Carla Suarez Navarro gives inspirational effort in first match since being declared cancer-free

It had been 15 months since Carla Suarez Navarro had played a competitive match, and she had to wait until the final women's match of the first round in Paris. She fell to Sloane Stephens 3-6, 7-6(4), 6-4. EPA/CAROLINE BLUMBERG

The sun had long set and there were no fans remaining in the stands by the end of Carla Suarez Navarro's first-round match against Sloane Stephens on Tuesday night at the French Open. But the smattering of people who remained in the stadium at Court Simonne-Mathieu -- mostly the players' teams and various tournament officials -- rose to applaud following a nearly 2½ hour battle.

Less than six weeks after announcing she is cancer-free -- "¡ESTOY CURADA!" -- in an Instagram post, Suarez Navarro showed sometimes winning has nothing to do with the scoreboard.

It had been 15 months since the 32-year-old had played a competitive match, and she had to wait until the final women's match of the first round in Paris. She showed few signs of nerves or rust -- save for some questions about pandemic protocol for the chair umpire -- and pushed Stephens, the 2017 US Open champion and former French Open finalist, to the brink with her powerful backhand and unrelenting fight.

But even though the 3-6, 7-6(4), 6-4 result wasn't what Suarez Navarro wanted, just the possibility of having the opportunity to play one last time at Roland Garros had gotten her through the most challenging of days during her treatment for Hodgkin lymphoma.

"[It] was a long time, really tough moments, tough months," said Suarez Navarro after the match. "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 I [was] really clear that my first tournament will be this one ...

"I'm really proud, too, of myself and really happy to have [had] the chance to play here one last time."

It was a farewell she had originally planned on making in 2020.

Suarez Navarro, a former world No. 6 and seven-time major quarterfinalist, had announced before the 2020 season that it would be her last. She was ready to walk away from the game, but the coronavirus pandemic halted the season in March, and instead of continuing her globetrotting farewell tour, she was grounded at her home in Spain. She continued training with the plan of playing whichever events remained when the season eventually resumed.

In July, she started to feel under the weather and was unable to practice. She was hospitalized for 10 days and received the Hodgkin lymphoma diagnosis in August.

Having already withdrawn from what she once thought would be her final Grand Slam at the US Open, Suarez Navarro shared the news on the second day of the tournament with a video posted to her social media accounts.

"The doctors told me that it was small, curable lymphoma detected at an early stage," she said from what appeared to be a hospital room. "The treatment required is clear: I must complete a treatment with six months of chemotherapy. That's the only goal I have in mind right now. Everything else becomes automatically secondary."

Her announcement was met with overwhelming support from the tennis community. Her peers and fans filled her timeline with encouraging messages -- something she said constantly uplifted her spirits. She continued to share updates and videos during her treatment and even some clips of herself practicing and in the gym. It was unclear if a comeback would be possible, but she kept a singular focus on her goal.

"Until the first of March of this year, I cannot practice, like, fully," she said. "I start to play with soft balls, I start to play 20 minutes. Then every day I'm [getting] better and I play a little bit more."

Suarez Navarro completed her treatment, which also included radiotherapy, and on April 22, she shared good news on Instagram. With a picture of herself wearing a "Stronger than Cancer" shirt, she wrote she had finished her treatment and "overcame" the disease.

"I'm just one of the millions who are SO happy for this news!" Venus Williams wrote in the comments.

"YES Carla!!!!! You are an inspiration!!!" added Bethanie Mattek-Sands.

Four days later, Suarez Navarro was at the Madrid Open. She wasn't playing in the event but was on the practice courts and hitting with players such as Williams.

She wasn't sure at the time if she would be ready to play at the French Open, the site of her first major quarterfinal run in 2008, and she didn't want to just be a feel-good story -- she wanted to win.

"I'm trying to practice and I'm trying to be good, to be ready to be there," she said in an interview with WTA Insider at the Madrid Open. "But if I cannot be there, for me it's not going to be a big problem because I know that I have to practice. I don't want to be there in any case. I want to be there if I'm really ready to compete with these amazing players."

Suarez Navarro officially announced her return last week.

"I mean, just what she's been through just says everything about her character," Victoria Azarenka said on Sunday. "She's a fighter. She's an amazing person ...

"I'm so proud of her. I'm so happy that she picked up her racket again and she's competing here. I'll be watching her play and I'll be cheering for her, for sure."

The Spaniard drew Stephens, whom she had played three times previously and never beaten.

She walked onto the court as her name was announced and gave a small wave to the crowd, who stayed as long as they could before being kicked out because of the 9 p.m. local curfew. If she smiled, her mask concealed it.

She took an early 4-1 lead, then won the first set.

"I thought she played her normal Carla tennis, up on the baseline with that one-handed backhand," Stephens said. "I thought she, you know, played like she normally does. She brought it to me today."

Stephens raised her level and intensity to match Suarez Navarro in the second set, but Suarez Navarro still had the chance to serve for the match at 5-4, and was two points away from victory, before Stephens forced a tiebreaker and then a decider.

Suarez Navarro said she knew it would be a challenge to win in a third set and admitted to being tired down the stretch, but she continued to fight for every ball. She trailed 4-2 but won the next two games. Stephens finally pulled away thanks to her dominant forehand. The two embraced at the net when it was finally over.

Stephens applauded her as she walked off the court and her peers flocked to social media to remark on her courage and tenacity.

Suarez Navarro felt it was bittersweet.

"I have all the time in my mind that I want to come back," Suarez Navarro said. "I was dreaming every day. Well, I know that the rest of the players will be really good with a lot of match. I don't know what to say -- it was tough, but I was ready to play, to practice, to be here again [at] my best level.

"[Like] I said before, I think I feel proud of what I did, but I'm really sad because I lost. I mean, every time I go on court, I want to win."

She has said she hopes to play Wimbledon and the US Open, as well as the Olympics if she were to qualify for Spain's team, so there is time for her to record more wins.

Having already won what she called "the most important match of my life," Suarez Navarro will finally get the chance to finish her career on her own terms.