For about two hours on Saturday afternoon, August 13, 2016, the entire island of Puerto Rico was paralyzed. 3.5 Million people stood frozen in front of television sets at shopping malls, restaurants, classrooms, hospitals, plazas, airport terminals, bars and their homes. Catholic Churches cancelled Saturday mass and there was almost no traffic on the streets and highways.
And then it happened.
Monica Puig defeated Germany’s Angelique Kerber (6-4, 4-6, 6-1) in the final round of the Women’s Tennis competition at the International Olympic Games to win Puerto Rico’s first-ever Olympic gold medal and its first medal of any kind by a woman. The sound of so many millions of people, jumping and screaming in unison, that followed immediately afterward could be heard all the way to the United States.
Tens of millions of tears were shed. At least three songs in Monica Puig’s honor were composed on the spot and played on radio and social media (one of them was a marriage proposal, of course). The best graffiti artists put up spectacular murals to her on the sides of buildings all over the island. Police officials reported that crime in Puerto Rico came to a near standstill that day and, for the first time in memory, not a single homicide was recorded. It is quite likely that, for the next few generations, every other baby girl born on the island will be named Monica.
The mass euphoria was so intense that it almost overshadowed the story of how Puig went about winning her gold medal: as a long shot unranked player who scored back-to-back-to-back upset victories over three grand slam tennis champions, the best of the best on the planet, a feat so rare that it rocked the tennis establishment. In boxing terms, Puig’s performance would be the equivalent of three Ali vs. George Foreman matches in a row.
The first gunslinger she knocked off was reigning French Open champion Garbiñe Muguruza of Spain, No. 4 in the world, whom the Spanish press predicted would wipe the floor with an inferior player like Puig. The exact opposite happened. Puig won in straight sets, 6-1, 6-1. The next one to go down was two-time Wimbledon champion Petra Kvitova of the Czech Republic, No. 11 in the world. Puig won in three sets, 6-4, 1-6, 6-3. Her third and sweetest upset came against German bulldozer Angelique Kerber, No. 2 in the world, who this year won the Australian Open and made it all the way to the finals at Wimbledon against Serena Williams. Final score: 6-4, 4-6, 6-2.
“Wow, nobody saw that coming,”Martina Navratilova tweeted. “Not even Monica herself.”
Chris Evert had this to say: “I am not stunned easily!!! Congratulations to Monica and coach (Jorge) Todero on a Cinderella story.”
But perhaps it was NBC Tennis commentator Mary Carrillo, who best captured the significance of the moment, when Puig won her final point: “She’s in another league now.”
Puig, in fact, began the current tennis season — her sixth as a professional — ranked No. 92 in the world, barely enough to qualify for the Olympics and dangerously close to becoming one of those thousands of tennis whiz kids who could have been contenders but never got their act together. To this day, she has never made it to the quarter finals of a grand slam tournament, nor has she ever been seeded in one.
Curiously, things started to change for Puig in January, right around the time that Puerto Rico’s name was being dragged through the mud over a $72 billion public debt that it could no longer afford to pay and Congress’ plans to appoint a financial control board with absolute power to squeeze the money out of the island. She slipped into the Apia International Tournament in Sydney, Australia and took the opportunity all the way to a finals match against the worlds No. 10 player, Svetlana Kuznetsova of Russia. By April she had rebounded to No. 58 in the world and began the month of June as No. 43. Then she upset former world No. 1 champion Caroline Wozniacki of Denmark at the Aegon International in Eastbourne, UK, and continued into the semi-finals. By the end of July, Puig had moved up to No. 34 in the world, but was admitted into the Olympics without a ranking, a sign that everyone expected her to be eliminated early.
The life change that comes with beating impossible odds to win an Olympic Gold medal began within an hour after Puig scored her last point against Kerber. The U.S. Tennis Association, in a naked attempt to boost ticket sales for the upcoming U.S. Open Tennis Tournament in New York, saturated the internet and social media with announcements, inviting fans to come watch Monica Puig play. Except for Serena Williams, no American player in years has been able to duplicate what Puig did in the Olympics. Bet that she will be coming in to the U.S. Open as a valued seeded player for the first time in her career. Nothing in tennis says “I have arrived” like being a seeded player at a grand slam event. It recognizes that you have it in you to win the whole tournament.
Puig’s impact on the tennis world has been lost on many residents of Puerto Rico, who, stripped of their dignity over the debt crisis, desperately needed something to boost their faith in themselves. In her comments following her final match victory, Puig acknowledged that her desire to be that something was what inspired her to play the best tennis of her life.
“This was for them,” she said. “They’ve been going through some tough times. They needed this and I needed this.”
With apologies to no one, Puig referred to Puerto Rico, time and again, as “my country” — not my commonwealth, not my territory, not my free associated state and not my colony — my country. Would that we could all be as unambiguous as Monica Puig about who we are and what we stand for.
There would be no need to be on our best behavior for fear of being seen as inferior; or to correct people when they call us immigrants; or to defend ourselves when they look at speaking two languages as a shortcoming; or to explain why it’s normal for family members to be born with different skin colors; or to whine when they won’t recognize our accomplishments. There would be no need for any of this because we wouldn’t give a rat’s ass whether they understood us or not.
That’s what Monica Puig gave her people on August 13. When she walks on to the court at the U.S. Open this year, she will command respect, as both a tennis player and as a Puerto Rican, like she never has before. She will be treated as an imposing sovereign entity unto herself and not an appendage of the United States — and there isn’t a damn thing Congress can do about it.