Driving home through the desert city of Scottsdale, Arizona, Monica Puig laughs into the phone. What’s the Rio de Janeiro gold medalist been up to?
“The ever-present rehab,” she says. “I recently moved here to continue the adventures of shoulder rehab and get back out on tour.”
Puig, who has played only three matches since undergoing elbow surgery in 2019, is training again. Her coach is Dorian Descloix, the former French player who guided Victoria Azarenka to the 2020 US Open final. Puig still hasn’t hit a serious serve as of the first week of February, but says she’s on track for a comeback, maybe in Madrid at the end of April.
After the rockiest two years of her life and more tears than she cares to count, Puig was growing restless in 2021.
“You get bored and you want to find something to do when you’re not out on the courts,” she said. “Tennis is so prevalent in my life, and it’s always going to be, that I just wanted to do something in this sport. The beautiful thing about it is that tennis opens so many doors.
“Sometimes opportunities present themselves in certain moments. For me, it was right time, right place.”
Compared to the rest of us, professional athletes have a fleeting window to make their mark. The 28-year-old Puig, whose personality is as big as her game, is already pivoting toward the next career – as a broadcaster.
Christian Calcagno, a coordinating producer for ESPN Deportes in the United States and ESPN International in Latin America, was connected with Puig by colleague Hiram Martinez, a senior editor for ESPN.com. Calcagno decided to invite her to ESPN’s Bristol, Connecticut, campus for a three-day stint as an analyst for ESPN Deportes’ Wimbledon coverage.
With the global pandemic, the logistics were daunting. Puig had to converse in Spanish with the announcers who were in Argentina and the other analyst, former player Leonardo Lavalle, who was in Mexico.
“It was an extra challenge for someone who never worked behind a microphone,” Calcagno said. “She did really, really well. She’s well-spoken and very easy going.”
Passing that audition, Calcagno brought her in for two weeks on the big stage that is the US Open in New York.
“The chemistry,” Puig said, “was insane. Those two weeks literally flew by.”
She had three different roles: Doing analysis from a set location outside Arthur Ashe Stadium, working along host Carolina Guillen, commentary in the broadcast booth – and courtside analysis for the important matches on Arthur Ashe, including men’s matches and the final between Emma Raducanu and Leylah Fernandez.
“And she figured it all out,” Calcagno said. “She did an amazing job, adapted really well, working with the people side by side, which was different for her. She’s very charismatic and warm and everybody embraced her.”
Puig closed out the season with another varied week at the WTA Finals in Guadalajara, Mexico. The experience on the other side of the camera and microphone was beyond merely educational.
“It was a lot of work,” Puig said. “It made me appreciate the journalism side of things, the long hours that they put in. They have to be there watching all the matches, studying all the facts. I thought being a tennis player in a Grand Slam was crazy, but being a journalist at a Grand Slam is truly out of this world. I tip my hat to them.”
There were times, when roaming the same corridors at the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center she had for nine consecutive years going back to a qualifying attempt in 2012, Puig was barely recognized.
“It was a shock to a lot of people who weren’t used to seeing me in normal clothes,” Puig said. “They’d look and say, `Oh, it’s you!’ Because they’re so used to seeing me in shorts, t-shirts and a ponytail – and I was all dressed up with hair and makeup.”
Her commentary position on Arthur Ashe wasn’t far from the baseline.
“I would much rather have been out there and I had to swallow a couple of tears here and there,” Puig said. “But in the end, I was very grateful that I was so close to the action and get to study the game in a new way. It really was an experience that will definitely stay with me.
“Because I don’t want this to stop here, I definitely see myself doing this long term, after my tennis career is over – whenever that might be.”
The biggest adjustment? You’ll be surprised.
While tennis is about athleticism, mental and physical fitness, television places a greater emphasis on presentation. For a fortnight at a Grand Slam, Puig would typically pack 10 practice outfits and run them through the hotel laundry service when necessary. Heading into the US Open, Puig was nearly overwhelmed trying to figure out what to wear – the colors that look best on TV, accessories with each outfit, shoes, etc.
“Yes,” she said, “it was chaos. I had to make an Excel spread sheet on what to wear each day. You really needed to bring more than14 outfits, you needed to bring backups just in case you didn’t like what you were wearing that day or you’re having an off-day, fashion-wise.”
She managed to get it all into two suitcases, but it wasn’t enough. Because she was on site so long, there was never had the opportunity to fill the gaps by shopping in Manhattan. Puig, who said she was reluctant to ask fiancé Nathan Rakitt (now there’s a tennis name) to do her shopping, surfed online and had a courier bring the emergency clothes to her hotel.
The whole process was stressful, but there was an upside.
“It’s fun having somebody do your hair and makeup every day, making sure you look absolutely perfect,” Puig said.
Perfect, under the harrowing demands of professional tennis, her body is not. Three years after the Rio Olympics, she underwent elbow surgery to correct damage to the ulnar nerve. Then, in October of 2020, doctors repaired a labrum tear in her right shoulder and a frayed biceps tendon. After an aborted comeback, when she lost three opening matches, in Cincinnati and at the US Open and Roland Garros, Puig was back in the operating room again in May 2021 to re-address the shoulder and biceps.
Before the first shoulder surgery, her mother Astrid had a question.
“She asked me if I wanted to hang it up,” Puig said. “Because she knew all the time and energy I’d have to put into the rehab process. So much pain. I told her, if I have to have one more surgery, then I think I’ll stop.
“And then, when I had to have my second surgery, I said, `No way.’ I am going to fight this. I’m going to go back to rehab, no matter how difficult or challenging or painful it is. And right now, everything is trending in the right direction.”
When she tried to come back from the first shoulder surgery, she could never last longer than five minutes on the court without feeling some discomfort. Now, she’s up to 90 minutes, mostly pain free, and is working up to the task of relearning her serve.
If all goes well, she plans to be ready for the European swing. Puig is hoping for a few wildcards so she doesn’t have to use her protected ranking too often. There are career goals, some boxes she hasn’t ticked. She’d like to collect a third title, to go with the 2016 Olympics and 2014 Strasbourg. It would be nice to threaten her career-high ranking of No.27, achieved in the wake of Rio de Janeiro.
“Sometimes, they say, things happen for a reason,” Puig said. “I really didn’t understand the reason behind my injuries, and I was having a tough time coming to terms with what happened. But it really has given me a new motivation in coming back into the sport.”
She understands that the Olympic gold medal will always be the first thing people think of when her name comes up.
“But,” she said, “I have to appreciate my biggest victory and the perseverance and persistence of not quitting when literally all the cards were not in my favor. If I can just get out on the court at a Grand Slam and win some matches – or at any tournament, for that matter – that would be a bigger win for me than I could ever say.”