Meet The Clandestine French Open Contender With A Striking Shot

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Carla Suarez Navarro has a backhand that sparks memories of four-time French Open champion Justine Henin.

There was a time when there was a different way to play on clay. Back before Maria Sharapova learned how to slide and extend points, before Serena Williams could dominate opponents on it the way she does on other surfaces. It was about spins and artistry and long swings, as Justine Henin reigned supreme and ball musclers like Svetlana Kuznetsova, Francesca Schiavone and Sara Errani contended for the title.

The surface is still the same, but the game that now succeeds on it has changed. Hard hitters have become prevalent, reflecting a top 10 that consists of power baseliners interspersed with stealthy counterpunchers. Except for one. Carla Suarez Navarro, whose one-handed backhand and topspin strokes are now carrying on the classic clay-court tradition.

The 5-foot-4 Spanish player from the Canary Islands is an exotic species on the WTA Tour these days, one of the very few with a one-hander. She says the shot was there right from the beginning.

"When I start to play I was 9 years old or 10 years, I start to play with my one-hand backhand," she said. "At the beginning, it was difficult because I'm not so tall and you don't have the power. But I play all the time like this, just practice every day, every day hard, until now."

Like many of the smaller players with big games, Suarez Navarro took inspiration from Henin growing up. "I was watching Justine Henin when she was playing," the 26-year-old Suarez Navarro said. "I also play more or less like Justine. But she has a really beautiful backhand."

As acclaimed as her own stroke has become, Suarez Navarro sometimes questions whether she should have chosen the more straightforward, two-handed version, though she also acknowledges that hers provides more variety. "It's different -- if you play with two-handed backhand, you have more power," she said. "Sometimes it's better, if you have two hands and not only one. But yeah, maybe, if you want to slice, if you play with one, it's better."

And one thing the one-hander is definitely better for: getting attention and praise. "Yeah, yeah," she responds with a little laugh when asked if eating up compliments of her stroke is part of her regular diet.

But that's not the only reason Suarez Navarro is getting attention this season. She is having a career year, climbing to a career-high No. 8 ranking after reaching the finals in Rome and Miami to top off a consistent season that has seen her secure at least a quarterfinal berth at each of her tournaments except the Australian Open.

While much of her climb is due to better play on hard courts, clay is still her most effective surface, giving her time to set up her shots and blunting the pace of more powerful opponents. Despite a wrist injury that affected her preparation going in, she reached the quarterfinals of Stuttgart and Madrid and then had the runner-up finish to Maria Sharapova in Rome. In the season-to-date standings, Suarez Navarro is in fourth position, reflecting her emergence as a top player.

She will be one of the favorites for the title at the French Open, her favorite tournament and the site of her breakthrough in 2008, when she qualified and got all the way to the quarterfinals in her first attempt. She opens her 2015 bid against the tricky Monica Niculescu.

Asked if she can win the tournament, Suarez Navarro laughs again. "It's difficult because all the top players are going there and, you know, it's tough, it's difficult. But I try, I try."

Her French Open prospects -- not to mention her season -- would be receiving a lot more attention if not for world No. 1 Serena Williams, who defeated Suarez Navarro at Miami and Madrid and leads 6-0 in their head-to-head meetings.

Though her small size and ineffectual serving make her vulnerable to big hitters, the Spanish baseliner has had success against other powerful players like Sharapova, whom she pushed to three sets in Rome, and Venus Williams, whom she beat in Miami. Against Serena, however, she can hardly begin points.

"When I play with Serena, for me it's most difficult because she's serving really good, I cannot play my game from the first ball that I hit," Suarez Navarro said. "I don't have time to hit the second ball. I play also with Venus, Sharapova, they have more or less the same style but Serena for me is the No. 1 and the most difficult player I play."

She insists, however, that she does not see 19-time Grand Slam winner Williams as unbeatable. And especially in Paris, there is no other player she could not challenge.

Together with the up-and-coming Garbiñe Muguruza -- who knocked Serena Williams out of the French in the second round a year ago -- Suarez Navarro has been leading a rebound in Spanish women's tennis. The two are striking contrasts in both their builds and games, but the older player has teamed with the tall, powerful 21-year-old to form a successful doubles partnership as well. "Garbine is also playing really good, she's top 20, she's young," Suarez Navarro said.

While the island-born Suarez Navarro is now based in Barcelona, she retains the sunny, languid personality befitting her birthplace.

"I just want to relax. I like also reading books, listening to music, go to the cinema with friends. The most important for me when I am at home is just relax," she said.

She also likes to take regular trips back home. "My parents, my friends are living there. So sometimes it's difficult, but I try to go back home when I can."

But for the next little while she would rather be in Paris, preferably for an extended stay.

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