• Tennis champ won the commonwealth’s first Olympic gold medal
  • Sponsorship, branding opportunities seen rising for Puig

Puerto Rico’s finances may be distressed, but now it’s got gold.

Tennis player Monica Puig, who won the commonwealth’s first Olympic gold medal in Rio de Janeiro earlier this month, competes Monday in her first match this year at the U.S. Open in Queens, New York.

Puig’s Olympic victory comes amid dire Puerto Rico headlines of escalating debt, a broke pension system, a Zika outbreak, and a 10-year economic recession. Thousands of cheering fans greeted her at the airport in San Juan when she arrived on Aug. 20, a week after her win.

“Puerto Rico’s always looking for good news and I know things in Puerto Rico haven’t been working out very well,” Puig said in a telephone interview from New York on Aug. 27. “This was such a huge moment for everyone in Puerto Rico and for myself. It’s the best thing that’s happened to the island in a long time.”

The 22-year old, ranked 34 in women’s singles, made history when she beat second-ranked Angelique Kerber, winner of this year’s Australian Open, in three sets, giving the Caribbean island its first Olympic gold. While Puerto Rico is a U.S. territory, the island has competed on its own in the Olympics since 1948.

Pending Oversight

Dr. Edwin Melendez, director of the Center for Puerto Rican Studies at Hunter College in Manhattan, compared Puig’s victory to Sonia Sotomayor’s appointment in 2009 to the U.S. Supreme Court and the island’s boxing champions.

“Anytime you have one of us succeeding like they do it makes us all proud,” Melendez said in a telephone interview. “It just tells us that we have the capability of succeeding in many fields and gives us confidence that we can overcome the government’s finances on the island.”

Puerto Ricans and tennis fans will be watching Puig compete at the U.S. Open as the island faces federal oversight. President Barack Obama has until Sept. 15 to form a seven-member control board from lists of candidates submitted by House and Senate leadership. The panel is part of a law, called Promesa, which means promise in Spanish, that Obama enacted on June 30.

The control board will manage any restructuring of Puerto Rico’s $70 billion debt stack and curb the island’s reliance on borrowing to pay for operating expenses. The commonwealth defaulted on nearly $1 billion due to investors on July 1, the largest such payment failure in the $3.7 trillion municipal-bond market and the first time a state-level borrower missed principal and interest on its direct debt since the 1930s.

Puig believes that through hard work, anything is possible, for herself and for Puerto Rico. She improved her game last year by hiring a new coach, Juan Todero, and concentrating on staying focused and positive while competing. The changes helped bring her ranking down from 92 at the end of 2015.

Endorsement Deals

“It’s not a mistake and it wasn’t luck, because I know how hard I worked to get here,” Puig said.

Puig has earned $1.7 million in prize money in her professional career, according to the Women’s Tennis Association. She has endorsement deals with Chrysler, AT&T, sports-apparel company Ellesse and tennis-racket maker Babolat, according to Marijn Bal, who represents Puig at IMG Tennis.

“Her gold medal win has catapulted her into an overnight global star, especially in Latin America where her appeal has reached incredible heights, Bal said in an e-mail. “We have received a lot of interest from brands and companies that would like to partner with Monica and have her become a spokesperson and brand ambassador.”

She faces Saisai Zheng from China on Monday, who’s ranked 60. The two have never competed against each other before. Puig said she’s concentrating on each match rather than how far she advances at the U.S. Open. She has yet to reach a quarterfinals in the sport’s four major tournaments.

“A lot of people are looking at me to do big things here, but I’m just going to take it one match at a time,” Puig said.

Puig, who lives in Miami, was born in Puerto Rico and grew up in Florida after her parents moved when she was about a year old. Puig spent her summers visiting her grandparents in San Juan. Her mother introduced her to tennis at the age of six and Puig grew up playing on hard courts, the same surface for the U.S. Open and the Rio Olympics.

“I’m not sure what my future holds and what I can do in the future for Puerto Rico,” Puig said. “Puerto Rico is the most incredible place in the world and even though we’re going through our hardships now, we can only go up.”

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