With her words, Ashleigh Barty honoured her opponent, Carla Suárez Navarro, who was playing in her 11th and final Wimbledon after cancer treatment last year. With her outfit, she paid homage to the kit worn by Evonne Goolagong Crawley, 50 years on from the Australian’s first Wimbledon title. And with every spellbinding winner in the final set, the world No 1 suggested she had recovered from a hip injury that forced her to pull out of the French Open – and could be primed for a long run in the next fortnight.
True, there was a blip in the second set, which Barty lost on a tie-break after serving for the match at 5-4. But given the quality of her opponent, and the pressure of opening her tournament on Centre Court, the Australian was rightly pleased to have come through 6-1, 6-7 (1), 6-1.
Mostly, though, she wanted to pay tribute to Suárez Navarro, a former world No 6 who underwent eight sessions of chemotherapy after being diagnosed with Hodgkin lymphoma last year. “She’s a hell of a competitor, a hell of a fighter,” Barty said. “It was a privilege to be able to share that moment, share that court with her. I hadn’t had the opportunity to play Carla. It was really special to be able to experience what she can bring from the other side of the court.
“I think all credit goes to her for her resilience and her nature as a competitor, to be able to come back from the adversity that she has, and to be able to have that moment with her was nothing shy of remarkable.”
After the match, when the Wimbledon crowd gave the Spaniard a standing ovation, Barty joined in with the applause. “I just said to her: ‘It was a pleasure to share the court with you.’ She’s an exceptional person, a great fighter, a great competitor, and very well loved and respected in the locker room. She’s going to be sorely missed.”
Barty has underachieved at Wimbledon, never reaching beyond the fourth round in four previous attempts. She knows, too, that Serena Williams and Coco Gauff lurk in her half of the draw. But her play in the final set, hitting 11 winners and just two unforced errors, has encouraged her. “Overall I’m happy to get a start here at Wimbledon and play that really solid match. It was a great battle.”
Suárez Navarro, who was playing at Wimbledon on a special ranking of 68 – where she stood when she began her cancer treatment last year – said she had savoured the experience despite her defeat. “I think I played a really good game,” she said. “I was enjoying the match. I’m trying to do my best. I know what I have to do to win the match, but my body is not the same as it was two years ago. When I spend time on court, I feel tired.”
Not surprisingly, Suárez Navarro’s mother, Maria, had a tear in her eye as her daughter left the court. “This is the second or third time that she came to Wimbledon,” she told reporters. “But she is always the same. She films everything. She takes photos for everything, to everyone. She was by my side all this time, all these months.”
In her career Suárez Navarro has reached seven grand slam singles quarter-finals, plus a quarter-final and a semi-final in the doubles. Although she has never gone beyond the fourth round at Wimbledon she said the place had always held a special place in her heart. “This is one of the most beautiful tournaments of the year. Always when I come back, I’m really happy to be here. Everything is so beautiful.”
There was a sense, too, of her treatment having given her a wider perspective. “I really enjoy everything I pass through. I’m going to play my last tournament in the US Open. Then I finish my career. But I think now, today, I am the happiest player in the tournament, for sure.”