'It was a long time, really tough moments. Tough months'
Spain's Carla Suarez Navarro fell just short of a dream return to competitive tennis as she lost to Sloane Stephens at the French Open on Tuesday, little more than a month since declaring she had won her battle with cancer.
The 32-year-old was two points from victory in the second set but eventually went down 3-6, 7-6 (4), 6-4.
While the disappointment was etched on her face at the end, just being back on court was already a victory for the former world number six who in September 2020 announced that she was being treated for the early stage of Hodgkin lymphoma, having initially thought she was suffering from COVID-19.
After several months of gruelling chemotherapy and radiotherapy, she said in April that she had been given a clean bill of health and was targeting a proper farewell to the sport she has graced -- out on the court.
In her first match since February 2020, Suarez Navarro looked like she had never been away at times as her sublime single-handed backhand helped her take control.
After dominating the opening set she looked close to victory when she served for the match at 5-4 in the second.
But former US Open champion Stephens dug deep to level the match by winning a tiebreak.
Stephens got ahead in the third set but Suarez Navarro gamely battled back to 4-4 only to falter as tiredness crept in.
Sadly there were no spectators left on Court Simonne-Mathieu with the first round match finishing way past the 9pm local time curfew. Had there been a few tears might have been shed.
"It was a long time, really tough moments. Tough months," Suarez Navarro, twice a French Open quarter-finalist, told reporters.
"But every time I had on my mind that I wanted to be here, I wanted to come back.
"Roland Garros is one of my favourite tournaments. Obviously, I need more time. Of course, I felt tired at the end, I knew that if don't close the match in two sets, it will be so difficult. But I'm really proud of myself and really happy to have the chance to play here one last time."
Suarez Navarro, now ranked 118th in the world, returned to practice in December having said in late 2019 that she intended to quit at the end of 2020. Robbed of a proper conclusion to her career last season she now hopes to bow out at the Olympics.
Stephens said it was great having Suarez Navarro back in the mix, especially after what she had been through.
"Just having her around again, she's obviously been a staple on tour for so long," the American said. "We all love her and love having her around.
"I'm just happy that she's back playing and she's healthy. I think that's the most important thing. I thought she played her normal Carla tennis, up on the baseline with that one-handed backhand. She brought it to me today, she played a great match."