Getting To Know... Alisa Kleybanova
MELBOURNE, Australia -
If Russia's embarrassment of tennis riches seems to grow deeper by the season, it's because players like Alisa Kleybanova
keep rising through the ranks. Just ask Ana Ivanovic, who lost an epic match to the 19-year-old in the third round at Melbourne Park.
Kleybanova enjoyed considerable success as a junior, particularly in doubles. At the age of 13 she won at Wimbledon in 2003 with India's Sania Mirza, and again four years later with fellow Russian Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova
; she also took the US Open junior doubles in 2005 with Nikola Frankova of the Czech Republic.
And now she's making headlines at Tour level. The tall, powerful Russian attracted notice at Wimbledon last year when she beat 10th seed Daniela Hantuchova on her way to the fourth round; she also made the quarters at both Antwerp and Eastbourne as a qualifier, as well as at Fès, which all helped lift her ranking more than 100 places in 2008. Heading into this fortnight's Australian Open, the Moscow native was placed at a career high of No.31 - good enough to be seeded at a Grand Slam for the first time, in just her second main draw appearance at the event.
We caught up with Kleybanova before her giant-killing run in Melbourne, on the sidelines of the Medibank International
How did you get into tennis?
AK: I was four and a half and I got into tennis with my parents. They'd play for fun on weekends with their friends and as a little kid I was hanging around and playing with the balls. But from the beginning it wasn't like they wanted me to be a professional; it was just one of the activities that I did, along with swimming and athletics
. My parents wanted to give me lots of options so I could choose what I wanted to do. After a few years I started to play a few junior tournaments and I really liked it, and by the time I was 10 or 11 years old I decided I would really like to pursue tennis.
What do your parents do? It sounds like they wanted you to have a well-rounded upbringing.
AK: My parents are not from professional sports
. My dad was into mathematics and physics and my mum was a biologist. I'm an only child and they didn't necessarily want me to go into a sport, but because I really liked it and physically I was strong, tennis was a good choice for me.
Did you have a tennis idol, growing up?
AK: I didn't really look on one player like that because there were a lot of good players - Graf, Hingis, Seles - and it would be hard to say who I liked the most. That said, I really liked the way Kim Clijsters played. I was always just looking forward to watching any of them play on television, to see what I could pick up from them.
What do you consider the strengths as a player?
AK: I would say my serve, and my baseline game.
What's the one thing you'd most like to improve about your game?
AK: I have to improve my overall ability and mobility on the court because tennis
isn't just about power; you have to do everything very well. You have to move well, you have to be consistent, you have to be mentally strong. It's not enough to make a big serve and then hit a winner. However, you also have to keep working on your strengths as well, you cannot stand still.
You began last year at around No.150 in the rankings and finished the season at No.33. What are your goals for this year?
AK: My goal is to get as close to the Top 10 as I can, so the next big step is Top 20. But I played a lot of matches and had some good wins to rise like that, so this year I have to defend all the points and it's not going to be easy to go up so quickly. I really hope to play a smart calendar to stay physically fit and healthy - that's the most important thing.
If you could swap shots with another player, what would you take and what would you give away?
AK: I would say that if Venus and Serena Williams
are in form then pretty much no-one can beat them. I've played a lot of good players but I played Venus at Wimbledon and I could see that it was really different to the others. I hit the ball very hard but maybe I'd take some of her power.
Do you have a favorite playing surface?
AK: I like all of them really; for me it's just a question of time getting accustomed to the changes. If I have enough time to practice and prepare, I feel good on all types of courts. That said I did really well on grasscourts last year, so perhaps I could say that grass is a little bit more special for me. But we don't get to play many tournaments on grass, so I think it's special for everyone and we really look forward to those few weeks. For this reason, out of the four Grand Slams, Wimbledon really stands out.
Any other favorite tournaments?
AK: The Australian Open, definitely. Everything is nicely organized. Sometimes the weather is very hot but I really like the courts and the surface. But also through the year there are lots of tournaments I enjoy very much; the Kremlin Cup in Moscow is one, and I played Berlin last year and that was very nice. Every tournament offers something different.
It must be nice to have reached a point where you now gain direct entry into some of these more exclusive events?
AK: Definitely. Last year I had to play a lot of qualifying rounds, which are tough for all the players because you have to arrive early to prepare and you really spend a lot of energy just getting to the main draw because everyone is determined to win. So, on the one hand it's a little bit easier because I now go straight into the main draw, but the benefit of playing qualifying is you have a chance to play yourself into the tournament. Now I go right up against the best players in the world, which means I have to be ready to play at 100% from the very first match. But I'm pretty sure I'll get used to it!
You mentioned the Kremlin Cup; obviously Russia is a formidable tennis country. Is playing Fed Cup something you aspire to?
AK: I like team things and playing for my country, I’m really proud of it, so I do look forward to that. If they asked me to play Fed Cup I would be really happy to join the team. Also in four years I really hope to get to the Olympics
, so my goal is to improve my ranking year by year and get in the team and really participate in something big. For Russians the Olympics are really big, and maybe for me even bigger than the Grand Slams. It's only once every four years and if you're a sportsperson you really feel you need to be there. I practice at the same club as Elena Dementieva and I think we share a similar attitude.
What's your coaching situation at the moment?
AK: My coach is Iulian Vespan. He's Romanian. We met when I went to Italy to a club called The Art of Tennis and I've been working with him for around three years. He's a good guy, we have a good relationship and I'm really looking forward to keep working with him.
When I was younger I used to spend a month or two each year training in the States and I got to practice with some great players at the Bollettieri Academy and that really helped me. But Iulian's the one who really helped me make the hard step from the juniors to the pros. When I was 14, 15, 16 years old it was a little bit tough because I had arrived on the scene as one of the best juniors when I was 13 and then I had some difficulties taking the next steps. He really supported me and I'm very happy to have him as my coach.
How do you like to spend any spare time when you are traveling?
AK: I like to do things on my computer and I always carry books with me - something light but interesting. I like to do things that take me away from tennis and training for a while, even just talking with friends. Anything to relax. As a junior I was traveling with my mum a lot and we would try to go sightseeing in all the cities. I'm glad we did that but now there is so much to think about and organize, I like to lie low during tournaments. But of course it depends on the city! I would say that some players really like traveling but for me, of course it's nice to change places - you cannot imagine playing the whole year at the same club, you'd go crazy! But in itself I'm not so keen on flying and changing hotels. That's the hard part for me.
What do you like most about your life?
AK: I'm doing something I do well, and I enjoy it. This is really important, because a lot of people don't have that opportunity. As tennis players everybody comes to see us play and enjoy what we do. For us it's work but for them it's relaxation. We're privileged to get such attention and the support.