By Ian Ransom
MELBOURNE (Reuters) - Monica Puig would never trade her surprise singles gold at the Rio Games for any grand slam success but Puerto Rico's first Olympic champion felt compelled to lock the medal away amid the lean period that followed her greatest tennis triumph.
She had worn the medal with pride for a while, most notably during a hero's homecoming through the streets of San Juan where thousands of residents in the U.S. territory's capital roared as she rolled by in an open-top bus.
The party was over in New York three weeks later, however, when she was bundled out of the U.S. Open's first round.
Puig, who had upset an honor roll of grand slam champions at Rio, was humbled in straight sets by 61st-ranked Chinese Zheng Saisai.
After Rio, she lost in the first round of four of her next six tournaments, including her opening two in Brisbane and Sydney in 2017, so it was a hugely relieved Puig who reached the second round of the Australian Open on Monday.
"The medal is in a safe in my house now," the 23-year-old told Reuters in an interview after her 6-0 6-1 demolition of Romania's Patricia Maria Tig.
"I carried it around for a good while last year and all of a sudden I didn’t really want to spoil the feeling of looking at it and just being in awe of it.
"So every now and then when I need a little bit of a boost I go in there and look at it and know it wasn’t a dream, it was real."
By any measure, Rio was a fairytale for Puig.
After thrashing French Open champion Garbine Muguruza, she battled past twice Wimbledon winner Petra Kvitova and felled the current world number one Angelique Kerber in the gold medal decider at the Olympic Tennis Centre.
NO SPECIAL TREATMENT
The Rio champion was afforded no special treatment by tournament organizers in Melbourne, however, with her opener playing out on far-flung Court 14, where trams rattle by at the northeast corner of the precinct.
Puig was nonetheless heartened by Spanish cheers from "about three" Puerto Rican fans in the tiny crowd.
"It doesn’t matter, really, on which court I play, I’m always going to bring my A-game wherever I play," said the 29th seed, who next faces German Mona Barthel.
"Sometimes playing on those courts on the outside, for a first round or something, there’s a lot of jitters, it settles you a bit and you feel like it’s your own little domain.
"I really don’t mind it. I don’t care if I don’t play on the big courts, I just know that whenever it’s my time to play there I’ll just soak it up."
Regaining her giant-killing confidence may take some time but she is comforted in the knowledge she has the game to do so.
"I didn’t really know how to handle the (Olympic) success because it came at a time when I wasn’t really ready for it and it just sort of happened," she said.
"Definitely there was a lot of fatigue and a lot of mental fatigue.
"I was learning how to deal with this for the first time and I had to kind of be a little bit lenient on myself and say, ‘hey, ok, learn from this experience and the next time we know what to do'.
"So I know what I’m capable of, I know what I can do. I’ve just got to go out and do it."
While focused on the here and now, Puig looks forward to the 2020 Tokyo Olympics and the idea of becoming the first woman to defend her title.
"Andy Murray did it," she said of the men's world number one, who won golds for Britain at London and Rio.
"If he can do it, I think I can do it as well.
"I always seem to elevate my level whenever I have my country’s colors on my back. I’m just hoping for a couple of successful years until then."
(Editing by Peter Rutherford)