WTA Insider Courtney Nguyen | Monica Puig brought down the house with an eponymous invitational against Maria Sharapova to showcase the national appetite for tennis in Puerto Rico.
WTA Staff

Make no mistake: Monica Puig was already a big deal in Puerto Rico before that Olympic medal was draped around her neck. But that gold medal has shot her into the stratosphere of recognition back home. Now it's time to bring tennis to Puerto Rico.

Puig staged her first exhibition last week in San Juan and by every metric the Monica Puig Invitational was a blazing success.

The 23 year old became the first athlete to ever bring a gold medal back to Puerto Rico, after beating Germany's Angelique Kerber in the final of the Olympic tennis event. Her remarkable run, which saw her lose just one set and beat two reigning Grand Slam champions in Kerber and Garbiñe Muguruza - not to mention two-time Wimbledon champion Petra Kvitova - was as inspiring as it was improbable.

Monica Puig 

The idea for the exhibition event came during Puig's flight home. With no WTA tournaments currently staged in Puerto Rico, Puig told her agent Marijn Bal that she wanted a way to not only grow the sport back home but also give her family and fans an opportunity to see her play, not just this year but every year.

She wanted it to be an accessible event, affordable for a family of five to come and enjoy the atmosphere and the tennis. But most of all, she wanted it to be fun -- because if tennis is fun, there's more of a chance the next Monica Puig might be sitting in the stands.

A lively party atmosphere dominated the Coliseu de Puerto Rico, as a packed crowd of more than 12,0000 fans created a Fed Cup atmosphere as their hometown hero took on Maria Sharapova last Thursday. There was dancing, there was laughter, and there was shot-making throughout the match, which Puig won 6-3, 1-6, 10-6.

"It's been a really long time since I competed in front of fans, in front of spectators, to come out after so many months and compete in front of some of the most enthusiastic fans tonight," an emotional Sharapova said to the crowd before being drowned out by cheers.

"I think tonight is a combination of a few things. First and most importantly it's because of Monica. Without her career and without her path of what she achieved this summer at the Olympics none of us would be here tonight so a huge thank you. A huge thank you for the welcome."

"Maria, before you go I just wanted again to thank you so much for coming to the first Monica Puig Invitational," Puig said before addressing the arena in Spanish.

"Like I was telling you before and what I want all of Puerto Rico to know is the reason I invited Maria is because she is not only a great champion but a great ambassador to our sport. She has the values that represent a champion. She's an amazing person, extremely funny, really really humble, and we're going to work on the Spanish and the dancing, don't worry!"

Maria Sharapova, Monica Puig

Puig hopes to make the event an annual exhibition, expanded over multiple days. This year, in addition to the exhibition itself, Puig and Sharapova also held a kids' clinic, visited local dignitaries and VIPs. The event was organized in four months with Puig's heavy involvement, as she and her agency IMG partnered with Ventana LLC, a local event promoter, to implement Puig's vision.

Puig's personal sponsors, Universal Insurance, AT&T, FirstBank, Chrysler, and the Puerto Rico Tourism Company immediately answered the call to sponsor the event as well. In all, the exhibition served as a celebration of Puig's journey to Olympic glory as well as a heartfelt thank you to everyone who helped get her there.

Puig is currently doing her off-season training in Boca Raton and will start her season at the Brisbane International, which begins on January 1st.

All photos courtesy of Jimmie48 Tennis Photography.