A report by Andrea Canales for ESPN.
The only time in history the Puerto Rican national anthem, La Borinqueña, has been played at the Olympic games was this past summer in Brazil, when the tune was played in honor of tennis player Monica Puig. Only 23, the Hato Rey, San Juan native captured the gold medal in the women’s tennis tournament with a run that included wins over players currently ranked No. 7 (Garbine Muguruza) and No. 1 (Angelique Kerber). It was a stunning upset, one that made Puig one of the most memorable stories from the Rio Games. Not only was she the first gold medalist for Puerto Rico in nearly 70 years of Olympic participation, but she was also the first female competing for the island to ever win a medal of any color. (Gigi Fernandez, who is from Puerto Rico, won gold for USA in tennis doubles in 1992 and 1996.)
Having proved she has the skills to take on the best and win, Puig enters 2017 poised to make good on her potential and become more of a regular threat. Aside from the personal aims, she also plans to bring more tennis to Puerto Rico. Puig inaugurated the first Monica Puig Invitational in San Juan last month, where she defeated Maria Sharapova in a lively exhibition.
Though she rallied from 4-1 down in the first set of the second round to get it to 5-4, ultimately Puig lost to Germany’s Mona Barthel in the Australian Open, the first Grand Slam of the year. Before competing in the tournament, Puig took time out to answer 10 quick questions for ESPN:
Question: When did you feel most emotional about your gold-medal win at the Olympics?
Answer: When I stood on the podium with the medal in my hand and heard the national anthem played. That was really the moment it hit me; it was very emotional.
Have you felt increased pressure on your game, career, since the win? Or increased confidence?
I think I have felt a little of both, which is not a bad thing. Of course, winning the Olympics comes with expectations to follow, but on the other hand, I do feel a lot of confidence as I won a gold medal and proved to myself that I really can beat the top players in the world and compete with them.
Of all the memories you have of Puerto Rico, what’s the most cherished and for what reasons?
I think it always goes back to the people, the incredible amount of support I get and the love from everyone. It means so much to me and is the reason I want to give back as much as I can.
You have recently launched the Monica Puig Invitational — what would you like the event to become in the future?
I am glad you ask this, as this event has become something very important for me. The goal for my team and I is to grow the event and host it every year. It is my way of giving back to Puerto Rico, to celebrate, to bring entertainment, and give the people a chance to see live and professional tennis on the island.
You’ve done well in international competitions before the Olympics. Does it feel different competing on behalf of a nation rather than just individually? How does that affect your play, if at all?
I think competing for Puerto Rico adds just something extra. Having my country’s name on my back — carry it on my shirt — it just brings a little extra to me. It’s very special, and I feel so honored to have that opportunity in life – to represent the island, the people, and all it stands for.
Traveling all over the world on tour, is there anything you take to remind you of home?
I always carry a little Puerto Rican flag with me in my tennis bag, which is important to me.
Any inspirational music that you listen to before a match?
I listen to a lot of good artists, even local Puerto Ricans that really get me going and in the right mindset before I walk on the court.
How has your game evolved since you turned pro? What level of evolution are you still hoping to develop – specifically in what areas?
I can improve so much in every aspect of my game. I am never done learning and improving, and it is what makes me so hungry — to keep getting better. I have focused a lot on my fitness and movement lately, as I think I can make big gains in those areas still.
With the Australian Open now in progress, how big of a priority for you are the Grand Slam tournaments this season? What’s the difference for players, in general, when competing in a Grand Slam?
The Grand Slams are very important, of course. A Grand Slam is quite different from a regular tournament. Since they span over two weeks, they carry a lot of attention worldwide, and the prestige is quite significant.
As far as advice, either from a coach or a teacher, what’s helped you the most? What advice would you give to a young player?
The best advice I ever got was to never give up and always keep believing! You need to love what you do in order to achieve your dreams and goals.