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At the start of 2016, it seemed unlikely that the Puerto Rican would even qualify for the tennis competition in Rio. Yet eight months later, she stood on top of the podium after stunning Germany’s Angelique Kerber in the final of the women’s singles event.
With her victory, the 22-year-old achieved instant hero status in her home country. Not only is she the first female Puerto Rican athlete to win an Olympic medal, she is also the first gold medallist in the nation’s history.
And in the moments immediately after her triumph, Puig’s thoughts were with her homeland, which has a population of just 3.5 million.
“It’s just amazing. I know my country really appreciates this and I wanted to give it to them,” she said.
“That island has given me so much. So much love and support throughout my career and I just wanted this one for them.”
Puig’s success is all the more remarkable given that she had only previously won one singles title on the WTA Tour. She turned professional in 2010, the same year that she competed in the YOG Singapore 2010. After breaking into the world’s top 100 for the first time in 2013, the baseliner lifted her first trophy in Strasbourg the following year.
However, at the beginning of 2016, Puig was only ranked just inside the top 100, and competing – let alone winning – at Rio 2016 seemed a distant dream. A strong run to the final in Sydney in January heralded the start of a revival and she confirmed her Olympic qualification thanks to an impressive performance at the French Open in June.
Even so, few could have predicted what would unfold over the course of the past week in Rio. The unseeded Puig, ranked 34th in the world, was imperious in the early rounds, winning her first four matches without losing a set and dropping a measly 14 games on her way to the semi-finals. That included an emphatic 6-1 6-1 win against reigning French Open champion Garbiñe Muguruza, from Spain.
“In every match I got better and better,” Puig 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.”
Amazingly, Muguruza was one of three Grand Slam winners who could find no answer to Puig’s powerful groundstrokes. In the semi-final, she proved too strong for two-time Wimbledon winner Petra Kvitova before the final test against Australian Open champion Kerber.
Enjoying plenty of support from a boisterous crowd at the Olympic Tennis Centre, Puig took the first set 6-4 before the world No.2 bounced back to level the match. But the Puerto Rican would not be denied her fairytale finish. She raced into a 5-0 lead in the deciding set and, after a few understandably nervous moments as she stood on the brink of history, sealed victory on her fourth match point.
As Kerber’s final backhand sailed wide, Puig dropped her racket and held her head in hands, almost unable to comprehend what she had achieved. She had not only won an historic gold medal, but in the process had become a role model for Puerto Ricans and all Latin American women. “I'm really proud to represent Latin America and I hope this can be an inspiration to all Latin women that everything can be done in this life,” she said.