Since participating in its first Summer Olympic Games in London in 1948, Puerto Rico has amassed a total of eight medals. Six were bronze; two were silver. Never has the island won gold — but Monica Puig could change that this weekend in Rio de Janeiro.
With her emotional victory over Germany’s Laura Siegemund in the women’s tennis singles quarterfinals Thursday, Puig advanced to face Petra Kvitová of the Czech Republic in the semifinals Friday. The semifinal berth ensures the 22-year-old Puig will have at least the opportunity to play for the bronze Saturday and add to Puerto Rico’s medal count in her first Olympics appearance. But if she beats Kvitová, she’ll play for Puerto Rico’s first gold medal ever.
— Monica Puig (@MonicaAce93) August 11, 2016
“When I’m playing in the WTA, it’s more like I’m playing for myself — my job, let’s say,” Puig told the Associated Press on Tuesday. “Here, it’s not really my job. It’s for my country, and I think nothing in the world can compare to that. It’s the most special feeling when you put on your colors of your country and you’re walking around the Olympic Village and everybody looks to see your country on the back of your shirt.”
Puig’s run is a surprise. She is the 34th-ranked player in the world, according to the latest Women’s Tennis Association rankings. She has never reached the quarterfinals at a grand slam event. As the third seed at the Citi Open last month, she lost in the second round to Lauren Davis, an American. Davis is ranked 43rd in the world.
But Puig has plowed through opponents in Rio — her dog’s namesake. She hasn’t lost a set in four matches. She upset Spain’s Garbiñe Muguruza, the world’s fourth-ranked player and this year’s French Open champion, in the third round in straight sets (6-1, 6-1) on Tuesday. She dismissed Siegemund by the same score Thursday. Two more wins and she’ll claim Puerto Rico’s first gold medal, though she wouldn’t be the first Puerto Rican to earn gold — Gigi Fernández, born and raised in Puerto Rico, won gold medals in 1992 and 1996 in women’s doubles for the United States.
Puig’s unexpected success is a welcomed sliver of good news for Puerto Rico at a dire time. Unable to pay $72 billion in bond debt, the unincorporated American territory’s economy has been in shambles while crime has soared in recent years. The combination produced an exodus. The island’s estimated population in 2015 was 3.47 million, according to the Pew Research Center — a 9 percent drop since 2000.
More Puerto Ricans live in the mainland United States than in Puerto Rico itself and recent evidence suggests the migration pattern isn’t changing, though Congress passed a bill on June 29 — two days before Puerto Rico was set to default on approximately $2 billion in debt payments — to clear a track to restructure the debt in hopes of rescuing the nation’s economy.
For now, Puerto Ricans — on the island and on the mainland — have Puig to root for other next couple days as she attempts to do something nobody representing Puerto Rico has ever done before.