Mónica Puig and the Joys of an Unexpected Olympic Medal

One of the best moments of any tournament is the celebration of the champ after the final point is won. After a week or two of tight matches, inspired play, and even dips in focus, the winner is able to finally let go, and emotion rushes to the surface. Some collapse to the court in tears, others drop their rackets and raise their hands skyward, others give a simple first pump and primal yell; no matter the style, I love this display of raw emotion. In the Olympics, everything is magnified. The athletes are not only playing for themselves; they are playing for country, and for some, while that can be the source of immense pressure, it can also be a powerful motivator.

For whatever reason, Olympics tennis tends to bring out the very best in each combatant, but especially the rank-and-file. Over the years, there have been stunning upsets of top-ranked players by no-names, but as a result, these “no-names” are not so anonymous in their home countries. Of course, some of the usual suspects have taken home the ultimate prize (Steffi Graf in 1988, Lindsay Davenport and Andre Agassi in 1996, Venus Williams in 2000, Rafael Nadal in 2008, and Serena Williams and Andy Murray in 2012), but this is hardly the guarantee it seems to be throughout the rest of the season. For instance, take a look at these unexpected Olympics gold medalists since the return of Olympic tennis in 1988: Miroslav Mečíř of Czechoslovakia in 1988, Marc Rosset of Switzerland in 1992, Nicolás Massú of Chile in 2004, Elena Dementieva of Russia in 2008. These players are heralded back home for bringing Olympic glory back home with them, and these wins help to inspire their future tennis players for years to come.

Yesterday, Mónica Puig of Puerto Rico won the women’s singles tournament, achieving the best result of her career by a wide margin. She was not supposed to win. She was not supposed to medal. She wasn’t exactly a favorite to make it out of the first round. But with the Puerto Rican flag on her chest, the 34th-ranked player in the world swept away the 19th-ranked player in the second round and crushed Garbiñe Muguruza, the third-ranked player and reigning French Open champion, in the third round. Through her first four matches, she lost a total of just 14 games. For context, if she had won each of those four matches by the convincing line of 6-3, 6-3, she would have lost 24 games total. In the semifinals, Puig willed herself to the finish, beating the 14th-ranked player and two-time grand slam winner Petra Kvitová in three, back-and-forth sets. Finally, in the championship match, she took out Angelique Kerber, the second-ranked player and current Australian Open champion who is in the midst of the season of her life.

Oh, and did I mention that this win marked the first time that a man or woman representing Puerto Rico at the Olympics has ever won a gold medal? That’s right. Ever. Puerto Rico isn’t even known for tennis. Beaches, baseball, and coquí frogs, sure, but tennis? The expectations for Puig to medal in tennis were nada. Just take a look at what it meant for Puerto Rico, a place long embittered over the decision of homegrown product and tennis star Mary Jo Fernández to represent the United States instead of Puerto Rico in the 1992 and 1996 Olympics (She won bronze in singles in 1992 and gold in doubles in both 1992 and 1996.). The reaction in the first clip is something you might see immediately after the final whistle of the World Cup final.

Coming from a country where gold medals are a pretty big deal but still commonplace, can you imagine winning a gold medal for your homeland, let alone the first in its history? I cannot. But in watching her reaction to winning that final point, we all can get a taste of that euphoria, that pure, unadulterated emotion that accompanies winning on the world’s biggest stage. Watch Mónica accept her gold medal and cry tears of joy while Puerto Rico’s anthem plays loudly and proudly.

This is why I watch the Olympics. Regardless of background, skill level, or nationality, these athletes work so hard to get to the Olympics and give it their all, and many of them are simply grateful to be there. But when an athlete from a tiny country or territory achieves the seemingly impossible and takes home an unexpected medal, it just doesn’t get much better than that. Felicitaciones, Mónica!

Cover photo by Claude Truong-Ngoc via Wikipedia

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