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Tennis player Monica Puig makes Olympic history for Puerto Rio with gold medal win

Monica Puig of Puerto Rico gets emotional while holding her gold medal for women's tennis during the podium ceremony on Aug. 13.
(Martin Bernetti / Getty Images)

The email from her father, Jose Puig, contained lyrics to Puerto Rico’s anthem: La Borinquena.

Just in case.

Or in this case, father knew best. Tennis player Monica Puig won the first Olympic gold medal for Puerto Rico, defeating Angelique Kerber of Germany, 6-4, 4-6, 6-1, in the women’s singles final on Saturday, culminating the best week of her sporting life.

“It’s just amazing,” Puig said. “I know my country really appreciates this and I really wanted to give this victory to them.”

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For the first time, La Borinquena was played at an Olympic medal ceremony. Puerto Rico, a territory of the U.S., has been sending athletes to the Summer Games since 1948 and has won medals before, but never gold and never by a woman.

Puig was emotional -- shaking with tears of joy — after Kerber’s last ground stroke sailed out on what was Puig’s fourth match point. Before the anthem, Puig touched her gold medal, examined it and looked as if she couldn’t believe it was hers.

“I didn’t really have enough time memorize it all,” Puig said of the anthem. “I heard some people singing and did know the words that were coming up next. If I would have stopped crying I would have probably started singing.

“But I couldn’t. I was choking up every single time.”

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Puig, 22, was born in San Juan and moved to Miami before she turned a year old. Her training base is Boca Raton and she has never been past the fourth round of a Grand Slam tournament. To reach the final, she knocked off Garbine Muguruza of Spain and Petra Kvitova, of the Czech Republic.

Ranked 34th, Puig was the undecided underdog against Kerber. The second-ranked Kerber won the Australian Open in January and lost to Serena Williams in the Wimbledon final in July.

Puig took out the No. 2-ranked Kerber with a relentless barrage of ground strokes and displayed a deft touch when required. She won it on her fourth match point, noting: “The ball [final shot] seemed to be going out really slow.”

Major titles and gold medals have a way of changing lives. By the time Puig arrived for her news conference, singer Ricky Martin had tweeted congratulations. “I know my life is probably going to change a little bit from here on out, but it’s going to change for the better,” Puig said.

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And she’ll have the support of Puerto Rico behind her.

“I’ve always been 100% loyal to where I was born,” she said. “I still have family in Puerto Rico and I’ve gone back there quite a lot…. That island has given me so much love and support my whole career. I just owe this one to them.”

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The men’s singles final Sunday will be between Juan Martin del Potro of Argentina and Andy Murray of Britain. Murray is defending gold medalist, but it will be hard to top Saturday’s spectacular semifinal between Rafael Nadal of Spain and Del Potro.

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Del Potro beat Nadal, 5-7, 6-4, 7-6 (5), in a 3-hour, 8-minute contest that seemed more like a soccer match with all the singing and chanting. Shortly after winning, del Potro dropped to the court and kissed it. For him, it’s been an emotional week, starting with getting trapped in an elevator for 40 minutes in the Olympic Village and continuing with his upset of No. 1 Novak Djokovic in the first round.

“I’m living like a dream. It could be even better than the U.S Open tournament,” he said. “My emotions are so high after every match and the crowds make me cry every match.”

Nadal leaves Rio with a gold medal – in men’s doubles – and vastly encouraged after an injury-riddled year. “I am satisfied after two and a half months … competing and without practicing,” Nadal said. “Being able to compete against the best players in the world is great news for me.”

lisa.dillman@latimes.com

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Follow Lisa Dillman on Twitter @reallisa


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