Watch Carla Suárez Navarro stroking that marvelous one-handed backhand in Prague a few days in advance of the Billie Jean King Cup by BNP Paribas – and you would never know. See her smiling through a clinic for the ball kids at the Tenerife Ladies Open last week and graciously, patiently answering their many questions – and you would never suspect that a little more than a year ago she was diagnosed with cancer.
Today, Suárez Navarro is not merely a cancer survivor. Rather, she’s thriving, approaching the end of her celebrated tennis career at the age of 33. And very much on her own terms.
“The idea of retirement was not in my head, but it could have been an option in that moment,” she said of learning the Hodgkin’s Lymphoma diagnosis in September of 2021. “You never know if you’ll be able to recover or heal.
“I tried to be strong and play again through the therapy. I noticed that my body reacted well to the efforts. Then, retiring on the tennis courts in 2021 looked possible. After a career like mine, it was a personal challenge I put on myself and fulfilled.”
Suárez Navarro is part of the Spanish team that includes Sara Sorribes Tormo and Nuria Párrizas Díaz. Billie Jean King Cup play begins Monday at the O2 Arena, 13 years after the Spaniard’s Fed Cup debut.
It didn’t seem possible when the doctors broke the news. She hadn’t played in months because of the global pandemic and was contemplating her 2021 season.
“I was a bit sad at the beginning,” Suarez Navarro said, “but I wasn’t surprised. Those are illnesses we see every day. Lots of families are dealing with them and we can be affected as well. I tried to act normal and be calm. The doctors gave me hope and confidence. I followed their advice from the first day and everything went well.
“You try to be positive and strong. It is your body, which is ill and is your body, which reacts well or badly to the treatment. I couldn’t do much other than take it with calm.”
The critical piece was eight grueling sessions of chemotherapy over the course of four months. After checking to make sure her immune system was functioning properly, the three-hour treatment began. Suárez Navarro read books, watched movies, played chess and sometimes even slept.
That was the easy part. Later, after she arrived at home, the nausea, the retching and weariness would set in. And then, 15 days, later the cycle was repeated.
Her swift recovery was unexpected. In retrospect, she says, it was boosted by the people around her, their positive attitudes, and the love they communicated to her. It also might have had something to do with the characteristic resilience that Suárez Navarro has showed on the courts throughout her career. It isn’t surprising her sports heroes are Stefanie Graf, Justine Henin, Lleyton Hewitt and Michael Jordan – famously gritty competitors.
It’s worth noting that her first appearance in a Grand Slam main draw resulted in a run to the quarterfinals at Roland Garros in 2008 – the first of seven career major quarters. She won her first WTA title in 2014, in Oeiras, Portugal, and a second two years later in Doha. She played in nine finals all told, including Miami and Rome in 2015. Her career-high ranking of No.6 was achieved one year later.
The Suárez Navarro comeback began at Roland Garros, perhaps her favorite venue.
“I was lucky enough to play lots of years in the WTA Tour and create some wonderful memories,” she said. “If I had to choose one I would pick Roland Garros 2008, my first time. Winning some matches as a qualifier, beating Amélie Mauresmo on center court and losing the quarterfinals against Jelena Jankovic, World No.2 by then.
“It was the season people began to know Carla Suárez.”
In the first round of the 2021 French Open – her first match in more than 15 months – Suárez Navarro pushed Grand Slam champion Sloane Stephens to the limit, before losing 3-6, 6-7(4), 6-4. Perhaps more memorable was taking eventual Wimbledon champion and World No.1 Ashleigh Barty to three sets in the first round at the All England Club. She upset Ons Jabeur – the WTA’s match-win leader in 2021 – in the first round of the Olympics (her third) and completed her run at the majors with a first-round loss to Danielle Collins at the US Open.
“It was a personal challenge that I put on myself,” Suárez Navarro said. “I wanted to achieve it. I didn’t want that people remember my name for finishing my tennis career due to cancer. I wanted to prove myself that I could achieve it and retire on my own terms, as I had imagined. Playing tennis in the biggest events as I did this year.”
And there’s still one more to go. Spain is a five-time Fed Cup champion and reached the 2008 finals in Madrid, when Suárez Navarro debuted.
After that, it’s open season. She lives in Barcelona and looks forward to spending more time with her parents, José Luis and María Dolores, and her brother José, a chef, who all live in Gran Canaria. In the short run, Suárez Navarro says, she wants to enjoy the beach and disconnect from tennis after a turbulent few years.
Her goals are simple.
“I want to try to have a family and enjoy life with them, do different things after having been doing the same for so long,” she said. “I would love to keep traveling and know Spain in depth. Being involved in tennis is not in my plans, but I’ll never say goodbye to a sport that has given me so much.
“I want to keep exploring the world. I have a humanitarian project which I hope we can start. I want to help people in need.”
Toward that end, she urges interested people to invest in cancer research, including the WTA’s ACEing Cancer campaign.
“It’s pivotal to invest in investigation,” she said. “This illness destroys a lot of lives and many families are struggling. It may be hard to find a cure and beat cancer completely, but we must support medical research to have more effective treatments. If medical research receives financial support they may find some solutions and that would be fantastic news for a lot of people.
“I would say thank you for the efforts and for helping people who really struggle. Without them we probably wouldn’t have an option to heal. They spend their lives, working lots of hours, to make us feel better. To heal our bodies. To people considering donating to research I would say go ahead and keep doing it. Above all, thanks for the gesture of donating to research.”