By PJ Yeong
Current WTA Rank: 248
Born: Moscow, Russia
Resides: Moscow, Russia
Best Known For: Reaching 4th round of Wimbledon 2008 and Australian Open 2009.
Career Titles: 2
Alisa Kleybanova is back. Less than a year after receiving the devastating diagnosis of Stage 2 Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, she has completed her chemotherapy successfully, and has deemed to be in remission from the illness. The Sony Ericsson Open in Miami awarded her a well-deserved wildcard, and Kleybanova made her official return to competitive tennis on the first day of the tournament. It is very difficult to pick out another player that has been more inspiring than Kleybanova in Miami – her heart, her strength, her determination has been nothing short of amazing.
A Little History
Kleybanova started playing tennis at a young age, and was just fourteen years-old when she made her debut on the senior tour in 2003. For the next few years, she mostly thrived around the lower Tier tournaments, recording moderate successes. She made her Grand Slam debut at the Australian Open in 2008, fighting through qualifying rounds to reach Round 2 of the tournament. She continued to play well throughout the year, reaching the 4th round in her Wimbledon debut – beating 10th seed Daniela Hantuchova along the way.
Kleybanova’s win over Ana Ivanovic in the Australian Open 2009 was the first match of hers that I’d actually watched. In that match, she played a powerful and tactical game of tennis to beat the then world #5, to reach the 4th round (where she lost to Jelena Dokic, who was on a fairytale run). She didn’t fare very well for the remainder of the year, failing to progress far in the Grand Slams, but the following year was a good year for her. She picked up her maiden title in Kuala Lumpur, and a second title in Seoul. She also reached a career high ranking of #20.
Kleybanova no doubt would have been able to reach greater heights in her career if not for her illness. She began experiencing inconsistent flu-like symptoms and fatigue, but dismissed them as part of the life of a professional athlete. Realising something was truly wrong after a loss to Shahar Peer in Rome in 2011, she decided to undergo complete medical testing, and was given the life-changing diagnosis. Kleybanova immediately took the crucial break from tennis, and retreated to Rome to start her treatment.
Kleybanova completed her treatment in December 2011, and after clearing all the medical tests, she resumed training in February 2012. With a mere month of actual practice and training under her belt, Kleybanova returned to competitive tennis in Miami. Her first tour match of 2012 was against Swedish player Johanna Larsson. She started the match slow – dropping the first set. But it was clear that Kleybanova was not about to go away quietly. She found the shots and arsenal she needed to take the second set and stretch the match into a third set. She raced out to a commanding lead in the 3rd set, and then wrapped up the match, recording a win in more than two hours. Kleybanova then lost her next match against Maria Kirilenko in two close sets, but she wasn’t disappointed. And she shouldn’t be. She should be really proud of herself. For now, it wasn’t about winning matches. It was about being able to play and compete, plain and simple.
I find quite confronting to articulate what Kleybanova’s courage means to me, on a personal level. As a person that has suffered (and recovered) from Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, I have some understanding of how immensely hard the journey must have been. It wasn’t easy at all, to face your own mortality, to go through cycles of treatment, not being able to do what you love, and above it all, to remain strong and positive. Kleybanova strived to stay upbeat through it all – her letter to her fans clearly illustrated her resolve to beat the disease. As a tennis player, she is very competitive – and those instincts carried over in her battle against cancer. Her return to the tennis court was doubtful upon diagnosis, but never once did she entertain the thought of giving up. Once she was medically cleared, she tried to practice, tried to hit a few balls. Every single time she was able to hit one more ball, brought her closer to the fact that she will be able to return to competition, return to the sport that she loves.
Kleybanova’s attitude and bravery inspires hope. Everyone struggles through life, in one way or another. Things don’t often turn out the way we want them to. The way that Kleybanova had fought, and won the battle, serves as motivation and encouragement to everyone – nothing is impossible, as long as we never give up.
“I think the most important thing is to be happy, a smile on your face…”. That was her mantra when she was ill; and upon her recovery and return, Kleybanova’s smile is brighter than ever. The fact that she was to win on her first tour match, after all she had been through – is simply incredible – but we all know that she didn’t need the outcome of the match to emerge as a victor. She had exited the tournament in the second round. She won’t have her name on the trophy. But she is a true inspiration, a champion, and a winner…on the tennis court, and in every single other aspect of life.
1) Kleybanova recorded a thank-you message for her fans in Miami – looking happy, healthy and cheerful.
4) Fellow Russian players Ekaterina Makarova and Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova are among her closest friends; they frequently play doubles together.
5) Kleybanova’s favourite tennis arena is the Rod Laver Arena (at the Australian Open).
6) Kleybanova is dating Giacomo Rigoni, an Italian professional volleyball player, who has been a great support to her throughout her battle.
What the Fans Are Saying …
Emma sums her up in the best way possible:
“I can say that she’s a complete and utter inspiration, and no matter her results (will be)…her fight makes her a hero forever.”
Hard to argue with that!
(Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)