Alisa Kleybanova could be forgiven for simply being happy to be here, as the old sports cliche goes.
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Happy to be rid of cancer. Happy to be playing tennis. Happy to be participating in a major tournament, something she last did 2-1/2 years ago.
When she sets foot on Court 7 against Monica Puig at the US Open on Monday, Kleybanova will be competing in a Grand Slam match for the first time since the Australian Open in January 2011. Soon after, Kleybanova was forced off the tour while receiving treatment for Hodgkin’s lymphoma, a form of blood cancer.
”It’s nice to be back on the court, obviously, but for me, I don’t just want to play tennis,” the Russian in an interview Sunday. ”I want to win.”
Kleybanova, now 24, turned pro shortly after turning 14 and made quick strides, reaching No. 20 in the WTA rankings, winning two titles, earning more than $2 million and advancing to the fourth round at two Grand Slams in singles, as well as the semifinals of the 2009 U.S. Open in doubles.
And then her life changed considerably. After being diagnosed in the spring of 2011, Kleybanova announced via the WTA’s website on July 15 that year — her 22nd birthday — that she was sick and would be treated in Italy, where she trained. She underwent chemotherapy until December 2011.
”I finished my treatments a long time ago. But it takes time for the body to settle down. It’s not just living a normal life out here; it’s really pushing yourself to the limits,” said Kleybanova, who is now based part of the year at Boynton Beach, Fla. ”It’s really, really hard, even for someone who never had these kinds of issues. For a normal person, it’s tough to be at this level. So for me, now, it’s even tougher. But I’m ready for it. I’m not expecting it to be easy.”
Her ranking is now 363rd, built on a 15-4 record, mostly at lower-tier tournaments. Because of the WTA’s protected ranking rule, Kleybanova was allowed to petition for entry into the main draw at one Grand Slam tournament, which is why she will be facing Puig, a 19-year-old from Puerto Rico who is ranked 44th.
”If I’m not playing tennis on a high level, I’m not going to keep playing. Now the challenge for me is to get back to the top,” said Kleybanova, who is entered in doubles at the US Open with Christina McHale of the United States. ”It’s not going to happen quick. It’s going to take some time.”
Other players are pleased to see her back on tour, finding her story ”inspiring,” as Wimbledon champion Marion Bartoli put it.
”To see her go through all this and still come back — as a tennis player, it takes a tremendous amount of desire,” Bartoli said. ”I have so much respect for everything she’s been doing and dealing with. I can’t even imagine how hard it would’ve been for her.”
Andrea Petkovic, a former top-10 player beset by injuries, said that seeing Kleybanova overcome cancer put her own issues in a new light.
”What happened to her is 100 million times worse than what happened to me. Everyone was coming to me and saying, `Oh, poor you!’ — and then you just see everything in perspective again,” Petkovic said. ”I always knew her as a very, very nice girl and very open and happy about life and just very positive. And then I didn’t see her for two years. When I saw her (back on tour), I told her, `So happy to see you back.’ And she told me, `I’m so happy to see you back.’ I hope I’m going to see her back where she was.”
So does Kleybanova, who says her career aim is once again what it had been before getting sick: She wants to climb all the way up to the top 10.
She knows that won’t be easy. But she is determined.
”For now, my goal is to at least be in the top 100, try to get there as fast as possible,” Kleybanova said with a smile, ”and then see what happens.”