KLEYBANOVA: Cancer Conqueror, Captivating Comeback
Kelly Clarkson famously belts out in one of her pop hits, “What doesn't kill you makes you stronger. Stand a little taller.”
Clarkson’s lyric eloquently describes the story Alisa Kleybanova (pictured to the right) is currently writing, one that will continue to add chapters when she plays her first season of Mylan World TeamTennis for the Springfield Lasers in July.
Living life as an established professional tennis player, the Russian’s life path took a 180 degree turn two years ago when she was diagnosed with Hodgkin's lymphoma. It’s no secret cancer sucks the energy out of its victims physically and mentally, but Kleybanova’s positive, upbeat spirit never wavered during her road to recovery.
After playing one tournament in March 2012 and determining she wasn't ready to return to the WTA Tour, Kleybanova continued training and building her stamina. Finally, this past week, the 23-year-old officially began her comeback to the sport she loves, delivering a performance worthy of admiration, surviving cancer aside. At an ITF event in Landisville, Pa., Kleybanova won eight matches over eight days, saved seven match points in her semifinal win and finished out the event with a 6-0 set to win the title. She’s certainly standing taller now.
WTT.com caught up with Kleybanova for an in-depth Q&A, reflecting on her first tournament back, her upcoming Mylan WTT debut, the outpouring of support she’s received and more…
What were your expectations going into your first tournament back? Winning eight matches in eight days is pretty remarkable!
Kleybanova: It was a great week for me. Most importantly, I was able to go through it physically. It was a long time since I played a tournament. Training and playing events is always different. I'm really happy that I was able to play so many matches and at the end, feel even better than at the start of the tournament. It's the best start for me. I just need matches to get back to where I was.
How does it feel to win the title in your comeback debut, having saved seven match points in the semifinals?
Kleybanova: Tennis wise, I wasn't showing great things during the week. The final match was better, but until then, I wasn't playing my best. It was up and down. My opponent in the semifinals was playing well. I was struggling a little bit. In the final set, I decided I would try and fight for every point and not give it to her. If she wanted to win it, she had to do something. I saw she was struggling to close it out, and so I felt strongly to push until the end.
How excited are you to play your first season of Mylan WTT for the Springfield Lasers?
Kleybanova: I'm really excited to participate. It's my first. It's always a great experience to do something different for yourself. I'm looking forward to it because it's been a long time since I was on the Tour. It's going to be a great test to play against current high-level players and play doubles as well. Plus, the schedule is very difficult because you play matches almost every day and fly to different cities, so I'm really looking forward to that challenge. I hope that everything will go great!
You were drafted No. 1 overall: What does it mean to be the first person selected out of all the players who entered?
Kleybanova: I didn't really follow the details of how it worked. I just signed up to play this season because I wanted to participate. I was happy when I got the news, but I didn't think about the details of how it happened. For me, the most important thing is the team chose me and I have a responsibility to do my best and prove they made a good choice. I'll try to win as many matches as possible for the team.
What has the support been like from the tennis community?
Kleybanova: I would like to thank everyone who has been waiting for my comeback and kept supporting me, giving me a lot of energy. They made me feel like I was wanted in tennis. That gave me energy for training and the ability to stay patient. I hope that I can play good tennis so that all the people who missed me out there will be able to see me play.
It was an emotional thing for everyone. I think it's great for the sport to be able to come back from something like this and compete again. The experience I've been through is unique. I'm happy I went through it and am back.
For the Mylan WTT fans who will see you play for the first time, describe some of the strengths you have on court, given your success and doubles?
Kleybanova: I enjoy playing both. My ranking was even higher in doubles. I'm an all-around player. I have a powerful game, play well at the net and serve strong. When you play singles and doubles this way, it helps to close the points better. I enjoy it a lot. Doubles is a little different from singles and you can use it for training as well. I can't wait until I start playing my matches in World TeamTennis.
How much are you looking forward to the team aspect Mylan WTT offers?
Kleybanova: I always loved to play for teams as a kid. We always had junior team competitions for different clubs. And then there's Fed Cup too, so I've always had a great experience competing as a team. I think it's a nice atmosphere. More people support you. You train together and prepare for the matches together, relax together, so it's a different world than a single tournament. I'm pretty sure with World TeamTennis that will be even better.
Are you acquainted with any of your teammates?
Kleybanova: I know Vania King well. She has been my friend on the Tour for a long time. She's a really nice person. The nice thing is she's also a great doubles player, so I'm looking forward to teaming up with her. I don't know the guys well, but we have a great team.
If WTT.com was to spend the day blogging about a day in the life of Alisa Kleybanova, what would we do, who would we see and where would we go?
Kleybanova: Well, it depends on where I'm at!
Recently, I've been focusing a lot on my training, so my day off involves being outside. We would go to the beach or take a bike ride. I enjoy spending my days by being active, so I wouldn't stay at home the whole day unless there was bad weather.
It all depends on which country I am in. If I'm at home in Russia, we would stay with my family. When you get ready for tournaments, you spend your days off a bit differently. Every country has something really nice to see. I love snow in the winter and summertime in Florida with the sun and the beach.
Morning Person Or A Night Owl? Both! I always wake up early in the morning and am full of energy at the beginning of the day. Then towards lunch time, I need a break to relax. But by the evening, I feel good. I like to play night-session matches because I have a lot of energy.
TV show/Movie You Last Saw? Charmed. I watched it in Russia.
Biggest Pet Peeve? When people don't follow through. I'm a very responsible person, so when I say something, I always want to do it 100 percent. Honesty is important to me.
Who Is Your Celebrity Crush? Bradley Cooper. I really enjoyed him in Limitless.
Song Stuck In Your Head? At the tournament last week, a local coach was DJing during the changeovers. There was this song called 'Sail' by Awolnation. It was fresh and new and brought me some good emotions before my matches.
Most Prized Possession? I don't know if I have anything I can't live without. I can't say there is something material that I have to have. But I do always like to have something on me to read.
Best Social Media Site? Facebook. I don't spend a lot of time online. I use social media for sharing information and communicating with friends since I travel so much.
Glass Half Full Or Empty? Definitely half full! I always try to be positive no matter what happens. Life is never always up or always down. There's always a reason for everything and it's important to figure it out and take away the positives.
What Superhero Power Would You Like? It may not be a superhero power, but I would like to stay young and healthy forever! People don't usually appreciate the years when they are young, strong and able to do everything.
Photo: Camerawork USA