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Monica Puig’s Olympic gold medal an inspiration to downtrodden Puerto Rico ahead of U.S. Open

Monica Puig of Puerto Rico celebrates defeating Angelique

Monica Puig of Puerto Rico celebrates defeating Angelique Kerber of Germany during the women's Singles Gold medal match of the Rio 2016 Olympic Games Tennis events at the Olympic Tennis Centre in the Olympic Park in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, 13 August 2016.

The profile on Monica Puig was unimpressive, as far as the Olympics were concerned. She began her year ranked 92 in the world in women’s tennis, a steep dropoff from 2014, and entered Rio unseeded — a stepping stool to whatever big name would stand atop the podium at the end to collect her gold medal.

There was no reason to believe she’d be in the final facing Germany’s Angelique Kerber, the crowd swelling and shouting in one, unified voice, “Si se puede!”

“Yes you can,” translated Puig at the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center on Saturday before the start of the U.S. Open Monday, where she is the 32nd and last-seeded player.

It’s been only two weeks since Puig claimed Puerto Rico’s first ever gold medal — her hands, she said, shook throughout the final match — and only a few days since she returned from the island that needs a hero as much as anyone right now.

Puerto Rico is strangled with debt, the Zika virus has taken a massive toll, and working-age residents are leaving in droves, hoping for better lives elsewhere. But despite the mounting hardships, many in the U.S. commonwealth have found an idol in the 22-year-old Puig, who was born in Puerto Rico and lives in Miami.

Si se puede could apply to any number of them as much as it applies to her.

“When I went to Puerto Rico, I saw a lot of hope in their eyes and a sense of satisfaction and a sense of belief that things were going to get better,” said Puig, who impressed globally with her court acumen, patience, and penetrating two-handed backhand.

“Because, my medal . . . signifies that impossible is never an option . . . It just shows also that if you believe in a dream and you have a goal and you work very hard to accomplish that goal, things can happen. I feel like if Puerto Rico channels that same energy in believing that things can get better and working for the better of the island and the better of the community, things will improve.”

There were parties and a parade for her, the streets of San Juan choked with people who wanted to celebrate her victory. Puig made the back (and front) page of newspapers there, and quickly became a household name. But there are also naysayers. Puig spoke openly of them, and, she said, she tries to read every message that comes to her on social media. Most of those messages bolster her — people from the Latin American community proud of her achievements — but some try to minimize what she’s done.

“It’s ‘We’ll see how she’ll do at the U.S. Open’ and ‘This is a fluke’ and things like that,” she said. “I know the Olympics wasn’t a fluke for me because I’ve worked very hard to get to where I am and I know the hours and the tears and the sweat and everything that’s been put into my practices, and it’s been very difficult for me. That moment, no one will be able to take away from me.”

But, winning the U.S. Open might be even more of a longshot than winning the Olympics, and that’s not because her gold was a fluke. For one, Puig has had almost no rest since Rio, and very limited time to train. She’s even struggled to find time to sleep. She has never advanced beyond the second round here, which she reached in 2014. Competitor that she is, part of Puig still realizes all of this.

“If the U.S. Open doesn’t go well, then it doesn’t go well. That’s the reality,” said Puig, who will face China’s Saisai Zheng in the first round. “One thing that I know for sure is that I’m going to prepare myself 100 percent.”

But she’s still intent on cherishing the moment. She’s climbed to 34 in the world and this season has been an unequivocal success. She kept the gold medal on her nightstand, because she’d wake up in the middle of the night and have to convince herself it wasn’t all a dream. And then, of course, there’s that tantalizing possibility. She probably shouldn’t have much of a chance to win the Open or go terribly far.

But . . . but . . .

“Throughout the whole (gold medal) match, everyone was saying, ‘Si se puede,’” she said. “That kind of got to me because it kind of reminded me of a moment, if you’ve ever seen the movie ‘Miracle’ and everyone was cheering ‘U.S.A’ and the coach was like, ‘Listen to them. That’s what you’ve done. Now go out there and take it.’ I needed to listen to the crowd saying ‘Yes, you can.’”

And so she did.


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