by Pete Bodo
Alisa Kleybanova turned 22 on Friday, July 15th, and her birthday "celebration" included a less than festive communication with her fellow players, fans, and tour officials. She posted a message on the WTA website explaining her absence from Roland Garros and Wimbledon. In a telephone interview that aired on Tennis Channel that same day, she explained that she was off the tour and sequestered in Perugia, Italy, receiving treatment for a form of cancer, Hodgkin's Lymphoma. It was time to go public because, as she said, "I was getting a lot of questions and emails, asking me what happen because I never miss a Grand Slam before. It was a big surprise for everybody."
Those messages and questions must have been encouraging; they probably helped Kleybanova remain positive and perhaps they gave even more impetus to her determination to be cured. As she wrote, "I'm sure I'll be able to overcome this — it's just a matter of patience and time and I believe I have enough!"
Kleybanova, who has ranked as high as No. 20 in the world, will need all that help and support — and more — because tennis is a sport that treats those who fall by the wayside with extreme indifference, a kind of institutionalized cruelty that's inextricably bound up with a great source of the game's appeal, the individual resourcefulness it demands on an ever-changing basis.
Tennis, more than any other sport, is a game of motion, in motion. Tennis is a river. The sport is forever moving on. You win, you move on, and have to face losing again, usually within 24 hours. You lose, you move on — on to the next tournament, the next town, or perhaps on to home. Each week, the tour moves on. Whether you're Novak Djokovic or Joe Novak, qualifier, you have to chase the game, week-after-week, city-after-city, continent-after-continent. Thus, tennis is also about forgetting. Moving on, yes, but also leaving behind.
This situation presents some terrible challenges to those like Kleybanova, who have to leave the tour because of serious injury or illness. Greater challenges, perhaps, than almost any other athlete might face and greater certainly than those of us who live more rooted lives are likely to come up against. Nobody likes to be left behind, least of all when he or she is hurting. And that's just Kleybanova must face. The game has moved on; who really misses you, who really remembers, or cares?
One woman who knows just what Kleybanova will be going through is Tennis Channel commentator, author and former player (Wimbledon doubles champion, in fact), Corina Morariu. Back in 2001 Morariu was diagnosed with leukemia. She was treated with chemotherapy, which ultimately left her a clogged lung and a month-long battle on the razor's edge between life and death. Morariu won her battle, and ultimately returned to compete on the tour again until she retired in 2007.
Morariu has exchanged emails with Kleybanova, and says the young Russian player sounds "positive and upbeat, like the great fighter she is."
But Morariu also knows that you always start out like that. Fueled by the support of loved ones, supported by family, appreciating the novelty (if that's the right word) of a respite from the endless grind of the tour — the ceaseless moving on — you know you've got the strength, you know you can lick this thing. And while you're in the midst of treatment, you have a regimen — a specific schedule that gives you some comfort and sense of security and progress, just as your daily routine in tennis once provided those things.
"In typical athlete fashion, when I was diagnosed I soon had a game plan, a team in place, and I knew my opponent," Morariu told me the other day in a telephone conversation. "That first month, with the chemo treatments and all that, I also had a huge outpouring of support. That really helped, too. It distracted me. I felt I was still part of the tour — maybe even more than ever, because this sense of support and friendship was strong, far stronger than anything I ever felt when I was playing, for the obvious reasons."
And then there was, for lack of a better term, the utter strangeness of it all. Here you are, a paragon of health, suddenly confronted with your mortality, like some worn-out, self-abusing adult, or senior citizen. "It's such a shock," Corina said, "that initially it's almost like you're in denial. And being an athlete, you're used to working in spurts, with periods of rest. So you're used to taking some time away from that environment. With Alisa, I don't even know if it's really hit her yet. Nothing you do in your life as a player prepares you for this kind of thing."
Morariu discovered that while the treatments and subsequent weakness were taxing and dispiriting, the toughest part was right after the treatments ended, and she returned home. As she said, "They just release you into the world."
That was the point at which Morariu, already in a drastically weakened state, realized how lonely life could be, especially for someone used to moving on for a living. That's when the silence grew loud, and she realized how far she was from what had once been her life.
And all that support, all that love? Over time, it diminished and petered out except when it came to closest friends and family. Morariu isn't bitter about that; in fact, she can laugh about it. People move on, especially in tennis. You can't keep up with them, you can't be face-to-face with them, when you're at a fixed point and not only not going anywhere, but battling enemies like depression (What happened to my career?), anger (Why me?), and apathy (Why should I lift a finger, I'm a cancer survivor).
For Morariu the struggle to get strong and healthy again began with the struggle to want to get strong and healthy again. "The malaise was all-encompassing," Corina said. "It was a very difficult decision to want to get better."
I wondered, which protested more loudly against the decision to get healthy again, the mind or the body? Corina said, "I was getting stronger when I started playing again. No. . . I made up my mind first. I will play again, I decided. Then I started to do the physical work, on a treadmill. I remember the first time I walked half-a-mile — I felt like I'd just finished the New York Marathon."
It was, of course, a turning point — one that everyone hopes Kleybanova will arrive at one day, too. But meanwhile, she'll have to process a lot of information, juggle and manage a host of feelings and physical symptoms as her battle progresses and changes on a variety of fronts.
"I felt very alone," Morariu remembered. "I had lots of support, coming from a family of doctors. But I also felt like I had no one to talk to, and I laugh about that now — with my family of professionals, I had all the physical stuff covered, everything in doctoring is very black-and-white. But there was that other part, the emotional part. It was a huge conflict. I was so happy to be alive, at the same time I had to really struggle with being. . .ungrateful. Why did this happen to me? I kept that inside, but it was there — all the time."
"I am a strong person," Kleybanova wrote in her message. "I've shown it before. Obviously this is different than anything I've ever experienced, but after this is over I'm sure my life will be even better than ever before."
Those words echo the sentiments that Morariu decided to stress in her communication with Kleybanova — Morariu's conviction that while she lost ground she could never make up in her career, while her emotions were buffeted and her body severely punished, all of it somehow helped her get a better perspective on life, made her a better and stronger person. "It was the best thing, long term," Morariu said. "It took me out of the bubble of that sheltered, privileged life. I think someone like Kim (Clijsters) went through something similar when she left the game and she had a child. It changed the way she sees things. With a serious illness, the change might be even more profound."
The prognosis for Kleybanova is good; it's likely that she can survive this attack on her youth and health. But the enemy she faces fights on many fronts, and she needs to be ready to push back on each one. And if she needs some advice or counsel, I can think of at least one person she can call on.