Playing her first match since successfully completing Hodgkin’s lymphoma treatment earlier this year, Carla Suárez Navarro put up a valiant effort Tuesday before falling to Sloane Stephens 3-6, 7-6(4), 6-4 in the opening round of the French Open.
"Was a long time, really tough moments, tough months," Suárez Navarro said in her press conference following her loss to Stephens. "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 [it was] really clear that my first tournament will be this one."
The 2017 US Open champion Stephens, who had won all three of their previous meetings in straight sets, prevailed in 2 hours and 24 minutes in a back-and-forth battle between former Top 10 players.
"When I saw [Carla] in Rome for the first time, I think a lot of people were super excited to see her and just have her back around," Stephens said during her post-match press conference. "Obviously she's been through a lot and we're all happy that she's better and healthy and being able to play again, which I think obviously is the most important thing.
"We all love her and love having her around."
A two-time Roland Garros quarterfinalist, Suárez Navarro, who said she plans to finish her career later this season, pushed Stephens, serving for the match at 5-4 in the second set before the American rallied and pulled away in the final two games. Both players had six breaks of service.
"She's a great player, so she obviously is going to come out and play some really good tennis," Stephens said. "I thought she played her normal Carla tennis, up on the baseline with that one-handed backhand. I thought she played like she normally does. She brought it to me today, and I thought she played a great match."
In two meetings on hardcourt and one on grass, Suárez Navarro had failed to win a set against Stephens, but the Spaniard’s one-handed backhand was a well-timed as she broke Stephens twice to open up a 5-3 lead in the first set. After a love hold at 5-3, Suárez Navarro notched a milestone set and was close to a victorious comeback.
Stephens, the 2018 Roland Garros runner-up, fought back in the second set, taking a 4-2 lead, but Suárez Navarro chipped away at that advantage and broke Stephens twice in a row to take a 5-4 lead and serve for the match. Suárez Navarro was two points away from victory at 30-30 in that game, but Stephens grabbed a break point, and converted her chance with a bold volley to extend the match.
In a crucial second-set tiebreak, powerful hitting by Suárez Navarro put her ahead 3-1, but steely play by Stephens helped her take six of the next seven points.
In the third, Suárez Navarro once again turned a 2-4 deficit into parity at 4-4, but Stephens stepped up in that game, dominating with her forehand and hitting behind the Spaniard to regain the break advantage. Serving for the match at 5-4, Stephens won three straight points with her surging forehand, then converted her second match point with an ace to overcome her inspired and inspiring opponent.
"I tried to prepare myself for my best tennis that I can," Suárez Navarro said. "Obviously I need more time, but I think I had a good time this week practicing, I have good level in my match. Of course I feel tired at the end. I know that if I don't close the match in two sets, it will be so difficult for me. But I'm really proud, too, of myself and really happy to have the chance to play here one last time."
Earlier on Tuesday, No.24 seed Coco Gauff earned a gritty victory in her first-round match at Roland Garros, beating Serbian qualifier Aleksandra Krunic 7-6(11), 6-4.
The American teenager came into Paris with following a superb clay-court season, winning her second career WTA singles title (as well as the doubles title) in Parma and making the semifinals in Rome. However, the 17-year-old needed to muster up all of that momentum to quash the challenge from Krunic.
The former Top 50 Krunic held four set points in the opening set before Gauff was able to work her way out of that jam. Gauff then had to stave off a second-set comeback by World No.213 Krunic to collect the victory after two hours and seven minutes.
"She played really well, great tennis," Gauff said after the match. "I didn't play my best today, but I'm happy that I was able to fight through it. The first set, there were many moments I could have gave up, but I didn't. I'm happy with the result today. "
Gauff pulled through by getting 71 percent of her first serves into play, and won 72 percent of the points when she did. Krunic's first-serve percentage lingered at just 45 percent and she won 63 percent of those points, as Gauff continually was on attack while returning.
Krunic’s first two service games averaged nearly 10 minutes in length, but she got through them, fending off a combined seven break points. The qualifier was rewarded when she became the first to break serve, moving ahead 3-2 by forcing an error with a rally backhand. But in the next game, it was the Gauff backhand that dominated, as she used that wing to level the set at 3-3.
Krunic saved three more break points to hold for 4-3, and she stayed with the seed from there, pushing Gauff into a tiebreak. In the breaker, Gauff used fabulous groundstrokes to build a 5-1 lead, but a series of forehand winners by Krunic helped the Serbian pull back into the battle, reeling off five straight points to lead 6-5 and reach set point.
Gauff saved that set point, and two more as well, as the pair reached 8-8. A wide Krunic error gave Gauff her first set point at 9-8, but the Serbian erased that, then slammed an ace to earn her fourth set point at 10-9.
Gauff, though, found another well-timed backhand to reach 10-10, and the American grasped two more set points, with the third coming after she ended a dizzying rally with a winning volley. The third time was the charm for Gauff, as a Krunic miscue sailed long to cede the hard-fought set to the teenager. The first set took 85 grueling minutes of play.
After that tussle, Krunic dropped the first four games of the second set, but the Serbian continued to battle. Gauff saw her lead dwindle from 4-0 to 4-3, but the American held firm in two tough service games at the end of the set to close out the win.
Next up for Gauff will be a second-round clash with Wang Qiang of China, who outlasted Hsieh Su-wei 2-6, 6-4, 7-5 on Tuesday. Gauff will go into that match with recent experience in her favor -- Wang was the player she beat in the Parma final two weeks ago.
Two top Czechs also picked up challenging opening-round wins late on Tuesday. First, No.9 seed Karolina Pliskova defeated one of the top-ranked unseeded players in the field, edging Donna Vekic 7-5, 6-4.
Pliskova came into their meeting with a 3-1 head-to-head lead, although the pair had never faced off on clay. Nevertheless, Pliskova continued to hold the upper hand in their rivalry as she picked up the 96-minute win.
Very little separated the pair in either set, but it was former World No.1 Pliskova who stepped up when it mattered most, breaking Vekic in the penultimate game of both sets before confidently following up with easy holds.
Vekic still put up a valiant showing against a Top 10 player, in her first match since undergoing surgery on her right knee following the Australian Open.
Pliskova's eight aces helped her win 85 percent of her first-service points, as the 2017 Roland Garros semifinalist knocked off the World No.35 from Croatia. Up next for Pliskova: Sloane Stephens.
Pliskova's compatriot, No.18 seed Karolina Muchova, joined her in the second round, but Muchova had to execute a comeback against former Top 10 player Andrea Petkovic of Germany before triumphing 1-6, 6-3, 6-4.
Muchova needed all of her 41 winners to recover from being dispatched in the first set and fight back for the two-hour and 10-minute win.
Seeking her first-ever trip to the third round of Roland Garros, Muchova will next play American qualifier Varvara Lepchenko, who stormed past Zhang Shuai of China, 6-3, 6-3.