Driving home through the desert town of Scottsdale, Arizona, Monica Puig laughs on the phone. What did the gold medalist from Rio de Janeiro do?
“The ubiquitous rehab,” she says. “I recently moved here to continue shoulder rehab adventures and go on tour again.”
Puig, who has only played three games 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 has still not achieved serious serve since the first week of February, but says she is on course for a return, possibly in Madrid at the end of April.
After the toughest two years of her life and more tears than she cares to count, Puig was looking increasingly restless in 2021.
“You’re bored and want to find something to do when you’re not on the courts,” she said. “Tennis is so present in my life, and it always will be, that I just wanted to do something in this sport. The beautiful thing is that tennis opens so many doors.
“Sometimes opportunities present themselves at certain times. For me, it was the right time, the right place.
Compared to the rest of us, professional athletes have a fleeting window to make their mark. Puig, 28, whose personality is as big as his game, is already eyeing up the next career – as a broadcaster.
Christian Calcagno, coordinating producer for ESPN Deportes in the United States and ESPN International in Latin America, was put in touch with Puig by his colleague Hiram Martinez, editor-in-chief for ESPN.com. Calcagno decided to invite him 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 added challenge for someone who had never worked behind a microphone,” Calcagno said. “She did really, really well. She speaks well and is very easy going.
Passing this audition, Calcagno brought her for two weeks on the big stage that is the US Open in New York.
“The chemistry,” Puig said, “was crazy. Those two weeks literally flew by.
She had three different roles: providing analysis from a set location outside Arthur Ashe Stadium, working with host Carolina Guillen, commentating in the broadcast booth – and analyzing important matches on the pitch. Arthur Ashe, including the men’s matches and the final between Emma Raducanu and Leylah Fernández.
“And she got it all,” Calcagno said. “She did an amazing job, coped very well, working with people side by side, which was different for her. She’s very charismatic and warm and everyone embraced her.
Puig capped off 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 mere education.
“It was a parcel of work,” Puig said. “It made me appreciate the journalism side of things, the long hours they put in. They have to be there to watch all the games, study 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. Hats off to them.”
There were times, while wandering the same halls of the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center that she had for nine straight years dating back to a 2012 qualification attempt, 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 were looking and saying, ‘Oh, it’s you!’ Because they’re so used to seeing me in shorts and a t-shirt and a ponytail – and I was all done up and made up.
His commentary stance on Arthur Ashe was not far off the baseline.
“I would have preferred to be there and had to swallow a few tears here and there,” Puig said. “But in the end, I was very grateful to be so close to the action and to have been able to study the game in a new way. It was truly an experience that will definitely stay with me.
“Because I don’t want it to end here, I can see myself doing this in the long term, after my tennis career is over – when it might be.”
The biggest adjustment? You will be surprised.
While tennis is about athleticism, mental and physical fitness, television puts more emphasis on presentation. For a fortnight at a Grand Slam, Puig would typically pack 10 training outfits and run them through the hotel laundry service if needed. As the US Open approached, Puig was almost overwhelmed trying to figure out what to wear – which colors would look best on TV, which accessories to go with each outfit, which shoes, etc.
“Yes,” she said, “it was chaos. I had to make an Excel spreadsheet of what to wear each day. You really needed to bring more than 14 outfits, you had to bring backups just in case you didn’t like what you were wearing that day or had a fashion-free day.
She managed to fit everything into two suitcases, but it wasn’t enough. Because she was there so long, there was never a chance to fill in the gaps while shopping in Manhattan. Puig, who said she was hesitant to ask fiancé Nathan Rakitt (now there’s a tennis name) for groceries, surfed online and asked a courier to bring the emergency clothes to her hotel.
The whole process was stressful, but there was a benefit.
“It’s fun to have someone do your hair and makeup every day, making sure you look absolutely perfect,” Puig said.
Perfect, under the harrowing demands of professional tennis, his body is not. Three years after the Rio Olympics, she underwent elbow surgery to correct damage to the ulnar nerve. Then, in October 2020, doctors repaired a torn labrum in his right shoulder and a frayed biceps tendon. After an aborted comeback, where she lost three opening matches, at Cincinnati and the US Open and Roland Garros, Puig was back in the operating room in May 2021 to re-address her shoulder and bicep.
Before the first shoulder operation, her mother Astrid had a question.
“She asked me if I wanted to hang up,” Puig said. “Because she knew all the time and energy I would have to put into the rehab process. So much pain. I told him, if I have to have one more operation, then I think I’ll stop.
“And then when I had to have my second surgery, I said, ‘No way.’ painful. And at the moment, everything is going in the right direction.
When she tried to come back from her first shoulder operation, she could never last more than five minutes on the court without feeling some discomfort. Now she has up to 90 minutes, mostly pain free, and is working on 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 he doesn’t have to use his protected ranking too often. There are career goals, boxes she didn’t check. She would like to collect a third title, to accompany the 2016 Olympics and Strasbourg 2014. It would be nice to threaten her career ranking of No. 27, obtained in the wake of Rio de Janeiro.
“Sometimes, they say, things happen for a reason,” Puig said. “I really didn’t understand the reason for my injuries and I had a hard time accepting what had happened. But it really gave me a new motivation to come back to the sport.
She understands that the Olympic gold medal will always be the first thing people think of when her name is mentioned.
“But,” she said, “I have to appreciate my biggest win and the perseverance and persistence in not giving up when literally all the cards were not in my favor. If I can just step out onto the court during a Grand Slam and winning a few matches – or at any tournament, for that matter – that would be a bigger win for me than I could ever say.