Published On: Sat, Aug 20th, 2016

Puig stuns Kerber to give Puerto Rico its 1st-ever gold medal

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Puerto Rico has won its first-ever Olympic gold medal, courtesy of Monica Puig.

The world’s 34th-ranked player, who has all of one WTA title to her name and has never even played into the second week at a major, completed her magical Rio run Saturday by knocking off world No. 2 Angelique Kerber 6-4, 4-6, 6-1 in the women’s tennis final. It’s also the first medal of any kind for Puerto Rico at this summer’s Games.

The 22-year-old had to overcome five higher-ranked players – including three Grand Slam champs in Kerber, world No. 3 Garbine Muguruza, and No. 14 Petra Kvitova – on her way to one of the most improbable titles in the sport’s history.

In the final, with the weight of history on her shoulders, Puig gave no indication that the moment was affecting her. She hit bravely and intelligently, with a combination of power, placement, and depth that broke down the defense of one of the game’s greatest retrievers.

Puig stands just 5-foot-7, but packs a whole lot of punch in that diminutive frame. She consistently opened up the court with acute-angled cross-court backhands, then ended points by driving the ball down the line. She pushed Kerber back behind the baseline, then caught her out with beautifully disguised drop shots.

Kerber struggled with back soreness, and needed an extended medical timeout between the first and second sets. Her movement never seemed to be 100 percent, but she, like Puig, whacked her groundstrokes without fear or hesitation.

Neither woman hung back and waited for the other to make mistakes. On the slow Rio hardcourt, they tried (mostly in vain) to hit through each other, and when that failed they hit around each other. The result was a series of probing, dizzying, side-to-side exchanges in which the kill shot was set up six, seven, eight shots in advance.

That’s a game Kerber plays as well as just about anyone on tour, and it often wears her opponents down. It’s led her to an Australian Open title, a Wimbledon final, and a gold-medal match in the last six months. On this day, though, Puig was up to the challenge. In the decisive third set, she was the one who managed to find another gear, clipping lines and defending relentlessly while making next to no mistakes.

With Puig trying to serve it out, Kerber went up 0-40, and ultimately earned six break points in all. Puig could’ve easily dumped the game at any of those moments. She’d still have been up 5-2, with a break in hand. Instead, she erased all six with a medley of droppers, volleys, and booming forehands, before Kerber finally sailed one wide on gold-medal point No. 4.

“I’m in complete disbelief, complete shock,” Puig said after it was over, echoing the feelings of the rest of the tennis world.

During the medal ceremony, she kept looking down – through tears – at the shiny disc hanging around her neck, trying to convince herself it was all real. No matter how many times she looked, the color stayed the same.

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