Carla Suárez Navarro has been through hell in the last 12 months.
Forget COVID-19, the 32-year-old was diagnosed with Hodgkin lymphoma shortly before last year’s US Open, just months after announcing she’d retire from the game at the end of the year.
The Spaniard underwent eight rounds of chemotherapy, announcing in April that she was cancer-free.
Determined to go out on her terms, she pushed back her retirement until the end of 2021.
Roland Garros marked her return to the tour, where she served for the match at 5-4 in the second set, before going down to Sloane Stephens in three sets in the opening round. She said after that match that the thought of playing one last time in Paris kept her going through her cancer battle.
The women’s defending champion traditionally opens play on Wimbledon’s centre court on day two, but in the absence of Simona Halep, that honour has fallen to Suárez Navarro and her opponent, world No.1 Ash Barty.
“It’s incredible to have Carla back,” said Barty.
“When she came back on tour, it was just a sense of excitement from everyone. To know that she’s got this tremendous resilience of character and strength and longevity. She’s been on the tour for a long time at the very top of the game. I think for me to be able to experience opening Centre Court with her is going to be really cool.”
Suárez Navarro is a former world No.6, who has made the fourth round at Wimbledon on three previous occasions, including 2019, when she beat Sam Stosur in the opening round, before falling to eventual runner-up Serena Williams.
“She’s been through an awful lot. This is a challenging match for Ash to get through, given her own injury issues,” Australian tennis legend Todd Woodbridge told Wide World of Sports.
“Carla Suárez Navarro has won matches on centre court before, she’s no stranger to the occasion, in fact she’s quite comfortable there, she beat Sam Stosur on that court during the Olympics.
“I really think that Ash is going to have to come out and play very well, very quickly.”
Barty has faced her own health issues in the last month, although of course nothing as serious as that confronted by Suárez Navarro.
The Australian was forced out of Roland Garros with a hip injury, and hasn’t played since leaving Paris.
“It’s not so much about form for Ash, it’s about physicality and recovery,” Woodbridge said.
“I’ll be looking to see how her serve is, that will be the big test for me to see how she’s feeling.
“I’m looking not just at the pace, but also the accuracy.”
In complete contrast to the men’s game, where Novak Djokovic is at short odds to win a 20th grand slam title, drawing level with Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, the women’s side of the draw is wide open.
There’s currently 27 active players who have reached a grand slam final, headed by Serena Williams who’s still looking for her record-equalling 24th grand slam title.
“I could give you a couple of names, but this is the most wide-open women’s tournament that I’ve ever seen,” Woodbridge explained.
“Yes, Serena can win, but I think she’s fallen back into the pack a bit, as opposed to being one of the stand-out candidates.
“Ash is the number one seed, but I think this tournament is almost impossible to pick.”
Long regarded as having the ideal game for grass, Barty is yet to progress beyond the fourth round at Wimbledon.
Former Australian Davis Cup player Sam Groth says Barty’s lack of grass court success is puzzling.
“I feel like the grass should really suit her, and the fact she does so well on clay, it’s almost a mystery that she hasn’t done that yet on the faster grass courts,” he told Wide World of Sports.
“The first few days are interesting, the match courts are a lot quicker than the practice courts, they haven’t had a lot of play on them, they’re still a lot greener, centre court is never used outside the matches.
“It holds a little bit more moisture in the leaf of the grass, so you’re never quite sure about your footing, there’s plenty to adjust to.”
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