It is the finals of the women’s singles final at the Rio Olympics. Monica Puig of Puerto Rico is ranked 34th in the world, has not won a tournament of consequence in her young career, and is facing off against world #2, Angelique Kerber of Germany, the reigning Australian Open Champion.
Somehow, Puig wins the first set, 6 games to 4. I begin to notice the chants in the background – U-S-A! U-S-A!
Yes, Puerto Rico is a territory of the United States, and Puig makes her home in Florida. But she has made it clear, she is competing for Puerto Rico. And besides, I thought, if Puerto Rico is a “territory” of the U-S-A, then the U-S-A isn’t really doing a remarkable job of managing it, at least nothing to cheer about.
Puerto Rico is in the deepest part of a 10-year economic slide. Its government is bankrupt, and unemployment is at 12%. Finding work, as well as hope, has become so hard in Puerto Rico that nearly a tenth of its population has moved to the United States. Here is how the New York Times recently described Puerto Rico:
It’s official: America now has a failed state within its borders, just the way Europe has Greece. America’s biggest unincorporated territory, Puerto Rico, effectively ran out of cash this summer and has stopped paying its debts. Now, Congress is putting together an oversight board to call the shots until the island gets back on its feet.
Imagine you’re Monica Puig from Puerto Rico. Quite possibly most of the 3.5 million Puerto Ricans in the country are watching the finals on television, gasping with each shot, moaning with every miss, and cheering every point won. Puig had the hopes and fears of an entire country riding on her shoulders.
After dropping the first set, Kerber came out in the second determined to show her metal, taking the set 6 games to 4. Of course, everyone outside of Puerto Rico was thinking it was time for Puig to revert to her role as inexperienced upstart and lay down.
But lay down she did not. Puig raced out to a 5-0 lead in the third set, breaking Kerber twice, chasing the German champion side to side, playing sharp angles and failing to miss. However, as the announcers intoned, those last few championship points are the hardest, particularly for someone as inexperienced in the big matches as Puig.
Kerber serving in game 7 of the third set, fought for her life, earning six break chances. And each time Puig got it back to deuce. Puig also pushed it to the brink by getting to match point three times, before Kerber got it back to 40-40.
For Puig, the fourth match point was the charm. When Kerber sent a shot wide of the baseline, the 22-year-old from San Juan dropped her racket, her face etched in shock. Mouthing the words “Oh my God,” she stumbled to the net to shake Kerber’s hand, then the judge’s hand before dropping to her knees, overcome.
You could almost hear the roar out of San Juan, a guttural cry of both relief and release. A daughter of Puerto Rico not only put her country on the mental map of millions of armchair sports fans, she reminded her compatriots that like her, Puerto Rico will not go down without a fight.
“This is for them. They’re going through some tough times. They needed this. And I needed this. I think I united a nation. I just love where I come from.”