Puerto Rico came to a standstill in 2016 as thousands gathered to welcome the return of the nation’s first ever Olympic champion, Monica Puig.
A year on, ravaged by one of the most devastating storms to hit the island this century, at least one person has died and the country’s entire power grid has been destroyed, leaving millions of residents in darkness.
A tennis player born and raised in the capital city of San Juan, Puig has been so moved by the disaster she’s launched a fundraising campaign — Help Rebuild Puerto Rico — which has already exceeded its initial $25,000 target.
“Puerto Rico is my home and to see what’s going on there truly breaks my heart,” a tearful Puig told CNN Sport, speaking from a WTA Tour event in Wuhan, China.
“At the end of the day, like I’ve been telling my family and telling everyone, tennis is so small and life is so precious.
“It doesn’t matter what I’m doing here out on the court. Sure, it’s important to me because it’s my career. But there’s a big picture and there’s so many people going through so much more than just winning or losing a tennis match.
“I can say that 100% of my heart is with Puerto Rico and I really wish that they come back bigger and stronger from this.”
‘Torn to pieces’
Still recovering from the impact of Hurricane Irma from two weeks ago, Puerto Rico’s cobbled streets were transformed into raging rivers on Wednesday, as the category four Hurricane Maria unleashed almost 40 inches of rain in just 24 hours.
Winds of up to 155mph ripped trees from the earth and homes were lifted from their foundations, with Puerto Rico Governor Ricardo Rosselló numbering it among the worst storms to make landfall in “modern history.”
According to Ricardo Ramos, CEO of Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority, the US territory’s population of over three million people could be left without electricity for as long as six months.
“I’m used to seeing Puerto Rico being so beautiful, strong and upbeat, and all of a sudden seeing it torn to pieces,” said Puig.
“The only thing I can hope for is people continue to send us love and prayers, and that things continue to improve for us as a nation.”
Tennis community unites
A number of fellow professionals, from Kei Nishikori to Maria Sharapova, have helped raised awareness for Puig’s fundraising effort.
Set up 24 hours after the storm had passed, Puig’s initiative has already been shared over 10,000 times.
“Reminds me of the Japan disaster,” tweeted Nishikori. “Help Monica Puig support her country.”
Visibly struck by the generosity shown in times of adversity, Puig expressed her gratitude to the wider tennis community and beyond.
“I really really want to thank them for all the support they have given me and given Puerto Rico,” she said.
“It’s that give and take that this world needs, and right now Puerto Rico really, really needs this.
“I just want to see Puerto Rico back where it was, so people can see how beautiful this place truly is. ”
Puig sends a message home
Ranked 70th in the world, Puig has endured mixed fortunes on court since her finest hour in the Rio 2016 ladies singles final.
The 23-year-old has never bettered the magical run that saw her beat three top 10 players to secure gold.
Still, it understandable that her present attentions are focused far away from the game she knows and loves.
“There have been so many things occupying my mind, whether it’s the fundraising, worrying about my friends’ families or trying to get in touch with my own,” said Puig.
“Working is still a priority but so much of me really wants to be back there, helping in some way.”
Asked what her message would be for the people of Puerto Rico, Puig broke down.
“All I can say is to be strong,” she sobbed. “I know it’s not easy, but they have my unconditional love and support and I know we’ll all come back stronger from this.”