Gracias, Carla

After a battle with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, the widely-loved Spaniard ended her Roland-Garros career with a brave defeat

Carla Suarez Navarro, Roland Garros 2021, first round© Julien Crosnier/FFT
 - Chris Oddo

Nine months after revealing a diagnosis of Hodgkin’s Lymphoma and undergoing a six-month regimen of chemotherapy and radiotherapy, a cancer-free Carla Suarez Navarro returned to her beloved terre battue to say goodbye to Roland-Garros on her own terms. 

If her Paris debut was stunning - Suarez Navarro stormed the quarter-finals in 2008 defeating luminaries Amelie Mauresmo and Flavia Pennetta along the way - her farewell was something altogether more inspiring. 

The Spaniard was defeated by Sloane Stephens, 3-6, 7-6(4), 6-4, but her victory was secured the moment she stepped on Court Simonne-Mathieu.

Originally set to retire in 2020, the coronavirus halted Suarez Navarro's plans. But when she received her Hodgkin’s Lymphoma diagnosis last September, she realised that she had to have the last say. 

“I wanted to retire last year, but first the pandemic and then my cancer, you know, I couldn't," said the 32-year-old. "I had all the time in my mind that I want to come back. I was dreaming every day.” 

Support has come from all corners. Simply listen to her peers rave, if you want to understand the essence of Suarez Navarro's humble personality.

“She's a lovely girl,” Greece’s Maria Sakkari said on Tuesday. “What she went through, it wasn't easy. She won the biggest battle of her life, bigger than playing the biggest match of her career. So she's a big inspiration for all of us.” 

Seven Grand Slam quarter-finals, including two at Roland-Garros. Three Olympic appearances. 28 top-10 wins and a sweet-as-song one-handed backhand. You could start a list of Suarez Navarro’s accomplishments, but the end product wouldn’t hold a candle to the intangibles. 

A soulful, soft-spoken Canary Island native, Suarez Navarro brings something unique to the tour. Decidedly old-school, eminently warm, she exudes grace. 

Carla Suarez Navarro, Roland Garros 2021, first round© Julien Crosnier/FFT

“As a person, she always has been one of the most sympathetic girls on the tour,” Petra Kvitova said last week. “Pretty humble, down to earth. But she's a fighter, so I'm really glad how she was able to make it, how she was dealing with it, and that she is back.”

Kvitova, who has faced Suarez Navarro 13 times on tour, says when she saw her friend in Madrid earlier this month, all she wanted to do was hug her. 

“I saw her in Madrid and in the situation I didn't really know what to do,” she said, referring to social distancing protocols. “I said, ‘Carla, can I hug you?’” 

She did get a hug from Stephens after the match. A teary-eyed Suarez Navarro wasn't just there to be celebrated, however. She wanted the win and regretted not getting it.

"I'm not happy with the result," she said in press. "I have 5-4, my serve, and then tiebreak to close the match. Maybe with the time I will see this differently - but now I'm not too happy. I was here to win that match."

There will be other chances for victory. The former world No.6 plans a busy summer, with Wimbledon, the Olympics and the US Open all on her list. 

Carla Suarez Navarro, Garbine Muguruza, Roland Garros 2014 doubles semis© Philippe Montigny/FFT

Her potential doubles partner for the Tokyo Games, Garbine Muguruza, is beyond excited to see Suarez Navarro back on court again. The pair have already been to the Olympic quarter-finals as a duo, and won three titles together on tour. 

When Suarez Navarro was indecisive and mulling over her comeback plans Muguruza encouraged her to come to Paris and play her heart out.

“I was very happy to see her because she didn't know until the last moment, if she was going to come, and I was like pushing her. 'Carla, let's go, just go there, you don't have any expectations, it's already incredible that you're here!'” she said.

“For me it was fun to see her and sad that it's the last time that she is going to be here. But we have great memories here, we played doubles, and we have a very nice relationship for many years, and I'm just happy that she's here and she's going to play - I'm very inspired." 

If Suarez Navarro wins an Olympic medal, or creates an epic upset at a Grand Slam, it’ll be great news. If not, it’s plain to see that a colossal victory has already been won by her return to Paris this week. 

Victoria Azarenka, who has been sending texts to Suarez Navarro every week since she found out about her diagnosis, is one of the many who are simply touched to see her back. 

“I mean, just what she's been through just says everything about her character,” Azarenka said. “She's a fighter. She's an amazing person. I'll be watching her play and I'll be cheering for her for sure.”

Reflecting on her fond memories in Paris, Suarez Navarro explained why Roland-Garros holds such a special place in her heart.

Carla Suarez Navarro, Roland Garros 2021, first round© Julien Crosnier/FFT

"I think my first year here I passed the quallies. I was able to play in Philippe-Chatrier for the first time against Mauresmo, local player. The crowd was really nice," she recalls.

"Then I have really good matches on Suzanne Lenglen also. I have really good memories from here, and that's why I wanted to be here for the last time. I don't want to miss Roland-Garros.

"A lot of years coming here, the tournament change a lot every year to better, and always will be one of my favourite tournaments, for sure."

The feeling is mutual, Carla!