Monica Puig: Olympic success has lifted Puerto Rico

Story highlights

Puig is Puerto Rico's first Olympic champ

Had never beaten player in top five until Rio

Believes triumph can boost Puerto Rico

CNN  — 

If your homeland is crippled by debt, poverty, unemployment and the Zika virus, the claim that you alone can lift the public’s spirits might appear fanciful.

But when you’ve just become your nation’s first Olympic gold medalist, the booming chat is supported by some heavy metal.

It’s still something, however, to shoulder the expectation of all Puerto Ricans – one reason why Monica Puig was in tears as she stood atop the podium in Rio.

A woman with just one WTA title to her name had stunned both tennis and herself by winning the coveted title, beating second seed Angelique Kerber of Germany in the final.

Read: Puig win Puerto Rico’s first Olympic gold

“Puerto Rico has gone through its tough times and it’s my responsibility to give them that bit of good news every once in a while,” Puig, who turned pro in 2010, told CNN’s Open Court show.

“The fact I did that with the Olympic medal really does say a lot and I feel very responsible for giving this island exactly what it needs when it needs it the most.”

After seven decades of trying, the Caribbean island’s anthem – “La Borinqueña” – finally rang out at an Olympic Games thanks to the 22-year-old’s shock success.

Even by her own admission, Puig never expected to bring joy to the US territory, which is nearly $70 billion in debt, by winning in Rio de Janeiro.

It’s lucky she did because she named her new dog “Rio” just two days before flying out to Brazil.

She not only became the first Puerto Rican woman to win an Olympic medal (and only the ninth Puerto Rican overall) but also the first unseeded player to become champion since women’s tennis was reintroduced to the Summer Games in 1988.

To put her triumph into context, the world No. 35 has lost in the first round of over half the 15 grand slam tournaments she has ever contested – including her first post-Rio appearance at the US Open.

Only once has the right-hander ever reached the fourth round – at Wimbledon in 2013, in what was only her second major.

Prior to Rio, she had never overcome a player in the top five but in a matter of days she beat, among others, fourth-ranked French Open winner Garbine Muguruza, two-time Wimbledon champion Petra Kvitova and world No. 2 Kerber – who won her first slam at January’s Australian Open and also reached July’s Wimbledon final.

On the day of the final itself, a fearsome force powered her towards history as supporters armed with Puerto Rico flags relentlessly chanted “Si se puede” – “Yes you can” – to the underdog.

‘Yes I could and yes I did’

“It was incredible. I love fan involvement in any sport, as it’s really special,” Puig says.

“It definitely helped boost me in the third set, when I needed it the most, because I saw that all the crowd were backing me and wanting it so much, and it made me want it even more.

“They got me to believe that ‘Yes, I can’ – and yes I could and yes I did.”

So engrossed were Puerto Ricans with Puig that there were no reported murders on the day of the final, which the local police chief credits to the tennis. Usually, police say, there are between two and seven murders every weekend among a population of almost 3.7 million.

“That day everyone in Puerto Rico was calm because they were watching the game,” Superintendent José L. Caldero López told CNN.

A few days later, a homecoming parade was staged in the capital San Juan for Puerto Rico’s Olympic athletes. Puig, the island’s only medalist in Rio, was the headline attraction for the thousands who lined the route.

She says the scenes were as “sensational” as they were “emotional.”

“I saw hope in the eyes of a lot of people. I saw happiness. I saw belief that things can turn around,” Puig explains.

“When you see that, it gives you goose bumps. To see how much this really meant to them is incredible. People – when they see me – they cry.

“They see me as this hero. They say ‘thank you.’ I say, ‘I didn’t do much, but thank you for your support.’”

Hope, flags and a sea of her own portraits aside, Puig also saw a number of tennis rackets being waved by the crowd – confirming the realization of a long-held dream.

“To make tennis a little more known in the island has always been a goal since I first started representing Puerto Rico,” she says.

“It’s not one of our forte sports, so for me to be able to promote that is incredibly amazing, and the fact that it’s becoming so big and that there are more requests for tennis courts says a lot.

“I hope that in future, Puerto Rico can become known for tennis.”

Golden Girls

Despite the headlines, Puig is not the first Puerto Rican tennis player to win Olympic gold – but she is the first to do so for the island.

Gigi Fernandez represented Puerto Rico at the 1984 Los Angeles Games, where tennis was a demonstration sport, but had switched allegiance to the United States when she won the women’s doubles titles in 1992 and 1996.

Fernandez has been heavily trolled on social media because of her “defection” by some Puerto Ricans, while Puig has been bathing in love – with pop stars Ricky Martin and Jenifer Lopez (both of whom have Puerto Rican parentage) among those praising her achievement.

The Miami-based Puig believes the confidence gained from Rio will benefit her throughout her career and boost her chances of winning a grand slam title.

She was seeded for the first time at the US Open, the No. 32, but lost in straight sets to China’s 61st-ranked Saisai Zheng – and acknowledged after she still has much to learn.

“These are new waters for me, new territory. I’m going to have to start getting used to it,” Puig told reporters.

“I need to keep racking up as much experience as I can. This isn’t going to be the last of me. I know I’m going to keep working hard.”

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Puig already has one date firmly earmarked: the Tokyo Olympics of 2020.

“I am hoping to defend my gold medal there,” she told Open Court. “If it happens, great, and if not, at least I can say I have Rio.”

She’s not talking about her dog.