The best victory celebrations in tennis are the ones that take the players doing them by surprise. There’s no sense of rehearsal or expectation, just the emotion of the moment overtaking them.
That’s what happened to Monica Puig after the last point of her 6-4, 1-6, 6-3 win over Petra Kvitova in Rio on Friday. When Puig saw the Czech’s final forehand sail over the sideline, she dropped her racquet and leaped into the air; then, unable to stop, she did it two more times in rapid succession. When Puig finally returned to earth for good, she brought her hands up to head and shouted “Oh my God!” Then she remembered that she still had run to the net to shake Kvitova’s hand.
Puig wasn't the only person who was surprised by what she had just done. No female athlete from Puerto Rico has ever won an Olympic medal in any sport; with this victory, Puig guarantees herself at least a silver. No Puerto Rican athlete, man or woman, has ever brought home a gold to the island nation of 3.5 million; Puig can do it with a win on Saturday. Even leaving aside where she’s from, Puig’s run to the Rio final has been a shocker. She’s ranked 34th at the moment, but that’s the highest she’s ever been. The 22-year-old began the year ranked 92nd, and seemed in danger of becoming a sure-shot prodigy who never took her shot.
That began to change in Sydney in January, when she came out of qualifying to win seven straight matches and reach the final. Since then, it has been a steady climb, up the rankings and into the middle rounds at tournaments. Puig is a strong athlete—she’s 5’7” but plays bigger—and aggressive baseliner whose best shot is her two-handed backhand. This year she has finally, fully established herself on tour.
“I think I just started to learn how I function a little bit,” said Puig, who lives and trains in Florida, after beating Caroline Wozniacki in Eastbourne in June. “When you’re starting as a professional, you need to work your way through it and understand your body and how it works, especially at this level.”
Puig has credited much of her 2016 surge to the Olympics, and the chance to represent her country. It was something that seemed virtually out of reach as she began the season.
“That was just a main focus for me at the beginning of the year,” Puig said this summer. “I didn’t really have a shot at qualifying for the team, being almost outside the Top 100.”
As the cut-off date to qualify approached during Roland Garros, Puig’s ranking had risen, but she was still on the bubble.
“It was a huge pressure for me actually at the French Open,” said Puig, who named her dog Rio. “My coach [Juan Todero] was like, ‘Don’t worry, you’re going to qualify. Just don’t think about it.’”
“Obviously there were so many people fighting for that last few positions there at the French. I put a lot of pressure on myself, but I was lucky enough to get to the third round and secure my place...For me, representing my country at the Olympic Games is always something I wanted to do, and I know I’m going to enjoy that moment as much as everyone else.”
More, in fact. If the thought of playing in Rio inspired her, the reality of doing it has pushed her to new heights. Before her semifinal against Kvitova, Puig hadn’t dropped a set, and she mauled No. 3 seed Garbiñe Muguruza 6-1, 6-1 in the third round. The always-vocal Brazilian crowd has been firmly behind Puig.
“When I’m playing in the WTA, it’s more like I’m playing for myself—my job, let’s say,” Puig told the AP this week. “Here, it’s not really my job. It’s for my country, and I think nothing in the world can compare to that.”
Puig knows all about the troubles, from the economy to the Zika virus, that are currently plaguing Puerto Rico. And she understands what an Olympic medal, especially a gold medal, would mean.
“I know how badly my country wanted this,” Puig said on Friday. “I’ve secured a medal, but I know which one I want, and I’m going to go for it has hard as I can. Now I think the pressure’s off, and I can go out there swinging.”
We’ll see if the pressure really is off for Puig when she goes for the gold on Saturday against Angelique Kerber. Judging by how well she played when she had to qualify for the Games this spring, she might want to feel a little more pressure, rather than less.
Either way, Puig is another example of how much the Olympics can mean to a tennis player. In her case, it’s not just what they can mean for two weeks, but what they can mean to a career. The Games gave Puig a chance to play tennis not for herself, but for her country. They gave her a chance to play tennis not for work, but for love. Maybe it shouldn’t be such a surprise that she has responded the way she did.