The Journey Back Was Suárez Navarro’s Reward

Carla Suárez Navarro and Sloane Stephens (photo: @rolandgarros/Twitter)

PARIS/WASHINGTON, June 2, 2021 (by Michael Dickens)

The journey back to play Roland Garros one last time was Carla Suárez Navarro‘s reward. Win or lose, it didn’t really matter. But, oh, did the 32-year-old Spaniard born in the Canary Islands, who began her WTA career in 2003, want to win on the terre battue one last time.

On Tuesday evening, after the limited but adoring Day Three crowds had been banished from the grounds of Stade Roland-Garros due to the Paris curfew, the former World No. 6 Suárez Navarro, who revealed last September that she had early-stage Hodgkin’s Lymphoma and had her final chemotherapy session in January, took to Court Simone-Mathieu to face 2017 US Open champion and 2018 Roland Garros runner-up Sloane Stephens of the United States.

In a match between a pair of former Top 10 players, Stephens won the first-round tussle, 3-6, 7-6 (4), 6-4 to advance after Suárez Navarro came within two points of winning while serving for the match at 5-4 in the second set. The two shared a very warm and genuine hug at the net when the two-hour and 24-minute match that encompassed 213 points – and was filled with much humanity and emotion – had concluded.

“I’m really proud of myself and really happy to have the chance to play here one last time,” the two-time French Open quarterfinalist Suárez Navarro said during her post-match press conference.

“Was a long time, really tough moments, tough months. But, well, every time I had on my mind that I want to be here, I want to come back. Roland Garros is one of my favorite tournaments, so [it was] really clear that my first tournament will be this one.”

Teary-eyed at the end, Suárez Navarro finished with two aces and hit 21 winners to 32 unforced errors. She converted six of 11 break-point chances and outpointed Stephens 107-106. Stephens hit four aces and 32 winners to 54 unforced errors. She broke her opponent six times in eight tries.

“I’m not happy with the result,” Suárez Navarro said. “I have 5-4, my serve, and then tie break to close the match. Maybe, with time, I will see this differently – but now I’m not too happy. I was here to win that match.”

Before her cancer diagnosis, Suárez Navarro had planned to make 2020 her last season on the WTA tour. Now, she wants to carry on playing beyond the French Open and has said that it would be a “dream” to represent Spain in this summer’s Tokyo Olympic Games. She also plans to play at Wimbledon and the US Open, too.

Suárez Navarro said she was pleased when she learned last week that she was drawn to play against Stephens. “Yeah, I like that match. I prefer playing against Sloane,” she said. “She was a champion, Grand Slam champion. I knew her from [a] long time ago. I saw her message during my treatment. So, well, I’m happy that’s she through to the second round.”

Stephens said after the match in press, “When I saw [Carla] in Rome for the first time, I think a lot of people were super excitedto see her and just have her back around. Obviously, she’s been through a lot and we’re all happy that she’s better and healthy and being able to play again, which I think obviously is the most important thing.

“We all love her and love having her around.”

Bright lights, big city, no crowd for Djokovic

On Tuesday evening, World No. 1 Novak Djokovic was featured in the first men’s night session on Court Philippe-Chatrier and won easily over Tennys Sandgren, 6-2, 6-4, 6-2. He advanced to the second round in two minutes shy of two hours with his fourth career head-to-head win over the American, and first on clay, in back of 33 winners. The top-seeded Serbian saved all six break points he faced, converted five of 11 break-point chances and outpointed Sandgren 99-68.

“It was strange, honestly, but I’m also honored to be the first men’s night session match [in the] history of this tournament, of this court,” said Djokovic after the match, played without fans due to the 9 p.m. curfew in Paris. “I had great support in Belgrade last week, and I was kind of filled with a good vibe, good energy from those matches that I played in front of a crowd. So, I didn’t mind playing in front of an empty stadium tonight.”

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