In a nation dominated by boxers and baseball players, Puerto Rico has never been a breeding ground for successful tennis players. Gigi Fernandez won 17 grand slam doubles titles and two Olympic medals representing the United States. The most successful women’s player to play under the Puerto Rican flag was Kristina Brandi, who peaked at a career high ranking of No. 27 in 2001, won one WTA singles title in ‘s-Hertogenbosch in 1999 and represented her country in the 2004 Olympics in Athens.
One of the leaders of the WTA’s current Generation Tweet, Puerto Rican teenager Monica Puig first appeared on the radar for most tennis fans in January, when she qualified for the Brisbane International, gave Angelique Kerber all should could handle and held match point before Kerber rallied for the 3-6, 6-4, 7-6(7) win.
Also in January, she was incredibly candid in a sit-down with the WTA; her goals include finishing 2013 in the top 20, and she posed a frank and self-assured analysis of her game. “I wouldn’t say that I have that many weaknesses – all I know is that I have a lot of strengths.” While her more experienced (and to date, more successful) contemporaries including Laura Robson and Sloane Stephens have struggled under the weight of expectations and shied away from the media spotlight, Puig possesses confidence in droves. Her seemingly endless self-confidence (and dare I say swagger?) are all the more impressive when one considers that she has played a total of eight WTA main draws in her young career, and has never even qualified for the main draw in a major.
Well, we know Puig’s talked the talk, but can she walk the walk?
Much like any teenager in her early days, Puig’s 2013 results have been decidedly mixed. She pushed Kerber one week, then fell the Qiang Wang in the first round of Australian Open qualifying the next. She pushed Venus Williams too in a long three setter in Charleston, but then lost to Kurumi Nara in an ITF event in Pelham, Alabama and to Nastassja Burnett in Stuttgart qualifying while on the cusp of the top 100. Consistency is a key skill for any young player but especially for one with lofty goals for her second full WTA season.
This week in Oerias, however, that’s all changed.
Puig’s week in Portugal started as poorly as she could’ve possibly imagined when she found herself 0-6, 0-1 down to rising Spaniard Maria-Teresa Torro Flor in the opening round of qualifying. It seemed as though she was headed into yet another valley in her roller-coaster 2013; however, Puig’s now trademark fighting spirit and feisty demeanor had other ideas, and she came away with a 0-6, 6-4, 6-4 victory. After rolling over Claire Feuerstein in the second qualifying round, Puig fell at the final qualifying hurdle to Galina Voskoboeva. Nonetheless, she still found a way into the main draw as a lucky loser when Alize Cornet withdrew from the event. She defeated fifth-seed Julia Goerges in straight sets in the opening round, her career-best win in terms of ranking.
When Francesca Schiavone turned pro, Puig was five years old. When Schiavone won Roland Garros in 2010, Puig was the fifth seed in the girl’s event, and reached the quarterfinals; the following year, she was runner-up in the junior event. The gulf in experience didn’t seem to matter on Centralito on Wednesday as Puig systematically dismantled her veteran opponent 6-3, 6-2 to reach her first WTA quarterfinal.
As a result of her exploits in Portugal, Puig will finally break into the top 100 for the first time on Monday. At a slight (for women’s tennis standards) 5’7”, the Puerto Rican plays bigger than she is in more ways than one. A flat hitter who’s agile and can scramble when needed, she has all the tools to make inroads on the WTA. Couple that with a better than good head on her shoulders and some serious moxie, and Puig might be ready to embrace the big time when it comes to her.