In her career, she had beaten former world No. 1s such as Venus Williams, Kim Clijsters, Ana Ivanovic and Jelena Jankovic. But after conquering a much tougher opponent, Alisa Kleybanova was working on her next task: Battling a player ranked 1,149th.
It was May 2013, and Kleybanova, a 24-year-old from Moscow and former world No. 20, had entered a $10,000 ITF tournament in the small town of Landisville, PA. It was a world away from Rome, where the top players were competing that week. Rome also happened to be the last tournament in which Kleybanova had played, back in May 2011, before she received a devastating diagnosis of Hodgkin’s lymphoma. The shocking news forced her off the tour just months after she reached a career-high ranking.
Kleybanova is a dogged brawler who throws her entire body into whipping shots from behind the baseline, zooming across the net at impossibly sharp angles, forcing her opponents to work just as hard as she does or quickly be beaten. She threw that same intensity into her battle with cancer, and she proudly posted on her website: “Alisa Kleybanova def. Hodgkin’s lymphoma 6-0, 6-0.”
“I just was ready to go through anything,” Kleybanova said at last year’s US Open. “I wanted to be back healthy and play again. So I think that gave me a lot of confidence. I just took it like when you do very tough training. You have to go through this because [afterward] you’ll get better and things will get better.
“Because I had that goal, I just was very focused on doing the right things, and it helped me to go through everything without giving up.”
Kleybanova made her diagnosis public in July 2011 and underwent treatment in Italy. She returned to the tour only eight months later in Miami, winning her first match before losing the second in two close sets. “It’s just really good to see her,” Maria Sharapova said during the tournament. “When you see someone that’s gone through so much and come back to play the game of tennis, you just have so much respect for the person.”
But it was the last most would see of Kleybanova for the rest of that year, as the effort left her exhausted for months. She trained with mixed results, reluctant to try another comeback that might discourage her if she didn’t play up to her expectations. Fifteen months later, Kleybanova needed to play a tournament to keep herself eligible for a protected ranking. So she went to Landisville, putting her on the lowest possible level of sanctioned professional tennis. Kleybanova had not played in such a low-level tournament since she was 14. There were none of the amenities she had become accustomed to—no chair umpire, no line judges—but Kleybanova had little trouble moving on, winning her opening match 6-1, 6-1 against starstruck Australian Brooke Rischbieth.
“I’m not expecting unbelievable tennis from myself at the moment,” she said after that win. “For me the most important thing is that I’m able to stay there for the whole match, finish it up. And, of course, I’m happy to win it.”
Kleybanova went on to win the tournament, a testament that neither her skill nor the willpower she needed to compete at a professional level had diminished. After some mixed results at other small tournaments, Kleybanova made her second return to the WTA tour in August, using her protected ranking to enter Toronto. A week after that, she earned her first WTA win since her comeback, in Cincinnati. Two weeks later, she made a winning return at the Grand Slam level, beating Monica Puig 6-4, 3-6, 7-5 at the US Open.
After a long, tough road, Kleybanova was starting to get back to form. She was given the WTA’s Comeback Player of the Year award that fall. Kleybanova had fought cancer with the same attitude that she displayed on the tennis court. “I know a lot of people [were] supporting me,” she said. “But in that situation, for me it was like playing a match. I don’t want to be distracted by things. I just want to do it.”
|“Alisa Kleybanova could not be a better topic when you mention courage! I am the tournament director at the Landisville Pro Circuit where Alisa started her comeback and added many fans to her fan base. For a former Top 20 player, Alisa could not have been more pleasant at our tournament in May 2012. She was a perfect ambassador to our sport by giving interviews, visiting with our members and taking time for the ball kids.”—Wilson Pipkin|
Kleybanova is not the only member of the professional tennis community to have been afflicted by the disease in recent years. Ross Hutchins, a Scottish doubles specialist who is a close friend of Andy Murray’s, was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma near the beginning of the 2013 season. He made his return one year later in Brisbane, and reached the semifinals of mixed doubles at the 2014 US Open before retiring from the sport.
During this year’s Wimbledon, U.S. teen Victoria Duval announced that she too was battling the disease. Duval was diagnosed while playing in the qualifying tournament, but despite the difficult circumstances she remained active. Duval kept playing and kept winning, moving through three qualifying matches to advance to the main draw, and then reaching the second round by beating No. 29 seed Sorana Cirstea. The week after Wimbledon ended, she entered the Top 100 for the first time—and began her chemotherapy treatment.
For Kleybanova, she remains cancerfree two years later. Her progress on the court continued slowly but steadily into the 2014 season. She reached the fourth round of Indian Wells and notched her biggest post-comeback win over Petra Kvitova in Stuttgart in April, a few months before Kvitova would go on to win her second Wimbledon championship. But that Wimbledon event was Kleybanova’s last of the summer—a right shoulder injury would force her to miss the entire American hardcourt swing.
Even with her absence, Kleybanova remains an inspiration to many, despite her reluctance to embrace her role as a hero to those battling similar fights. “I know that it does, but I don’t really realize it that much,” she said of her story affecting others. “I mean, I’m happy, all those things are over for me now. I went through them. I came out as a winner.
“I hear a lot from people that I’m a big inspiration for them. A lot of people now look up to me. I think it’s great. I don’t want to be an example, but if I am, I think it’s very nice. I want to be here as a tennis player, not someone who overcame [cancer] and because of that people know me. I just want to be a tennis player right now.”