MADRID, Spain -- Monica Puig played her first tennis match in nearly two years and lost at the Mutua Madrid Open in the first round. And yet, the 28-year-old from Puerto Rico could not stop smiling. After three injuries and a bushel of doubts over her future in the sport, the 2016 Olympic gold medalist was finally back on tour for the first time since 2020 Roland Garros.
"I don't know if you guys are ever going to see me with a smile after I lose," a beaming Puig said as she spoke to reporters after her 7-5, 6-0 loss to Danielle Collins in Madrid.
Puig's injury woes began during the 2019 season when a compressed nerve in her elbow led to a chance of permanent nerve damage. She returned 10 months later but played just three matches before being diagnosed with a severe shoulder injury, having torn her labrum and displaced her biceps tendon. When she could finally get back on court to train, it took just one swing of the racquet to land her on the sidelines once again.
"I felt it immediately," Puig said. "I hit one forehand and it felt like my arm flew out of its socket."
Puig underwent a second shoulder surgery to repair a torn biceps tendon and her rotator cuff. Still the reigning Olympic champion, the surgery ruled her out of the Tokyo Olympics and made her doubt whether she had it in her to continue.
"I had thoughts of hanging it up," Puig said. "I didn't know what was going to happen. But I wanted to give myself another shot, another chance to just be here and try and see how far I can get. For me, this is like a huge bonus being on the court for the second half of my career.
"So I'm very proud. It's kind of ballsy to come to a WTA 1000 to play your first match back, but I don't think I'm scared of anything anymore."
Puig put her time away to good use. She became a broadcaster with ESPN Deportes and ESPN International in Latin America. She reconnected with a childhood friend and the two began dating and got engaged. They're co-parenting a dog, Ollie. She joked that she had become a resident of Trader Joe's.
Having reached a career-high No.27 in 2016 with one WTA title under her belt, Puig became an overnight sensation and national hero at the 2016 Olympics. She stunned the field to win Puerto Rico's first-ever Olympic gold medal. She has been candid regarding her struggle to handle the aftermath of that Rio run. But even with her injury woes, Puig comes out of the experience embracing her learnings and hoping her experience can guide other athletes navigating the same path.
"I always said it was a blessing and a curse kind of thing," Puig said. "But I think it was just a really good period of growth for me. Growth, maturity, understanding myself, understanding who I am as a person, as a woman, and all of these things.
"Because I look back on it now, and I'm like, wow, I was so stupid for so many things. But at the end of the day, I didn't know any better. I was 22 years old and kind of came out of nowhere, and I wasn't ready for all of that.
"Now sometimes I see the struggles that the girls nowadays are going through, and while I can sympathize and I know what they're going through, I wish I could shake them and just say it's not that big a deal. Just relax! Because when something is taken away from you and you don't have any control over it, you just realize how much you want to be there no matter the situation.
"I look at all of those times and I would have rather been Top 100 going through the struggles that I was going through than all the complaints and the moaning and groaning that I was doing for not being 27 in the world and winning more titles. That's what I wish the girls nowadays could understand, and hopefully, if they read this, learn to develop that.
"Tennis is this big," Puig said, holding her thumb and forefinger a centimeter apart. "Enjoy every moment because, in the blink of an eye, it could be gone."
Of course, there is still the question of X's and O's. As a broadcaster, Puig got a clear view of the sport as it went through a clear evolution. But that experience has made her a more astute student of the game. Before her injury layoff, Puig admits she was reticent to study film and statistics. Now it's the first thing she wants to see.
"The only part that's still kind of tricky is the overhead and the serve," Puig said. "But if there's one thing that I know, it's that there has been proof that girls with not-so-good serves can still do their thing. Errani, for example, I've played against her hundreds of thousands of times and she's been Top 5 in the world.
"It's all about willing yourself to do it and wanting to do it. So once I could hit 20 serves from the baseline, then I was like, maybe I can actually do this."
Puig exchanged messages with Simona Halep, Bianca Andreescu, and Amanda Anisimova, who offered their support and encouragement in her time away. After living her comfortable life in the real world, Puig realized that she wanted to be back in the mix.
"All the stress and the pressure and the stuff that I was putting on myself all these previous years, you don't realize how small and how short all of this is until it's taken away from you, not on your own terms," Puig said. "So now being on the court for me is the best thing in the world. Even if I miss shots or whatever, I'm not getting upset with myself. I'm just continuing to push myself forward and telling myself that I can do this because I'm here.
"If there's an example of perseverance, it's just continuing to fight even though many, many people told me I wasn't going to be here again."