It is not a fresh or original sports image, but it so often tells the story of how athletes get better and, through their improvements, inspire fans to become better in how they live their lives or approach difficult situations: “If you get knocked down, get back up.”
Like the boxer who takes a roundhouse punch and is about to lose a fight, athletes in any sport have to roll with the tides of adversity, ride them out, stay on the life raft, and paddle their way to safety amid the lashing rains and nasty winds of misfortune.
When Carla Suarez Navarro took the tumble shown above in the cover image for this story, she was in the process of losing a 5-3 second-set lead, trailing one set to love.
She could have allowed that event to keep her down.
Instead, CSN got back up… and then overcame another hurdle on a very special afternoon in rain-soaked Madrid.
Suarez Navarro knew the feeling all too well. She had been there many times before.
The Spaniard served for the match in Tuesday’s round-of-32 tussle with fourth-seeded Elina Svitolina at the Madrid Open. She reached 40-love and could taste the closeness of victory inside the stadium named for another pint-sized Spanish WTA player, Arantxa Sanchez-Vicario.
Then, however, the weight of the occasion shifted against Suarez Navarro, as it often has in third sets of matches against upper-tier players in significant tournaments. Svitolina won the next four points to get a break-point opportunity. Suarez Navarro teetered on the edge of a very familiar precipice — not the 40-0 triple-match-point part, but the #PlayingWithALead stage of a third set against an accomplished player.
In these moments, players who have spent a career wrestling with their demons face two opponents, not just one. The woman on the other side of the net is an obstacle, but the voice inside the head is the other one. Athletes who labor under the burden of “almost, but not quite” have to find the clarity needed to play the next point with steady, matter-of-fact confidence, briefly forgetting the past and trusting their bodies to execute the shots they have hit so well for a decade… and have hit well enough within the course of one match to gain triple match point.
CSN has often failed to attain that inner calm and clarity, but this day was different. The 29-year-old veteran — playing in front of a roaring and supportive home crowd — had used adrenaline to her benefit in the course of this clash with Svitolina. She called upon it for one more magnificent minute, fending off the break point and closing out the win moments later. If you doubted CSN at 4-4 in the third set and then on break point at *5-3, you were not alone, and you were doing something quite rational.
On this day, Suarez Navarro overcame not only the doubts beyond her own mind, but more centrally, the doubts which lay inside it. Mere days after Joao Sousa lifted an ATP title in his native Portugal and Petra Kvitova captured a powerfully meaningful title in her native Czech Republic, Suarez Navarro did what French players at Roland Garros hope to do in a month: Live up to the hopes of fans who dearly want to see a fellow citizen succeed.
History — the great book of life — includes everything, but it devotes much more ink and time to the greatest winners and the foremost villains. Icons inspire books, very good people inspire newspaper columns. Within the great book of tennis history, Carla Suarez Navarro won’t gain more than a few sentences unless she breaks through at a higher level. Yet, what history can’t quite capture — for people who will read about 2018-era tennis in the year 2040 or 2060 — is how the comparatively modest performers comported themselves on tour. This is where CSN earns profound respect.
Another player who lost on Tuesday in Madrid, Fabio Fognini, has spent a long career spewing venom at chair umpires and fading away when the going gets tough. Though possessing top-tier talent of a monarch who could have ruled the tennis world for small periods of time if he wanted to, his results have been worthy of a high school dropout who spends his adult years flipping hamburgers at McDonald’s… and pissing off his coworkers all the while. Fognini fits the portrait of the person who fails and elicits very little sympathy for his failures. He has struggled to live up to his talent, which is painful enough, but what’s worse is that his lack of respect for tennis and many of the people within the sport make it hard to appreciate his gifts and the good moments which come from them.
Suarez Navarro is not as talented in her sphere of activity as Fognini is in his, but like Fabio, she has squandered chances to reach a higher tier of achievement at various points in her career. Both players have never made a major semifinal, which seems hard to believe, given the quality of their respective backhands, both among the best in the world.
Yet, with CSN, there is — and has always been — complete respect for tennis, and accordingly, deep admiration from fans for her in good times and bad. Suarez Navarro has not allowed losing to be an excuse for bad behavior… because there has been no bad behavior to begin with. Whereas Fognini — and a few others like him — don’t even try to wrestle with their demons, easily succumbing to the worst tendencies without resistance, Suarez Navarro has quietly and patiently tried to figure out the inner game of tennis. This year, she has made progress — not only by reaching the round of 16 in Madrid, but by making the quarterfinals of the Australian Open and Indian Wells.
Speaking of Indian Wells, whom did CSN beat in the third round of that event this year? Svitolina, who is finding CSN to be a genuine nemesis in 2018.
Someone who can beat Elina Svitolina at separate Premier Mandatory tournaments within a two-month span has to be fairly good at hitting a tennis ball. Suarez Navarro’s oil painting of a backhand has carried her to the quarterfinals of a number of important tournaments, with a Doha title and finals in Miami and Rome. If you’re good enough to do what CSN has done in tennis, one would think that at least once, the chips would fall favorably at a major and allow for the breakthrough major semifinal the Spaniard has been trying to chase down. Yet, that dream scenario has never unfolded.
Many players would be defeated by such a reality, but Carla Suarez Navarro keeps carrying her lunch pail to work, continuing to stand in the arena and absorb the kind of pressure which accompanies the struggle of the good athlete in search of true greatness.
One cannot call Carla Suarez Navarro a great tennis player, because if the likes of her are great, that leaves no room for greatness among the players who are truly special, such as Serena Williams. Yet, while joined by dozens of players with long, lucrative and productive careers which can’t quite be viewed as “great,” one can still admire CSN for pursuing that greatness with every fiber of her being.
That pursuit — in its earnestness and totality — was never more apparent than on Tuesday in Madrid, where a woman literally dusted herself off after falling, got back up, and never backed down. She authored a moment which won’t be iconic as a reflection of tennis’s greatest champions, but that same moment owns profound symbolic power to anyone who looks to the theater of sports for inspiration amid life’s challenges and troubles.
Carla Suarez Navarro is happy because she’s in the round of 16 in Madrid and gets to play another match in front of her home-nation fans. For many people who watched her defeat Svitolina on Tuesday, Suarez Navarro provided a gift bigger than the increased paycheck amount she just secured: a vibrant and vivid example of what it looks like when a human being overcomes adversity.