Puerto Rican tennis player Monica Puig is making Olympic history and getting goosebumps


Not all tennis players are on the same page when it comes to the Olympics. For some, it’s an inconvenience that offers no ranking points or prize money and further crowds an otherwise jam-packed schedule. For others, it’s the sun, moon, and the stars, the absolute mecca of their athletic careers.

It’s safe to say that Monica Puig falls into the latter category.

The 22-year-old Puerto Rican couldn’t stop beaming when asked about the Rio Games last month at the Citi Open.

“I’m really excited. It’s always been a dream of mine to compete at the Olympics and for it to come so soon in my career is a surreal feeling, I wouldn’t miss it for the world,” she told Excelle Sports. “I get goosebumps just thinking about it.”

Well, so far, it’s safe to say her Olympic dream is off to a pretty great start.

A dream beginning for Puig

Puig is into the Round of 16 in Rio, after straight-set wins over Slovakian Polona Hercog and Russian Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, the No. 14 seed. No Puerto Rican tennis player has ever made it this far in the Olympics. Her powerful forehand and fantastic defense has kept her in complete control of both her matches, and Tuesday she’ll have a chance to upset French Open champion Garbine Muguruza for a spot in the quarterfinals.

The Olympics represent so much to Puig because Puerto Rico means so much to her, and she says that to Puerto Rico, the Olympics is “the biggest thing in the world.”

It makes sense. After all, while Puerto Rico is not an independent country, it is recognized as such for sporting purposes by the International Olympic Committee (IOC). And while statistics say that many Puerto Ricans want statehood, Puig and her fellow athletes seem to have no desire to be representing the stars and stripes in Rio.

The small team of 40 athletes in 15 different sports is incredibly tight-knit—like family, Puig said. Throughout the year, they all keep up with one another through social media and texting, and they support one another’s athletic careers from afar.

No distance between athletes

“We’re all friends. It’s so nice, I know everyone going, and we’re going to have lunches together, dinners together, slumber parties with the girls. It’s going to be a lot of fun,” she said. “We get along so well, we’re always teasing each other, doing pranks.”

Puerto Rico doesn’t have a rich history in tennis. GiGi Fernandez, who won two gold medals in Olympics doubles, is from Puerto Rico, but represented the United States for most of her professional career. In 2014, Puig became the first player representing Puerto Rico to win a WTA singles title.

That was part of Puig’s rapid rise through the ranks in her late teens. In 2013, she made the tennis world take note when she defeated No. 11 Nadia Petrova to make it to the third round of the French Open in her very first Grand Slam main draw appearance. She followed that up by beating No. 5 Sara Errani and making the fourth round of Wimbledon just a few weeks later. But maintaining that form was a struggle.

At the end of 2013, she was ranked in the top 50. By the end of 2015, she was barely ranked in the top 100.

But, with Rio on the schedule, Puig—who has her own catchphrase, #PicaPower—has found her groove this year. (If you think I am exaggerating her love for the Olympics, check out her new dog’s name.)

After the most consistent year of her career, Puig has reached a new career-high ranking of No. 33 in the world. She’s on the brink of getting seeded at Slams and challenging for titles on a weekly basis.

Of course, Puig says there’s a bit more to her improvement than simply the lure of the Opening Ceremonies. She’s grown up, on and off the court, and has started to treat her tennis career accordingly.

“It’s just like wine, it matures with age and it gets better,” she said about her game. “I just felt there was a lot I needed to do. I had a good coaching change in the middle of last year, from Ricardo Sanchez to Juan Todero, he’s really helped my game go to the next level. Not just that, I hired a fitness trainer and a chiropractor, and they travel with me most of the time. That’s really helped me maintain my body as fit and as healthy as possible. It’s a team effort. That’s what I like about it, we’re kind-of a really close family.”

More glory ahead for Puig

Puig still has big goals, like winning a Grand Slam and getting to the top of the game like Muguruza, who she grew up with in the juniors and will face on Tuesday. But she is also realistic. She knows she’s young. She knows it’s a journey. She knows she’s not quite there yet.

“For me the work doesn’t stop here,” she said. “There’s always something else I need to prove. I’m a really hungry person, whenever I set a goal for myself I do my best to try to accomplish it. So far I’ve been accomplishing every little thing I’ve set for me, and I’m hungry for more. There’s more I want to do.”

But for now, she’s just focused on Rio, and possibly winning the ninth Olympic medal in Puerto Rico’s history. If she can upset Muguruza on Tuesday, she’ll have a great shot.

“This is the biggest thing I’ve ever gone to,” she said last month. “I mean, yeah, there’s Grand Slams, but this is the Olympics. The Olympic Games. And it’s like, wow, at 22 I’m going to be going.”

Here come those goosebumps again.

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