A report by Michelle Kaufman for the Miami Herald.
Monica Puig had just won her Olympic gold medal in Rio last summer, just reached the pinnacle of her career, just made history as the first athlete to win gold for Puerto Rico; but she quickly realized that her fairy tale would end abruptly.
Unlike other Olympic athletes, who take extended breaks after peaking on the world stage, Puig had a daunting schedule after arriving home in Miami — the U.S. Open in New York, and then an Asian swing with tournaments in Tokyo, and Chinese stops in Wuhan, Beijing and Tianjin.
She struggled to recapture the energy and form she displayed during her Olympic run, during which she knocked off No. 19 Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, No. 4 Garbine Muguruza, No. 14 Petra Kvitova and No. 2 Angelique Kerber. Between them, those players had won five Grand Slam titles. Puig, by contrast, had never gotten past the fourth round of a major.
“I remember talking to some of the other Olympians after I won the gold medal, and they’d ask me what I was doing next, and I was like, ‘I have to keep training because I have more tournaments,’ ’’ Puig, now ranked 48th, said in a recent interview. “I asked what they were doing, and they said they’re done. They were going to relax, go on vacation, do ‘Dancing With the Stars.’
“I realize now that winning the gold was a lot for me to take in, and I was drained mentally and physically when I left Rio. Success hit me like a moving train, and I didn’t have time to recharge my battery. It was really hard for me to get re-focused.”
She lost her opening match at the U.S. Open, reached the quarters in Tokyo, lost in the first round at Wuhan and Beijing, and reached the quarters in Tianjin. In between, she was inundated with media and public relations requests, almost none of which she turned down.
She received congratulatory emails and shout-outs on Twitter from many in the tennis world, and also from Puerto Rican stars Mark Anthony and Jennifer Lopez. She was shocked to see boxing legend Mike Tyson discussing her during an interview. He has become an avid tennis fan because his young daughter plays.
In mid-December, when Puig normally would be resting in Miami and gearing up for Australia, she hosted an exhibition match in Puerto Rico against Maria Sharapova, who is returning to the WTA Tour after a drug suspension.
“That match in Puerto Rico was so special to me,” Puig said. “I wanted to play there because all those fans were so supportive of me during the Olympics and they wanted to see me play live. Maria was great. She was very humble and funny, and we really got to know each other well. That was definitely a highlight for me.”
Everywhere she goes now, the expectations are higher. But she has been unable to make another major breakthrough. She lost her opening matches in Brisbane and Sydney, and was eliminated from the Australian Open in the Round of 64 by German qualifier Mona Barthel.
Now, she turns her sights to her spring schedule, which includes the Miami Open on Key Biscayne, her hometown tournament, from March 21-April 3. Her name is listed on the advertisement, along with Australian Open champions Serena Williams and Roger Federer, and Rafael Nadal, Venus Williams, Novak Djokovic, Andy Murray and Juan Martin del Potro.
At this time last year, she never imagined her name would be mentioned among those stars.
“I’m really looking forward to playing in Miami and hoping for big Latino crowds screaming and yelling,” she said. “It’s one of my favorite places to play, and I’m sure I will get a nice and even nicer welcome than usual this time. Should be really fun.”
Miami Open tickets are available at http://www.miami open.com.