” Puig said, “it’s taken a lot of moments crying my eyes out and a lot of moments of frustration and anger to start channeling all of that, uh, energy into something more productive and more positive. All in all, it’s actually helped me become a better athlete, a better person and it’s given me better insight.”
An `incredible’ challenge
Currently in Scottsdale, Arizona, 16 times zones from defending her historic 2016 performance, Puig, now 27, has undergone a series of difficult surgeries in recent years. There was an issue with the ulnar nerve in her right elbow, the rotator cuff in her right shoulder and a torn right biceps muscle. After losing three opening matches – in Cincinnati and at the US Open and Roland Garros last fall – doctors performed a second shoulder surgery.
“It’s been incredibly challenging,” Puig said. “Because it really doesn’t matter which [Olympic] sport I’m watching, there’s always that sadness that I’m not there. That pain inside, the moments where I feel super, super down.”
During these the low times, Puig consoles herself.
“At the end of the day, I have to think I did something five years ago that will remain with me for the rest of my life,” she said, “and that’s something nobody can take away from me.
“I’m trying to think about it from a different standpoint now, looking at the game through a different lens. Instead of wishing I was there, kind of being a more productive spectator.”
Her world ranking is down to No.268, but when you can’t swing a tennis racquet, it feels a lot lower.
So, does Rio feel like a long, long time ago? Or the blink of an eye?
“I think it’s a little bit of both,” Puig said. “You think, `Wow, I can’t believe that five years has passed that quickly.’ But then again, some of the memories are truly a distant memory.
“And so, you need to look back at the pictures and video to re-live the moment. I’ll tell you, winning in my home region, with so many Latins there, it was amazing.”
In January 2016, Puig qualified and won seven straight matches to reach the final at Sydney. She made the semifinals on grass in Nottingham and Eastbourne and, the week before the Olympics, beat Osaka to advance to the semifinals of the Brasil Tennis Cup.
In Rio, Puig was unseeded and ranked No.34 in the world. She harbored modest ambitions.
“I had no expectation of even remotely doing anything other than winning a round or two,” Puig said. “That’s what you always want every time you come into a tournament – you just want to get past the first round.
“I felt confident in myself that I was playing well, but never well enough to win.”
Previously, she had won medals at the Pan American Games and Central America and Caribbean Games. Puig liked meeting the athletes in other disciplines who had the same high standards, the insatiable drive to compete. She found it refreshing to be part of that great, swirling international collective, when every hour wasn’t devoted solely to her tennis.
“I was able to block what’s happening on the tennis court after I finished my duties for the day and go back and have a good time with my team,” Puig said. “It’s something that carried me through that week. It actually helped me be in my best frame of mind.
“It’s probably the most relaxed I’ve ever been.”
Puig played well through the first two rounds, defeating Polona Hercog and Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, but in the third she swiftly took down Garbiñe Muguruza 6-1, 6-1.
“Honestly, I felt like I was floating on air,” Puig said. “Yeah, I think I played one of my most flawless matches. It was after that match that I told myself, `Well, you’re going to have to re-evaluate your expectations and priorities here. Because if I’m able to play like this for the rest of the week, then there’s a chance.’
“At that moment, I started believing a little bit more. Saying, `OK, I think I can do this.’ I was nervous, but I’ve never been afraid of anybody. It went really well, to say the least.”
After beating Laura Siegemund in the quarterfinals, Puig had dropped only 14 games in four matches. She was feeling curiously invincible.
`Yes … or yes’
For Puig, the semifinal against Petra Kvitova was the most nerve-wracking match in Rio. No one wants to come back the next day after losing and play the bronze medal consolation match. After that fiery start, nobody wants to be on the cusp of going home with nothing but a few Olympic pins.
“For me,” Puig explained, “it was like `I have to do this – yes or yes.’
She beat Kvitova 6-4, 1-6, 6-3, but Angelique Kerber – the player of the year in 2016 – was her opponent in the final. The steely German, then the No.2 player in the world, had already won the Australian Open to begin the year and, two weeks after the Olympics, the US Open.
“It was a match where I was able to let loose a little more,” Puig said. “When I went up against Angie, I was super-nervous, but there’s always that voice in the back of your head, saying, `Oh, my God, I’m so close to achieving my biggest dream ever.’ I believed it, but I didn’t believe it.
“I won the first set, and in the second I started thinking about it a little. `OK, here we go.’ I realized I was kind of miserable that second set, thinking about the result. And I couldn’t play tennis. I wanted to enjoy that last set as much as possible – and that’s when I played my best tennis. I was just in my own zone.”
Puig won six of seven games in the third set, and when Kerber’s last shot flew out she screamed `Oh, my God!’ several times with tears in her brown eyes, amazement on her face.
“All the years of hard work, all the tears, all the good moments – all the bad ones – [are] just flashing before your eyes,” Puig said. “In that moment, you say, `Man, when people say all that hard work will be worth it, they were right.’
“It all leads to something better. You have to trust the process.”
Puig was the first Puerto Rican to win an Olympic gold medal in any sport and the first Puerto Rican woman to win any medal.
“Just because I’m very big on girl power, I believe women can do anything,” she said. “We’re so unique in so many ways.”
Seeing the big picture
Puig has played nearly 150 WTA-level events in a professional career that spans more than a decade. In that time, she’s won three titles: 2014 Strasbourg, the WTA Rising Stars Invitational later that year – and the Olympics.
She says she’d love to experience winning a Grand Slam, but has always held the Olympics above the majors.
“The way that people stare at medals, when you’re wearing them in the Olympic Village, it’s literally like they would die for one,” Puig said. “It doesn’t matter if it’s gold, silver or bronze, they would do whatever it takes to earn one.
“People train their whole life for this, and sometimes their chance is over in 10 seconds.”
Because she spends most of her time bouncing around the world, the actual gold medal is in Miami with her parents, Jose and Astrid. When she’s visiting, sometimes Puig will pull it out of its case and just hold it.
“It was truly the best day of my life, and it gave me so much to be proud of,” Puig said. “It’s such a beautiful piece of work.”
Kind of like her Olympic journey.
Not afraid to start from scratch
Puig is no stranger to Instagram or Twitter.
“Remember all the years of hard work, sacrifice and struggle,” she posted recently. “It’s worth it in the end.”
@MonicaAce93 often references `Comeback Season’ or `Road to Resurgence.’
She has what she calls a “grand illusion” that she’ll be marching with the Puerto Rican team three years from now in Paris, carrying the flag at the Opening Ceremony. She doesn’t know for sure when she’s coming back, but is hoping for some time in 2022. Once ranked as high as No.27, Puig will have an injury-protected ranking, but knows she’ll have to take advantage of those free passes into main draws while they last.
“If I have to start all over again, I will,” she said. “Even if I have to go back to the [ITF] $25,000s or the $50,000s.There’s something so amazing about starting from scratch and getting back there. And proving to yourself that what you did once was actually real.”
In the wake of current events, she has a message for young athletes.
“You’re not always going to be a superhero,” she said, “you’re also a human being. We put in a lot of long, hard hours of training. It’s extremely disappointing at times and not very fun to deal with, but there is a level of self-grace that comes with all of this.
“These women [Osaka and Biles] have done something that no other person has been able to do. In the end, it’s about cutting yourself a little bit of slack.”
And that advice extends to Monica Puig.
“I know that when I come back,” she said, “I’m going to be a happier and healthier Monica.
“So, bring it on.”