Nicole Gibbs was all even with the Wimbledon champion, a set away from a triumphant return to Grand Slam tennis.
She couldn’t pull it off.
Nor could she be too upset.
Beating cancer was already the most important victory Gibbs was going to get this year, no matter what happened against No. 4 seed Simona Halep on Tuesday inside Louis Armstrong Stadium.
“I’m definitely bummed out,” Gibbs said after her 6-3, 3-6, 6-2 loss. “At the same time I think I do have a new perspective, that it’s not life and death out there. It’s a privilege to be on a court like that against a player like that. I was just really trying to soak up the moment.”
The 26-year-old American was diagnosed with a form of oral cancer after a visit to a new dentist in the spring. A growth in her mouth was noticed, though there wasn’t initially a high level of concern because it wasn’t new and had been growing slowly.
Then Gibbs got other news.
“It was on a phone call. I had been told not to really worry about the biopsy,” she recalled. “They thought it was going to be benign.
“So I wasn’t anticipating — I was nervous about it, but I wasn’t anticipating that it would be cancerous. So when I got the call, you know, the doctor on the phone was kind of like, ‘Do you want to come in and talk about this?’ I was like, ‘No, tell me now.’
She had surgery in May to remove the tumor, was found to be cancer-free and was able to return to tennis in time to prepare for U.S. Open qualifying. She lost in the final round last week, but got into the main draw as a lucky loser when another player withdrew.
But the time away from training, and the effects the recovery from surgery had on her diet, likely played a part in Halep’s relatively easy third-set victory in just a half-hour.
“I feel a little bit maybe still under fighting weight for my tennis,” Gibbs said. “That’s definitely something I’m going to look into.
“I think I held up pretty well physically, but could have held up a little bit better in the third set. I think I lost some depth on my shots.”
“I felt she got a little bit tired in the end,” Halep said.
“It’s tough when you don’t compete. I didn’t compete for two weeks. I felt tough when I was coming back, so I understand. She made the great effort today on court.”
Gibbs remains without a victory on tour this season and has never been beyond the third round of a Grand Slam. But she’s gained confidence for the rest of the season and her career just by getting to Tuesday’s match.
“I think I’ve always known that I’m a fighter,” Gibbs said. “But to be through the journey I’ve been through over the past few months, to land myself on Armstrong playing against one of the best in the game, and going the distance, I think that really just reinforces it for me.”
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