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Unfazed by critics, Gigi Fernández lauds Puig’s tennis gold

By on August 13, 2016

Monica Puig of Puerto Rico celebrates holding her country's flag after winning the gold medal match in the women's tennis competition at the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Saturday, Aug. 13, 2016. (AP Photo/Vadim Ghirda)

Monica Puig of Puerto Rico celebrates holding her country’s flag after winning the gold medal match in the women’s tennis competition at the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Saturday, Aug. 13, 2016. (AP Photo/Vadim Ghirda)

RIO DE JANEIRO – Monica Puig isn’t the first Puerto Rican women’s tennis player to win a gold medal at the Olympics. She’s just the first to win one for Puerto Rico.

And Gigi Fernández was thrilled to see it happen.

Fernández, a Puerto Rican who won Olympic gold in doubles in 1992 and 1996 but did so while representing the United States, has dealt with plenty of social-media criticism in recent days as the wounds caused by her decision from a generation ago seemed to be reopened. But after watching Puig’s historic win on television from her Connecticut home on Saturday, Fernández said her only regret was not being in Rio de Janeiro to watch it live.

“Nothing about Monica winning has bothered me at all,” Fernández, a 17-time Grand Slam doubles winner who now coaches and is a mom to 7-year-old twins, said in a telephone interview with The Associated Press. “What bothered me was some of the things people were saying to me. For some reason people thought I wouldn’t be happy for her. I’m wildly ecstatic. I cannot believe how well she played.”

Puig, who was unseeded, knocked off second-seeded Angelique Kerber of Germany 6-4, 4-6, 6-1. Afterward, Puig wrapped herself in a Puerto Rican flag and wiped away plenty of joyous tears.

After Puig’s win, there was a note awaiting her from Fernández as well.

“I know her and she wrote to me, congratulating me, so that’s very nice,” Puig said. “She played in the doubles, and I know that she won the gold medal. … For me, it’s inspiring, really.”

Her win instantly became big news in Puerto Rico, where fans flocked into restaurants and bars to watch her final match on television.

“Best sport moment I have ever witnessed,” former major league baseball player Alex Cora said after watching Puig’s win in Puerto Rico.

Yet not all the reaction was joyful, especially what was directed toward Fernández. Tweets sent her way ranged from a handful of those coming to her defense to some being downright profane.

For her part, Fernández didn’t often engage back.

“I’m trying not to fuel the fire and let Mónica have her stage,” Fernández said.

The issue all stems from how she decided to play doubles for the U.S. at the 1992 Barcelona Games and four years later in Atlanta. It’s a decision that Fernández insists wasn’t easy, but was made simply because she wasn’t even sure Puerto Rico could qualify for doubles – her specialty – and get into those Olympics. So when a chance to play for the U.S. and partner with Mary Joe Fernández came, Gigi Fernández felt she was making the smartest move.

Tennis player Gigi Fernandez of Puerto Rico speaks during a news conference prior to being Inducted with doubles partner Natasha Zvereva into the International Tennis Hall of Fame in Newport, R.I. Saturday, July 10, 2010. (AP Photo/Elise Amendola)

Tennis player Gigi Fernandez of Puerto Rico speaks during a news conference prior to being Inducted with doubles partner Natasha Zvereva into the International Tennis Hall of Fame in Newport, R.I. Saturday, July 10, 2010. (AP Photo/Elise Amendola)

“If I was destined to win a medal, it would have been in doubles and Puerto Rico did not have another player that I could have played with,” she said. “I struggled with the decision. But now it’s behind us.”

She was the first Puerto Rican professional athlete, part of a group – Mary Joe Fernández and Gabriela Sabatini also included – that, as Puig said Saturday night, all played a role in inspiring her to pick up the game.

Puig knocked off the world’s second-ranked player in Kerber in the final, and also beat No. 4 Garbine Muguruza earlier in the tournament.

“I cannot believe how well she played,” Fernández said. “To take out two of the top five players and win gold is just remarkable. I don’t know what possessed her – but she needs to carry it for the rest of her life.”

And when Puig goes back to Puerto Rico, Fernández knows what awaits.

“A heroes’ welcome, probably a parade and they might rename the capital of Puerto Rico to Mónica,” Fernández said. “She definitely deserves everything she’s going to get.”

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