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Puerto Rico’s Monica Puig caused a major upset when she won women’s tennis singles gold at Rio 2016, beating the favourite, Germany’s Angelique Kerber, in the final to claim her country’s first ever Olympic title.
Prior to 13 August 2016, the Caribbean island of Puerto Rico had never won an Olympic gold medal. Home to 3,500,000 people, this self-governing overseas territory of the USA has been sending athletes to the Olympic Games since London 1948, the year in which its National Olympic Committee was founded.
Puerto Rico has excelled in boxing over the years, winning six medals in the ring between its Olympic debut and Atlanta 1996, with Luis Ortiz collecting lightweight silver at Los Angeles 1984, while Jaime Espinal won a freestyle wrestling silver at London 2012.
Puerto Rican-born Gigi Fernandez won the women’s tennis doubles titles at Barcelona 1992 and Atlanta four years later, but did so under the U.S. flag, with the island nation still waiting for its first gold medallist when Rio 2016 came around. Yet that wait would end thanks to the exploits of another female tennis player.
Born in the Puerto Rican capital of San Juan, Puig grew up in Miami and was introduced to tennis by her mother Astrid. After taking lessons, she progressed through the age groups at national, regional and international level before turning pro at the age of 16, in 2010.
She made her Olympic debut at the Youth Olympic Games in Singapore that year. Seeded No.2, she was knocked out in the second round by China’s Zheng Saisai. The following year she finished a runner-up in the Australian Open and French Open girls’ singles competitions and also lost out to the USA’s Irina Falconi in the final of the Pan American Games in Guadalajara (MEX).
The Puerto Rican broke into the WTA Top 100 in 2013, mainly on the back of her runs to the third round at the French Open and the last 16 at Wimbledon that year. Her first WTA Tour victory came her way in Strasbourg (FRA) in 2014. It would remain the most notable achievement of her career until Rio.
After a largely forgettable 2015, Puig began Olympic year in fine fashion, winning through to the final in Sydney, where she lost out to Svetlana Kuznetsova. After then advancing to the third round at the Australian and the French, the 22-year-old Puig moved up to No.34 in the world rankings, with the Olympics her next assignment. In the meantime, she got herself a new dog and christened it “Rio”. Her four-legged friend would turn out to be a lucky charm.
Though unseeded in Rio, the young Puerto Rican was in unstoppable form at the Olympic Tennis Centre in Barra Olympic Park. After disposing of Slovenia’s Polona Hercog in the first round and the 14th-seeded Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova of Russia in the second, she came up against Spain’s Garbiñe Muguruza, the No.3 seed and newly crowned French Open champion.
Puig made short work of the higher-ranked Spaniard, coasting to a 6-1, 6-1 win, a scoreline she repeated in defeating Germany’s Laura Siegemund in the quarter-finals. In checking into the last four, the Puerto Rican had conceded a mere 14 games in her four matches.
“In every match I got better and better,” Puig later revealed. “I started getting faster, I started getting more powerful. I started believing in myself even more. With every match that passed I continued to learn and continued to grow.”
Waiting for her in the last four was another leading figure on the women’s tour, the Czech Republic’s Petra Kvitova, the 2011 and 2014 Wimbledon champion. Maintaining her intensity and high standard of play, Puig won a fluctuating three-setter 6-4, 1-6, 6-3 to book a place on the podium and a final date against Germany’s Angelique Kerber.
Ranked world No.2 at the time and a future No.1, Kerber had won the Australian Open and finished runner-up at Wimbledon earlier in the year and was strongly fancied to win. Puig was in no mood to be denied, however, and took the game to her opponent, with Kerber saving several match points before eventually going 6-4, 4-6, 6-1 in two hour and nine minutes.
Scarcely able to believe what she had achieved, a tearful Puig let go off her racquet and held her head in her hands after Kerber hit wide to give her victory. After collecting her thoughts, she acknowledged the cheers and applause of the crowd, where several Puerto Rican flags were on show.
“I’ve made history and it’s brought me a gold medal,” said Puerto Rico’s first ever Olympic champion. “I always had faith I could achieve something like this, and now I have the confidence, having known I did it. I made history. And it’s amazing. As the week went on, I got faster, more powerful, and was believing in myself even more. I know this isn’t the end for me. My life is going to change for the better.”
In recognition of her achievement, Puig was named Best Female Athlete of Rio 2016 at the Association of National Olympic Committees (ANOC) Awards that November.