MELBOURNE, Australia — The 2022 women’s tennis season was, on balance, Iga Swiatek’s campaign, but the finish belonged to another thoughtful star, one who likes to rip her groundstrokes at work and read in her spare time.
Caroline Garcia, an acrobatic French polyglot, found her bliss last year: solving a chronic foot condition, addressing mental-health issues and committing to playing an all-out attacking style that not only made her feel complete and eager to compete but also paid off handsomely.
In August, she became the first qualifier to win a WTA 1000 event, prevailing at the Western & Southern Open in Mason, Ohio. In September, she reached the semifinals of the U.S. Open, and in November she capped the season by winning the elite WTA Finals in Fort Worth.
It was her best season but also, behind the scenes, a trying season. When Garcia took a solo vacation to Bali, Indonesia, she felt the desire to share some details in a long, open letter on Instagram to her followers. “I’ve had sleepless nights, binge eating, cried in my hotel room, cried on tennis courts, been on crutches, swore, relearned to walk,” she wrote. She continued: “But I also learned from every moment, every difficulty.”
When she returned to France, Garcia gave an interview to the sports publication L’Équipe in which she spoke openly about her struggles in recent years with her eating disorder and melancholy on the circuit.
“I found refuge in food. These were moments of crisis. You feel so empty, so sad, that you need to fill yourself up. It was the distress of not being able to do what I wanted to on court, to no longer win and to suffer physically,” Garcia said. “Eating gave me peace for a few minutes. We all know it does not last, but it was an escape. It was uncontrollable.”
Garcia feels better now, as she made clear upon arrival in Melbourne for the Australian Open to chase the next goal on her list: a first Grand Slam singles title.
The 2023 Australian Open
The year’s first Grand Slam tennis tournament runs from Jan. 16 to Jan. 29 in Melbourne.
- Missing Stars: Carlos Alcaraz, Naomi Osaka and Nick Kyrgios have all pulled out of the tournament. Alcaraz’s withdrawal means that the Australian Open will be without the men’s No. 1 singles player.
- Talent From China: Shang Juncheng, once the world’s top-ranked junior, is the youngest member of a promising new wave of players that also includes Wu Yibing and Zhang Zhizhen.
- Holger Rune’s Rise: Last year, the 19-year-old broke into the top 10, but not without some unwanted attention. We spoke to the young Dane ahead of his second Australian Open.
- Ben Shelton Goes Global: The 20-year-old American is ranked in the top 100 after a late-season surge last year. Now, he is embarking on his first full season on tour.
But she said she was surprised by the impact of her comments, not realizing that her new status as a top-five player would generate more interest in them.
“I didn’t think it would be reported so widely,” she said last week, adding: “I felt comfortable to say it, but it’s true that after I saw so many things written about it, I felt a bit less comfortable than I had at the beginning.”
The atmosphere and dialogue are indeed changing in elite sports, especially in pro tennis with stars like Naomi Osaka opening up about their psychological struggles and the emotional rigors of the tour. “Break Point,” the new fly-on-the-wall documentary series from Netflix, focuses heavily on the mental rigors of the sport, through leading players like Nick Kyrgios and Paula Badosa. “So much happens behind the scenes,” Garcia said. “So much more than people know.”
Garcia said on Tuesday, after her convincing 6-3, 6-0 first-round victory over the Canadian qualifier Katherine Sebov, that Netflix had recently contacted her team to explore the idea of her taking part in the series.
She remains undecided. “You have to weigh the pros and cons,” she said. “Because the process is rather intrusive, the way they film, and if you are not at ease with that, it serves no purpose to do it.”
But Garcia, despite her uneasiness over the reach of her comments about eating, does think it has been helpful to share her story, not necessarily with the general public but with those close to her. She said her condition is bulimia, which often involves forced vomiting after a binge. Garcia said she did not vomit but took other extreme measures associated with bulimia, like fasting to avoid putting on weight after a binge.
“I had accepted it and learned to cope with it,” she said. “My close people and my family and my team were totally aware. That’s the most important thing. You don’t necessarily need for the whole world to know to live with it well.”
Alizé Cornet, a veteran French player and friend of Garcia’s, said she was unaware of Garcia’s troubles but said that many players go through “some form of depression” while on tour.
“I feel like it’s almost obligatory process: to be able to bounce back and to know oneself and to get some distance from things,” Cornet said on Tuesday. She added: “I’m sad for her that she had to go through that, but when I see how she’s grown, it was perhaps something that was useful after all.”
Garcia, 29, was pegged early for tennis greatness when the British player Andy Murray watched her win a set against the Russian star Maria Sharapova at the 2011 French Open and tweeted that Garcia was “going to be number one in the world one day.”
Though Garcia has surged to No. 4 on two separate occasions (2018 and 2022), fixating on numbers and results played a role in her malaise. The nomadic life on tour made it easier to feel isolated and seek solace in food.
“When you are alone, it’s harder to control,” she told L’Équipe. “And in tennis, we spend quite a bit of time alone in our room.”
She added: “Sometimes it’s simply fatigue that makes your body crave sugar. Sometimes it’s unexplainable. I needed to fill myself up to compensate for the defeats and the suffering.”
Garcia had a losing singles record in the 18 months before her run as a qualifier in Ohio, but she is flying as high as her signature airborne victory celebration now, despite the unexpected split with her coach Bertrand Perret in October, shortly before the WTA Finals.
On her Instagram account, Garcia posted 10 photographs that, for her, encapsulated her 2022 season. One of the pictures was a close-up of her in tears that was taken in Mexico shortly after Perret’s decision to quit.
“This photo was one of those numerous moments of doubt and sadness,” Garcia told L’Équipe. “There were others, but I did not take pictures of them.”
Garcia is ranked No. 4 this week behind No. 1 Swiatek, No. 2 Ons Jabeur and No. 3 Jessica Pegula.
For now, Swiatek’s position at the top remains formidable. Swiatek, who won eight singles titles in 2022, has more than double the points of Jabeur. But Garcia could close the gap as she has few ranking points to defend until August.
Her main tennis goal is elsewhere, however. No Frenchwoman has won a major singles title since Marion Bartoli won Wimbledon surprisingly in 2013.
At this stage, a Garcia victory in Melbourne would hardly be a shock, even if her ultra-aggressive, net-rushing style can certainly leave her more vulnerable to errors than others. She said she realizes that her bold, flashy game does not match her personality off the court. Despite her ranking, she said she was surprised to be scheduled on Rod Laver Arena, the Australian Open’s main court, on Tuesday. “Maybe it’s modesty,” she acknowledged. “But I didn’t expect it.”
Her next center-court challenge on Thursday: a tricky second-round match with Leylah Fernandez, the plucky counterpunching Canadian who made the 2021 U.S. Open women’s singles final as a teenager.
Cornet, beaten by Fernandez on Monday, likes Garcia’s chances on Wednesday and beyond.
“It’s coming together, the pieces of the puzzle are in place,” Cornet said. “She’s 29 and mature and has gone through challenges and knows why she is here. She enjoys her time on the court more, and we can sense she’s a lot happier since last year. The stars are aligned. All she has to do is go chase that Grand Slam.”