Cancer survivor Kleybanova shows champion's mettle in latest comeback
For all that former World No.20 Alisa Kleybanova has been through - battling past Hodgkin's Lymphoma and a series of knee and foot injuries - the 28-year-old Russian is more determined than ever to play her best tennis after nearly three years away from the tour.
September 22, 2017
The mind of a champion differs greatly from those of most fans who fill a stadiumís stands. Its strength and singular focus to overcome inconceivable adversity has been on display for much of the 2017 season, starting Down Under at the Australian Open, when Mirjana Lucic-Baroni defied the odds to enjoy her biggest run in nearly two decades, falling to a then-pregnant Serena Williams who went on to win a record-breaking 23rd Grand Slam title.
Some call them fairytales. Former World No.20 Alisa Kleybanova feels itís far simpler.
ďEvery time Iíve had a setback, I would think how I still wanted to play tennis, how I still had it in me, and had so much left to give out there on the court,Ē the 28-year-old Russian said in August, after qualifying for her second tournament in almost two years in Nonthaburi, Thailand. ďI felt like I couldnít close the book until I was ready.Ē
"I've had so much time to think about my preparation and mental conditioning that it only makes me a stronger player, physically and mentally. If Iím able to keep my body healthy, I have no doubt that Iíll be able to enjoy a few more years on the tour and get my ranking back up."
Other examples of that irrepressible attitude highlight the yearís biggest tournaments - from 20-year-old Jelena Ostapenkoís French Open triumph to 37-year-old Venus Williams' rise back into the worldís Top 5 - and the smallest, like the 25K ITF Pro Circuit final in Lubbock, Texas between Kleybanova and fellow Hodgkinís Lymphoma survivor Victoria Duval. The pair also teamed up to win the doubles title.
Ever in competition mode, the big-hitting former junior prodigy witnessed few of those major moments unfold from afar, instead spending the time on court at the Pro World Tennis Academy in Delray Beach, where she resumed training in June.
ďItís never been easy for me to be away, especially for the reasons Iíve had to be away. Thereíve been a lot of weird circumstances to the point that I just wanted to be in tennis while I was in it.
ďTennis is not going to go anywhere while Iím away. People are still playing tournaments, and because I didnít know when my comeback was happening, I didnít feel like I could keep up with it. It was too stressful for me.Ē
Kleybanova has dealt with plenty of stress in a once-promising career, one that featured wins over former WTA World No.1s Venus Williams, Kim Clijsters, and Ana Ivanovic - the latter in a classic 2009 Australian Open encounter. Proudly posting a 6-0, 6-0 victory over cancer on her website back in 2012, she returned her to the Top 100 two years later, beating the likes of Dominika Cibulkova and Petra Kvitova along the way.
Still in remission, itís been physical issues that have sidelined her in the three years since.
"In Thailand, they were really nice to give me a wildcard into the $25K in Hua Hin. That was a perfect start for me because I wouldn't be able to get into most of the other tournaments. Itís like a puzzle where I had to put a couple of pieces in, and then everything else fell into place."
ďI had a knee problem, and the surgery I had last year didnít work, so I had to have another one last summer. It was a long road with rehab, and then I had a little bit of a foot problem earlier this year. My comeback got postponed, but I finally feel like Iíve gotten over all my issues. Iím really trying to focus on my fitness and tennis, without looking back too much on past injuries.Ē
The waiting game nonetheless had its effect on Kleybanova, whose initially prescribed two weeks to heal turned into 18 months. Her voice darkens with irritation as she recalls numerous false starts.
ďI would keep having to go to a different doctor because obviously whatever I was doing wasnít working. Things werenít diagnosed or treated properly the first time, and I had so many setbacks because I wasnít doing things the right way.
ďWhen you think itís two months of rehab and going to the gym every day, youíre still a tennis player thinking about coming back. It was a very exhausting and tough time because I always felt a step away from the court, but that step turned into miles.Ē
Making the journey longer is the prospect of coming back without a protected ranking, having been off the tour longer than the maximum two years during which one is made available. Itís another setback, but one Kleybanova sees as the ultimate test of her abilities: does she have what it takes to start from scratch?
ďThis time, thereís nothing I can rely on, just my own skills, and making sure I schedule correctly to avoid injury. That way, I can focus on the quality of my performance, rather than play tons of matches and destroy my body.
ďI just want to play and enjoy the process as much as possible because, if Iím able to do that, itíll only be a matter of time for me to get my ranking up so I can get into bigger tournaments.Ē
"A lot of people said, ĎMaybe itís time to do something else in your life.í But I always had this feeling in my heart where I never got to give my all in tennis. Every time something went wrong, I never thought my mind or body couldnít take it anymore. I always thought I could fix it, go back out there, and do better than before. As long as I still have that answer for myself, it doesnít matter what anyone thinks."
The success has been immediate for the finally fit Kleybanova, who won 12 of her first 14 matches at several ITF tournaments in Thailand, where she worked with friends of longtime coach Julian Vespan. For all sheís been through, the belief still burns throughout the phone interview held at the Rogers Cup in Toronto, where she once made the semifinals and pushed Maria Sharapova to three sets.
ďYou donít forget how to hit a forehand or backhand. Of course, precision and tactics arenít there right away, but itís also a matter of time. I donít have any doubts about my game; the body was more necessary to make it happen.Ē
Though fans have yet to see Kleybanova back on a big stadium, she still feels their support, grateful for their good vibes as she aims to apply her championís mind to the tennis court one more time.
"People have asked how I was doing for the last few years. I couldnít say too much because not even I knew! Iím really grateful that I still have fans around the world who havenít lost faith in me. They deserve to hear from me, not just seeing my name in the draw, but also hearing my words, and how determined I am to play."
ďThe thing that makes me the happiest on the court is knowing that I had it in me this whole time, getting to be back playing with no pain and winning matches. A couple of months ago, I didnít know if Iíd be able to play tennis again because of my injury. Itís such a relief because I made the right decision.
ďNo matter what happens after, whether I make it back to the top or not, or whether Iím able to play for a few more years or not, Iíll never regret this decision to make it back.
"Itís not just about results, ranking points, or winning tournaments. Itís about wanting to come back, wanting to be back on the tennis court, playing matches when a lot of people didnít think Iíd be able to, people who thought that my tennis career was over.
ďIf you want something, you have to do everything until the end, even if a lot of people think youíre wrong. You have to listen to your heart, and keep doing what youíre doing, especially if itís something you love to do. Never give up on it.Ē