By Thomas Swick
City & Shore Magazine
Monica Puig stood next to a model. It sprouted in 57 toy stories above a paper waterway, a replica of the Missoni Baia condo soon to rise in the Miami neighborhood of Edgewater. The cake white tower contrasted with Puig’s highlighted brown hair that, freed from its game tail, cascaded down onto a purple dress. High heeled shoes gave her 5’7” frame a bit more rise while revealing the inescapable pale feet of the tour professional.
Someone asked what was going to be on the top floor.
“A penthouse,” a condo representative said.
“It’s for Monica,” someone else added.
The guest of honor pointed to a miniscule floor in the middle and said she’d be OK there; all she needed to be happy was a view of water.
She added that a large condo wasn’t her dream either; in fact, she does better in smaller spaces. In China, she explained, the players’ lodgings are always large and her clothes end up scattered all over the place.
It was a crisp March evening in Miami, and everyone was gathered in the Missoni Baia sales office overlooking Biscayne Bay. Puig had been invited to talk about her life in tennis and Miami’s conduciveness to healthy living. A young journeywoman on the tour, she had never made it to a Grand Slam quarterfinal – her greatest achievement on the big stage had been reaching the fourth round at Wimbledon in 2013 – when she traveled to the Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro and there, representing her homeland of Puerto Rico, won the gold medal. This made her name known to people outside the world of tennis, including promoters of luxury condos.
Puig took sips from a glass of water while attendees enjoyed prosecco and cocktails. The athlete’s constant self-policing; her never-ending Lent. She didn’t help herself to any of the hors d’oeuvres, either: the salmon salad toasts and Wagyu beef canapes, even though they were so petite they looked like small-scale representations themselves. On the plus side, she never lacked for company.
I had checked her Twitter feed (diligent, modern-day journo that I am) and seen numerous pictures of her dog. Rio looked Japanese, a smaller version of an Akita, but I couldn’t really tell from the pictures.
“He’s a Pomsky,” Puig said, her eyes lighting up. “It’s a cross between a Pomeranian and a Husky.”
She got him the day before she left for the Olympics, naming him for the city to which she was headed (not knowing, of course, that awaiting her there was glory). Her father, who was standing nearby, said that a relative had come to their house in Doral to watch the gold medal match, and brought a bottle of champagne in case of a victory. During the match, Rio had scratched at the cork as if in anticipation of the coming celebration.
Puig was called to the front of the room, where she climbed into an elevated director’s chair. Joining her was Robert Gomez, director of the Biltmore Tennis Center and the Salvador Park Tennis Center, both in Coral Gables. He began by asking her about Miami.
She said that the hot climate was ideal for preparing herself for the harsh conditions tennis players often have to endure. (Earlier she had mentioned that she trains at the Evert Tennis Academy in Boca Raton.) It is the reason, she said, that so many players choose to make South Florida their home. She added that Miami has a lot to offer “a 24-year-old, almost 25-year old:” restaurants, beaches shopping, nightlife. She didn’t just mean clubs, she clarified, “because I don’t go there.” And there was, too, the international flavor of the city: people from all over the world, especially the Americas and the Caribbean.
Asked about exercise, Puig said: “Lots of hours on the court – that’s where you can always find me. I like to do yoga in my spare time – it definitely helps keep me centered in a job that’s very busy and keeps you a little out of whack sometimes. But I also do a lot of physical activity in the gym. I’m always working out, running, biking, doing something to keep my body fit and ready to play. Tennis is such a brutally physical sport that if you’re not in the best of shape, it’s not really going to work for you.”
Connected to fitness is nutrition, which Gomez also asked her about. “Sugar is a girl’s best friend,” Puig asserted, “and that’s something I’ve had to store in the back pocket. It’s very difficult to stay on a diet, and stay with things that work for you, but if you have that goal in mind, that big picture, you’re willing to do anything to get there.
“I’ve been blessed that – knock on wood – I’ve been injury-free for all my career. Hopefully it will continue that way. But I’m very disciplined in what I need to do for my body and how to take care of it – nutrition being a huge part of that. I pretty much know what works for me and what works for my body. But I also cut myself some slack and allow for cheat days.” She added: “Your body can only go so hard for such a long time before it says, ‘Hey, give me a little bit of a reward, give me a little bit of a break.’”
The assembled crowd, listening to the young woman in the purple dress who makes a living hitting yellow balls across a net, seemed to be getting an education, a new appreciation of the life of an athlete.
“It’s a lot of discipline,” Puig added. “In this job you have to be very meticulous about what you’re doing day in and day out. Every little detail matters. If you don’t have the little details right, the big picture probably never comes to life.”
Like it did in Rio de Janeiro in 2016.
Before the final, Puig said, she had told herself to soak in the experience, aware that it might be her last Olympics. “You never know what’s going to happen in four years’ time.” And this realization helped her, she said, not only to enjoy herself but also to play better. “I think I enjoyed that win a lot more because I had that mentality.
“It wasn’t as nerve-wracking or as scary as the situation probably was for me hours before the match. I honestly couldn’t really sleep very well, and I woke up that morning full of jitters. But as soon as I stepped on the court it was like, ‘OK, time to go, time to do this.’” Her less cocksure variation on “I got this.” “And I felt much more relaxed, and much better.”
After the victory, and the awards ceremony, she was escorted off to talk to media. She handed the medal to her agent, who held it “like it was something so delicate it could break.” It was only then that she realized the magnitude of what she had done.
“It’s definitely the biggest accomplishment of my life,” she said, “and I think it always will be. It was the thing that I dreamt about as a little girl growing up. It didn’t matter what sport I was going to play, or what I was going to do, but I needed to have one of these. And I’m really happy that at 24 years old I’m able to have one … for the rest of my life.”
What is it about playing for Puerto Rico, Gomez wondered (as does the entire tennis world), that so inspires her?
“Every time I have the uniform of Puerto Rico on,” she said, “it’s a different game face, it’s a different demeanor, it’s a different type of energy. I can’t really explain what happens. I just always seem to find my best tennis when I play for Puerto Rico. Everybody always tells me: Why don’t you just duplicate that when you’re playing on the tour. I’ve been trying for several years and it doesn’t really happen.
“There is something special about being Puerto Rican. I’m very patriotic. I would die for my country – do whatever they needed me to do for them. When I play for them I feel like I have the hearts of millions and millions of people on my sleeve, and I would give anything to see them smile.”
She has delighted her compatriots not only through her tennis. After Hurricane Maria devastated the island, she, her parents, and her agent sprang into action. Joining them was Maria Sharapova.
“I’m so grateful that she chipped in when she did,” Puig said, “because we needed all the help we could get. We ended up raising a lot of money and then eventually buying the necessary supplies that Puerto Ricans needed at the time, which was stoves and gasoline to power those stoves, so they could have a hot dinner. For Puerto Rican people, if you don’t have your rice and beans you’re gonna have a problem. Hot food was definitely a necessity. Medicine. Water. Currently we are looking into other things that need to be done.
“Hopefully, Puerto Rico will come back to life. I know it’s not going to be a quick thing. I’m forever grateful for that gold medal because that’s what gave me a voice to reach out to maybe hundreds of thousands of people around the world and tell them, ‘Hey, Puerto Rico needs help. Can you please come aboard with this and help me?’ I’m very grateful to everybody who chipped in to save the place that I definitely call home – my number one.”
Turning gold into goodwill.