Thursday, July 18, 2013

Russia's Kleybanova bounces back from cancer

Alisa Kleybanova was diagnosed with Hodgkin's
lymphoma three months after reaching a career-high
No. 20 in the world in 2011. Photo by Paul Bauman
   She still has the powerful serve and laser-like groundstrokes that carried her to No. 20 in the world in 2011.
   But something is different about Alisa Kleybanova.
   She smiles during matches, which is very rare in the cutthroat world of professional tennis.
   "She'll miss a ball, and she'll still smile," marveled Diana Ospina, who lost to Kleybanova 6-3, 6-2 in the first round of qualifying for the recent $50,000 FSP Gold River Women's Challenger in the Sacramento area. "That doesn't happen."
   With no ballboys or ballgirls for many matches in tennis' minor leagues, Kleybanova picks up balls for her opponent, which is even rarer.
   "She even crossed the net and gave me the ball," Ospina, an American who reached a career-high No. 231 in the world 10 years ago, said a few days before her 34th birthday. "I'm used to doing that. I'm not used to people doing that to me." 
   And -- perhaps the biggest shocker of all -- Kleybanova gladly gives a one-hour interview. Most pros would rather get food poisoning than spend an hour with a reporter.
   A long bout with cancer tends to change one's perspective.
   "I try to enjoy (tennis) more," Kleybanova, a Russian who turned 24 on Monday, said during the Gold River Challenger. "When something goes wrong, I try to keep in my mind that it's great to be back and not make a drama out of it because it's nothing compared to real drama in your life that can happen. It's a game at the end of the day.
   "Yeah, (pro tennis) is a lot of responsibility (with) a very, very high stress factor and a very tough thing to do mentally and physically. You break down your body and your mind, but the worst thing that can happen is you lose. So what? You have next week, and it's the next tournament. You try to get ready and try to be better."
   Kleybanova left the elite WTA tour in May 2011 after being diagnosed in Paris with Hodgkin's lymphoma (cancer of the immune system). Except for an aborted comeback last year in Miami, where she reached the second round, she missed two years.
   Kleybanova has played three tournaments since returning in May. Having dropped out of the world rankings, she started at the bottom -- qualifying in a $10,000 hardcourt tournament in Landisville, Pa. Her first opponent was ranked No. 1,147.  It wasn't exactly like playing Venus Williams at Wimbledon, which Kleybanova has done twice (losing in straight sets each time).
   The 5-foot-11 (1.81-meter), 159-pound (72-kilogram) Kleybanova went on to win the Landisville title, saving seven match points in the semifinals. She reached the final of a $10,000 clay-court tournament in Buffalo, N.Y., last month and the quarterfinals on hardcourts in the Gold River Challenger earlier this month.
   Playing her sixth match in six days in 100-degree-plus (37.8-plus Celsius) heat, Kleybanova finally wilted in Gold River. She fell to hard-hitting Croat Ivana Lisjak, a former top-100 player who had played only two tournaments in more than two years because of a lower back injury, 0-6, 6-2, 7-6 (2) in 2 hours, 20 minutes in the afternoon as the temperature soared to 108 degrees (42 Celsius).
   After beating Ospina, Kleybanova said of her fitness: "I'm still not at my peak yet. It's going to take a while to get to that level when I can play really tough matches and perform great. Right now, I'm trying to get there step by step." 
   Ospina, a teaching pro in the Detroit area and volunteer assistant coach at the University of Detroit Mercy, has no doubt that Kleybanova eventually will return to the top 20.
   "She can pull out some amazing shots," Ospina said. "Once you've been there, you know you can go back, but I cannot imagine what she has gone through. It's indescribable.
   "But to come here or go to a ($10,000 tournament) and play qualies, that's someone special. That is someone who loves the game of tennis, who is willing to do whatever it takes to get back to where she belongs. There is no accident when you get to be top 20 in the world. You earned that right."
   During the traditional postmatch handshake at the net, Ospina told Kleybanova that it was an honor to play her. Kleybanova's response?
   " 'The pleasure's mine. Thank you, thank you very much. That means a lot,' " Ospina said. "And you could tell she really meant it. It wasn't like (a perfunctory handshake). No, no, no, no, no. This was eye-to-eye contact. This was not dropping the eyes down low. This was face-to-face. I appreciate that. ... I wish her all the best."
* * * 
  Kleybanova achieved various career bests in each of her first four years on the WTA tour. Fourth round of Wimbledon in 2008 at 18 years old. Fourth round of the Australian Open in 2009. No. 10 in the world in doubles in 2010. No. 20 in singles in 2011.
   But through it all, something was wrong.
   "I was constantly getting sick," Kleybanova lamented. "I played through it because I thought it's nothing serious. That's what all the doctors told me as well. Nobody really took it seriously. Nobody could figure out what's happening until it really went bad."
   At Indian Wells and Miami in March 2011, her lymph nodes began to swell in two places, but Kleybanova declined to say where.
   "I went to the doctor there, and they just gave me antibiotics again and said, 'Just keep playing. Nothing is wrong. Everything is going to be fine,' " Kleybanova said. "I played Miami, I played Charleston, I went back to Europe, I played Estoril, I played Madrid (and Rome), and it kept getting bigger and bigger. I always felt bad, but I could perform."
   Until May, when Kleybanova and her coach, Julian Vespan, flew to Paris for the French Open.    
   "It was three or four days before the tournament started, but I didn't get better anymore," Kleybanova said. "We went to the tournament and said, 'We have to do something because it doesn't look like a regular sickness anymore. It's been more than a week that I feel terrible and I'm not getting any better.'
   "Then my coach really pushed the doctors to do more tests. We got to the right specialist, everything was clear, and I pulled out of tournaments straight away, flew back to Italy and started my treatment."
   Kleybanova reacted calmly to the diagnosis, according to Vespan.
   "It was, 'OK, bad luck. What we have to do?' That's it,' " Vespan said from Arizona, where he has been helping Russian star Vera Zvonareva train for her comeback from shoulder surgery. "It's a fact of life. It's tough, but she's a strong girl."
   Kleybanova was treated in Italy because she has a training base and close friends there and because the hospital in Perugia specializes in Hodgkin's lymphoma.  
   "When I went to the hospital there, I saw from the first step (when) I walked in that they really want to help me out," said Kleybanova, who's fluent in Italian as well as Russian and English. "Everybody was very excited to help me win that battle and be back on the court.
   "Everybody knew I was a professional athlete, and many people from there saw me on television. It was a big challenge for them, too, because it's not every day that they get people like that for treatment. We made a great team."
   Kleybanova's chemotherapy and radiation treatments exhausted her.
   "You don't think to go for a walk," she said. "You just try to stay in bed all the time. The first couple days especially are exhausting after the treatments."
   Kleybanova didn't fear for her life, though. The survival rate for Hodgkin's lymphoma is very high.
   "I never really thought about it," she said. "I'm always positive about things. I didn't take it as a battle for my life. I took it as a very difficult match, a very difficult challenge. I felt like I have an opponent to beat, but the opponent was in my body. The No. 1 thing was to beat the disease and to be healthy. No. 2 was to be back on the court."
   But Kleybanova's parents, Mikhail and Natalia, did fear for their only child's life. 
   "They took it a lot worse than I did," Kleybanova said. "I had to support them."
   Kleybanova's parents were especially concerned because her paternal grandmother, Zhanna, died of brain cancer last year at 76.
   "She was my lucky charm in tennis," Kleybanova said wistfully. "She was always there when I was playing tournaments in Russia, cheering for me. When I was away (in Italy), I was always calling her at home and talking to her.
   "She was the most important person in my family. I could always talk to her about everything. She always gave me great advice. She always was there for me no matter if I won, if I lost, if I did something good, if something went bad.
   "So it was very hard to lose her -- and hard for my dad as well because for him it was amazing. The daughter has this; the mom has this. It was a very tough time for my family the last couple years."
   Being a pro athlete helped Kleybanova recover, though.
   "For sure," Kleybanova said. "You build life skills, as well. It's not just running on the court and hitting balls. It's the ability to overcome the stress factor, to overcome difficult moments, to (make) decisions very quickly, to focus, to go over your limits when you need to. We do that all the time."
   Kleybanova has faced plenty of adversity during her career, though nothing like cancer.
   "It's not like I had a very fluid road from the best junior to newcoming pro and at the age of 17 I was top 10," she said. "For me, the road was always full of difficulties, tough losses and periods that I was really not playing good tennis and I was struggling with putting my game together, finding the right people to work with, organizing my training process ...
   "Going through all that and still achieving what I achieved, if I can put things together better this time, I can do that again. That gives me a lot of confidence and mental energy to go through tough times now."
   Most of all, Kleybanova missed the thrill of competing in big matches during her extended layoff.
   "I don't get pleasure just being on the court," she conceded. "For me, it's to be in front of the crowd, to participate in something big. Those are emotions you get when you play on center court at big tournaments. It's amazing. I really want to feel it again. I really look forward to come back to that level, because I really, really miss those emotions and the whole feeling of something big going on."
   Kleybanova was gratified by the tennis community's response to her ordeal. Among those who sent her e-mails was Corina Morariu, an American who reached No. 1 in the world in doubles at 22 years old in 2000, was diagnosed with leukemia the following year and returned to the tour the year after that.
   "Everybody was very supportive," Kleybanova said. "It was nice that she wrote me and many other people did. It was nice to feel that basically the whole tennis world supported me and missed me while I was off tour. I couldn't wish any more than that."
   Kleybanova, in turn, wrote an e-mail of support to Ross Hutchins, an Englishman who climbed to a career-high No. 26 in the world in doubles in May last year and was diagnosed with Hodgkin's lymphoma last December.
* * *
   Kleybanova is halfway through her first season of World TeamTennis. She and former Sacramento Capital Vania King lead the league in women's doubles for Springfield (Mo.), who are tied for first place in the Western Conference. King, the 2009 WTT Female MVP, plays women's singles for the Lasers. The WTT Finals are scheduled for July 28.
   Now ranked No. 594, Kleybanova plans to use her protected ranking of No. 26, where she stood when she left the tour in 2011, to play in the $2.216 million Rogers Cup in Toronto on the WTA tour early next month.
   Direct entry into tournaments is based on a player's ranking. The more prize money a tournament offers, the more popular it is among players and the higher the ranking is needed to earn a berth.
   Toronto will be the first WTA tournament of Kleybanova's comeback. She reached the semifinals there in 2009, beating Jelena Jankovic in the quarterfinals before falling to countrywoman Maria Sharapova 6-2, 4-6, 6-4 in the semifinals. Jankovic was ranked No. 4 at the time after reaching No. 1 in 2008.
   Kleybanova can use her protected ranking for eight tournaments of her choosing, including one Grand Slam, until next May. She is deciding between the U.S. Open, which begins Aug. 26, and the Australian Open in January for the Grand Slam spot and hopes to receive a wild card in the other one.
   Her goal this year is to "get as close to the top 100 as possible." That would help her get into WTA tournaments without having to use her protected ranking or play in qualifying events.
   As for long-range goals, Kleybanova said, "I don't really look very far ahead because I'm just starting, and it's hard to (predict) what's going to happen."
   Kleybanova looks forward to finding out.
   "I'm very curious to challenge myself on a higher level, play year-round and see how (being healthy) changes everything," she said. "Most of my career so far, I was struggling to be healthy. So few times I was at 100 percent. I'm really curious how it's going to be out there and not getting sick so much anymore, to be able to prepare better for my tournaments and program things the right way. I'm very excited about that right now."

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