Unfazed by Critics, Gigi Fernandez Lauds Puig’s Tennis Gold

Fernandez, a Puerto Rican who won Olympic gold in doubles in 1992 and 1996 but did so while representing the United States, has dealt with social-media criticism as the wounds caused by her decision from a generation ago were reopened

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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 Fernandez was thrilled to see it happen.

Fernandez, 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 were reopened, in part from her own Twitter commentary. But after watching Puig's historic win on television from her Connecticut home on Saturday, Fernandez said her only regret was not being in Rio de Janeiro to watch it live.

"Nothing about Monica winning has bothered me at all," Fernandez, 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 Fernandez 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 Fernandez. Tweets sent her way ranged from a handful of those coming to her defense to some being downright profane.

For her part, Fernandez didn't often engage back.

"I'm trying not to fuel the fire and let Monica have her stage," Fernandez said.

But during the opening ceremony of the Rio Games, Fernandez started this new round of old debate with a tweet.

Puerto Rico's flagbearer for the opening was Jaime Espinal, a wrestler born in the Dominican Republic. Fernandez tweeted a photo of the Puerto Rican team walking into Maracana Stadium with words in Spanish that translated to asking if Espinal is Dominican or Puerto Rican.

"Double standard," she wrote.

That opened the floodgates, re-opening the issue that started when 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 Fernandez 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 Fernandez came, Gigi Fernandez felt she was making the smartest move.

"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 Fernandez 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," Fernandez 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, Fernandez knows what awaits.

"A heroes' welcome, probably a parade and they might rename the capital of Puerto Rico to Monica," Fernandez said. "She definitely deserves everything she's going to get."

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