Monica Puig was a virtual unknown coming into the Rio Olympics and very little was expected of her. But she leaves as the defending Olympian champion and with the distinction of winning the first-ever gold medal for Puerto Rico, an island in the Carribean which is an unincorporated U.S territory. Women’s singles had never seen an unseeded victor ever since Tennis was included in the Olympics in 1988.
Thanks to Monica, ranked No.34 in the world, that piece of stat has been rewritten. In the process, the debt-ridden island of Puerto Rico found some badly needed cheer.
Monica was born in San Juan, the capital of Puerto Rico, in 1993 to a Cuban-American father and a Puerto Rican mother.
She took up tennis at a very young age and started competing in junior tournaments at the age of 14 in 2007.
In fact, she won gold in women’s singles in the Central American and Caribbean Games in 2010 at the age of 16. She continued her rapid progress through the junior ranks by reaching the final of the junior Australian Open and French Open in 2011, which she ended up losing. Puig also won the silver medal at the 2011 Pan American Games.
Puig won her first ever ITF title in 2012 when she won the at Joué-lès-Tours tournament in France before breaking into the top-100 ranking in 2013 after high-profile wins in the Frech Open and Wimbledon. She got the better of Nadia Petrova in Paris before beating then World No.5 Sara Errani in the first round of Wimbledon. The win over Errani was Puig’s only win over a top-10 opponent until she competed in a fateful Rio 2016 Olympics.
She won her first and only WTA title to date in Strasbourg in 2014 and ended the year at No.59. She had a disappointing 2015 but has had a phenomenal 2016 so far which saw her rise to a career-best 34th rank and win an unlikely Olympic gold.
Dream Rio campaign:
To win the Olympic gold and join the elite company of greats like Steffi Graf, Serena Williams, Venus Williams, Lindsay Davenport, Jennifer Capriati is no mean feat. But to achieve it after upsetting top players like French Open champion Garbine Muguruza, Petra Kvitova and Australian Open champion Angelique Kerber is nothing short of phenomenal.
On top of that, the odds were never in her favour. No unseeded player had ever won the Olympic women’s singles before, and Puig had just 1 WTA title to her credit. She had never gone past the 4th round in any Grand Slam.
But she grabbed her chance to create history when it was presented with both hands.
The belief was always there, as can be seen by her words after the momentous win – “Nobody has really talked about me until now. It just shows that I was ready for this moment and I think it was my time to shine and finally let the world know who I was.” In no way was Kerber underperforming in the final. Puig displayed commendable desire and determination to win the gold. Kerber admitted after the game -“She beat me. She played close to perfection, made very few mistakes. She was everywhere. It was impressive.”
What next for Puig?
After an inspirational gold, the onus is on Puig to prove that she is no flash in the pan and can become a force to be reckoned with. She is young and has time on her side to gain more experience and improve her game.
She is short in stature at only 5’7” and is not someone who can generate powerful ground strokes like Muguruza, Kvitova or Serena. Puig relies on her high-energy and dogged game. But her game is consistent and she is a fighter, a trait exemplified in her gold-winning campaign at Rio.
To boot, Puig has shown that she has the willpower and determination and focus required to mix in with the best in business. Hopefully, once the reality of what she has achieved sinks in, she will turn her attention towards the future and putting to good use the confidence she gained from Rio.
But right now, Puig can and should relish every moment for what it meant to a tiny island. The party that started in Puerto Rico after she prevailed over Kerber in three sets in Rio is still thought to be ongoing.
She put it aptly when she remarked – “I know I’m going to have several opportunities to try and win a Slam but this is one that doesn’t come four times every year. The island is full of such bad news all the time, so every time there's a Games and somebody from the Island wins a medal everything stops and I know how happy people get. So this one is not for me.”