Anybody who thinks tennis players don’t care about Olympic medals did not see Miami’s Monica Puig hunched over on her knees Saturday night, sobbing on the court after upsetting Australian Open champion Angelique Kerber of Germany 6-4, 4-6, 6-1 to win the first gold medal in any sport for her native Puerto Rico.
The tears kept rolling as she grabbed a Puerto Rican flag from the stands and wrapped her shoulders in it, and then, she cried again on the medal podium as the Puerto Rican anthem “La Borinquena” played over the loudspeaker.
Although the 22-year-old moved to Miami as a baby, has spent virtually all of her life living and training in South Florida, and sheepishly admitted she doesn’t know the words to the Puerto Rican anthem, she was overwhelmed with Puerto Rican pride during and after the match. She said she considers herself a true “Boricua” (Puerto Rican) and was energized by the many Puerto Rican fans in the stands who chanted “Si se puede!” (yes you can) throughout the match.
“I know my country really appreciates this, and I wanted to give them this victory,” she said. “I’ve always been 100 percent loyal to where was I was born, the roots I was raised up in. I still have family in Puerto Rico. It’s my favorite place to go when I just want to go to the beach and be with family. That island has given me so much love and support my whole career. I just owe this one to them.”
A few hours earlier, a misty-eyed Juan Martin del Potro of Argentina, a man who has won a U.S. Open and made $15 million in prize money, fell flat on his back and stared at the sky for quite some time after outlasting Spaniard Rafael Nadal 5-7, 6-4, 7-6 (7-5) in an electrifying three-and-a-half-hour semifinal that rivaled any Grand Slam final for thrills and drama. He then walked across the court, knelt down, and kissed the “Rio 2016” logo.
“I’m living like a dream,” del Potro said after the match. “It could be even better than the U.S. Open tournament. My emotions are so high after every match and the crowds make me cry in every match, and I’d like to say thank you to them.”
Nadal was equally fired up during the match. He punctuated a winning point late in the third set with a roar and a triple-fist-pump shuffle that ignited all the Spaniards in the crowd, and the many Brazilians who were rooting against the Argentinean del Potro. “Rafa! Rafa!” yelled one half of the stadium while the other half sang “Ole, Ole, Ole, Ole, Del-po, Del-po!”
The players care. They care a lot.
As do the Olympic tennis fans, a raucous flag-waving bunch that had to be shushed over and over again all afternoon and evening. The atmosphere was reminiscent of the Miami Open, minus the humidity.
Puig was so focused on making Olympic history for her native island nation that when she got a new dog earlier this year, she named him Rio. Winning an Olympic medal is one of the goals that motivated her as she trained first at the Royal Palms Tennis Club in Pinecrest under coach Ricardo Sanchez and more recently at the Evert Academy in Boca Raton under coach Juan Todero.
Her journey to this moment has been long and arduous. She has shown flashes of greatness through the years, but had unable to sustain it. In 2013, she beat No. 11 Nadia Petrova to reach the third round of the French Open. And later that summer beat No. 5 Sara Errani to reach the fourth round at Wimbledon. But her rankings fluctuated and she never advanced past the fourth round of a major.
She started this year ranked No. 92, but has been climbing steadily and is up to a career-high No. 34 this week. She crushed No. 3 seed Garbine Muguruza 6-1, 6-1 in the third round. And knocked off former Wimbledon champion Petra Kvitova 6-4, 1-6, 6-3 in the semifinals.
Kerber knew she was in for a tough final against the upstart, aggressive Puig, who won the match on her fourth match point.
“She played a great week, and (Saturday) she played one of the best matches in her career,” Kerber said. “I was fighting until the last point. But she was hitting the balls and the luck was on her side. She came here with no pressure, had nothing to lose. She was going for it. I knew she’s a great player and at the end she deserved it. She beat a lot of top players this week.”
Puig says the gold medal will give her confidence to beat top players on the WTA tour.
“I always had faith I could achieve something like this, and now I have the confidence having known I did it,” Puig said. “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.”