Monica Puig says that she is already a bit of a hero in Puerto Rico, the island where she was born but not where she resides. She has lived in Miami since she was a one year old, but she has chosen to play for Puerto Rico instead of the US, which is fine, because it’s encouraging to see young people/players respecting their heritage and actively making an effort to represent an area where tennis is not wildly popular.
Another Puerto Rico native, Charlie Pasarell, became a standout player during 1960s and 1970s and then he became one of the most powerful men on the sport by helping build up the Coachella Valley, California tournament (now played at Indiana Wells) into the second biggest event in the United States. He was also a major player on the ATP Board of Directors and helped guide the tour in the 21st century. Gigi Fernandez, who also hails from the island, became one of the greatest doubles player ever and reached the Wimbledon semis in singles.
Now here comes Puig, a 19 year old with a tremendous amount of self-confidence who has reached the third round of Wimbledon via a thumping of Sara Errani in the first round and three-set victory over Silvia Soler-Espinosa. On Saturday afternoon, she came back on court down a set and break to she to Eva Birnerova as their match had been suspended for darkness. Under a hot sun she shined 4-6, 6-3, 6-4.
Really the stars on the women’s side during the first week of Wimbledon has been the younger set: Sloane Stephens, Laura Robson, Madison Keys, Genie Bouchard, Camilla Giorgi and Allison Riske, who is a bit older than the rest at an ancient age of 21.
Puig grew up playing juniors with Robson, Bouchard and Keys, the latter two whom she has scored wins over. At 5-foot-7 she is not as tall as either, but she is very quick, scrappy and confident. She has not received nearly amount of the attention of any of them, but if she was British she’d be receiving a page of coverage every day in the London papers.
Puig can’t do much about the fact that she doesn’t have a press corp following her, but what she can do is keep up with her peers, To date she has done so and more at Wimbledon.
“Everyone feeds off of everyone’s success,” she said. “All the young ones, you see Bouchard and Robson winning, you want to do the same. We are pushing each other to find best in out games. We might not talk to each other all time but when you see someone doing well you think ‘Hey if you want keep up with me you have to this.’ It’s great to have a lot young girls who are starting to step up because I think the game needs some young new faces.”
As a pro, Puig came alive last fall when she won back to back Challengers in France, scoring fine wins over the likes of Magdalena Rybarikova and Elena Vesnina. This year, she played Venus Williams to tough in Charleston, qualified for the Portugal Open and reached the third round of Roland Garros where she took down Nadia Petrova and Keys before losing to Carla Suarez.
Even though Errani is nearly allergic to grass, for a teen to beat a top 5 seed is huge, especially when the score was 6-3 6-2. She was pleased to have followed up that victory with a hearty three win over Soler, because she didn’t want people to view her upset as a “fluke.” It wasn’t. Being able to survive the rain, cold, darkness and delays at the All England and best Birnerova was another feather in her cap.
In reality, she was slight favorite going into both her last two matches but she didn’t want to see herself that way. Her self-proclaimed “Pica Power” demands that she look at herself like the Little Engine That Could.
“I like to feel like the underdog so I say I’m not the favorite,” she said. “I always feel more comfortable that way. Eventually if I get more up in rankings and I play someone lower than I would be clear favorite.In the juniors I was clearly favorite, especially in Grand Slams, and in a couple of the matchups people were saying I should win, and then I was dealing with pressures of having to win. So I’m glad I had that experience as a junior so when you come here, you feel the pressure but you know how to deal with it.”
Puig doesn’t think she that far off from being an elite player but as well as she’s done during the past eight months, she still far off from that status. Elite means at least top 10, while super elite on the WTA these days is the top 3.
One of the things that players find out when jumping from the juniors to the pros is that they must go for their shots more, and many of those shots must land closer to the lines. They can deliver those shots in practice, but doing so in match play with a live opponent and live audience is a different skill altogether.
“In big matches if you pull of a shot like that you say ‘Hey I can do that I do it again’ and then you keep gaining confidence. Then the shot keeps coming and coming and it becomes so natural.”
Puig has yet to have a chance to play on either Centre Court or Court 1, the most important stages at Wimbledon. That’s where she wants to be. That’s where she really wants to unleash Pica Power and have analysts from every nation calling her a player to watch.
She’ll play the 20-year-old Stephens in semis on an Court 18. It’s not a major show court, but if she wins that contest she will have earned her place on either Centre Court or Court 1 for the quarterfinals. She will relish the opportunity.
“It’s not even a question,” she said. “I love the big stages so I can show off a little bit. That’s kind of me. I want play well in the big courts and it’s a once in lifetime opportunity, so you have to enjoy it.”