Young WTA players using their Hispanic backgrounds to help foster success, Kamakshi Tandon writes for ESPN.
From Manuel Santana to Gabriela Sabatini to Rafael Nadal, legions of Spanish-speaking players have made their presence felt in tennis history.
But despite all the South Americans and Spaniards, the number of North American Hispanics who have been prominent pros in the past can be counted on two hands — among them two-time U.S. champ Pancho Gonzales, Pancho Segura, Charlie Pasarell, Rosie Cascals, Kristina Brandi, Gigi Fernandez and Mary Joe Fernandez.
Counting the number currently in the men’s and women’s top 100 takes just two fingers. Monica Puig, from Puerto Rico, is ranked No. 45, while Christina McHale, whose mother is from Cuba, is No. 75 and was ranked as high as No. 24 last year before being hit by mononucleosis.
Monica Puig showed a lot of potential this year, especially at the Euro Slams.
Puig, who turned 20 last week, has a scrappy game and is one of a handful of 20-and-under players who have managed to make an impact on the WTA this year. Ranked No. 124 at the start of the season, she has made a rapid rise that started with title wins on the ITF Pro Circuit a year ago and a tough battle against then-No. 5 Angelique Kerber as a qualifier at Brisbane in January.
Making her Grand Slam debut at the French Open, Puig defeated No. 11 seed Nadia Petrova on her way to reaching the third round and then knocked off No. 5 seed Sara Errani to get to the fourth round of Wimbledon.
Though she has lived in Florida since she was just more than a year old, Puig maintains a strong sense of Puerto Rican identity and visits often.
“My dad is a mechanical engineer, so for his business we moved over to Miami,” Puig said at Wimbledon. “Obviously I never forgot my background. I went to Puerto Rico every single summer. I speak Spanish fluently as well.
“My grandparents on my mom’s side of the family still live over there. My dad’s side is Cuban American.”
Her success has got the attention of the boxing- and baseball-mad nation. “Now that I’ve been doing well, tennis is starting to become bigger as well,” she said.
Puig has worked with Belgian coach Alain de Vos since attending the Florida base of the Justine Henin Tennis Academy her early teens, and has also trained with Andre Agassi’s former fitness coach Gil Reyes through the adidas Player Development program. She began playing tennis at 6, encouraged by her mother shortly after her older brother took up the sport.
Like many young pros, Puig is an enthusiastic presence on Twitter and has made the phrase “Pica power” — or #picapower in hashtag form — into her own personal trademark. It is derived from the Spanish word “picar,” which means to peck.
“My coach one day during practice kept going on in Spanish, saying, ‘You have to keep chipping away at the stone until you get it to where you wanted to be,'” she later explained. “So I abbreviated it, and it became my thing.”
Though wary of becoming too close to other players on tour, the outgoing Puig embraces the support she receives from Puerto Ricans and enjoys being a flag-bearer for the small nation of almost 4 million, which is a self-governing territory of the United States. Earlier this year, she received a call from the governor and also got an introduction to singer Ricky Martin, who is one of the island’s most famous celebrities and regularly tweeted his support during her Wimbledon run. Enthusiastic fans also turn out to watch her matches and follow her results on tour.
“It makes me feel really special that I’m able to play tennis for the island and just be recognized as a top figure over there,” Puig said. “I’m out on the streets, and people will stop me and say, ‘Can I have your autograph/ Can we take picture with you?’
“In Puerto Rico, since the sports are very big, I’m a pretty big public figure over there. And it’s kind of nice, because it shows that people are paying attention to what you are doing and there’s a lot of people who support you.”
McHale’s Hispanic connections are not quite as well-known but remain personally significant for the 21-year-old.
“The Cuban culture has been a big part of my upbringing,” she told ESPN.com. “I love Hispanic food. Especially I love when my grandma cooks Cuban food. Whenever I’m away for a long time at a tournament and I come back, I always want my grandmother to cook me Cuban food like rice and black beans.
” And my grandmother loves to watch novellas, so if I go over to her house, she’ll always have Spanish shows. I sit with her and I’ll watch.”
McHale talks in English with her Irish American father and her sister, Lauren, but is also fluent in Spanish and uses it often. “My grandma only speaks Spanish. So I learned Spanish, and my mom speaks to me all the time in Spanish,” she said.
McHale also works with USTA coach Jorge Todero, who is from Argentina. “It’s great that he speaks to me in Spanish because then he can get his message across a lot easier,” she said.
It has come in handy on tour as well. Though McHale is closest to the other young American players, being able to cross linguistic divides has helped her make other connections. “A lot of the players speak Spanish, so it’s nice that I can speak to them. You have tournaments in Madrid and other places where they speak Spanish so I feel comfortable,” she added.
Christina McHale doesn’t live in Cuba, but certainly takes pride in her roots.
But it also helps that the New Jersey native was an international globetrotter long before she began playing on tour. Her father’s job took the family to Hong Kong when McHale was 5, and stayed there until she was 8 years old. “That definitely had an impact on my sister and I,” McHale said. “We learned at an early age all the different nationalities. We went to the international school, so our friends were just from everywhere and they all spoke different languages.”
During that time, McHale picked up basic Mandarin, started playing tennis and took part in swimming competitions, which took her to many different nations. “We went all over Asia,” she quipped. “Yeah, it was weird, I was only 7 years old but we would go to Bangkok and we would go to Indonesia, Australia, New Zealand. It was really cool.”
Her connection to the region meant that returning to play tournaments in Beijing and Toyko a couple of years later was an exciting moment for McHale, and she is especially looking forward to the inaugural WTA event in Hong Kong next year.
Though her ranking and confidence dropped after last year’s bout of mononucleosis, the solid, steady baseliner has reached the third round of the US Open and the semifinals in Quebec City during the past few weeks and feels she is recovering the form that allowed her to break into the top 30 last year. She also recently reunited with Todero, her coach of two years, after a brief split.
“I think I’m heading in the right direction again,” McHale said. “Physically, I feel 100 percent now so in terms of that I feel great. I think that working again with my old coach, Jorge, I think that’s really helped me. I’m really happy about that.”
Her background has made it easier for her to manage the demands of being on the road.
“I like to travel a lot, and it’s a great part of my sport,” she said. “At the same time, I love being home.”
Grandma’s cooking might have something to do with that.