Alisa Kleybanova, who last played in Rome, reached a career-high No. 20 in the rankings in February, 2011. (Getty Images)
Alisa Kleybanova will make her return to the court at the Sony Ericsson Open in Miami on Tuesday after a 10-month battle with Hodgkin's Lymphoma. The 22-year-old Russian will play her first match on the Grandstand court against Joanna Larsson of Sweden.
For Kleybanova, merely stepping on court will be a dream come true. For years, she ignored the constant run-down feeling she suffered, chalking it up to being part of the grinding life of a professional athlete.
"When you're doing professional sport, you always [have] some problems," Kleybanova told reporters in Miami on Monday. "You have always some pain. It's not like everyday you're waking up feeling completely healthy. It's your work. You have so much fatigue every day."
The problem was that fatigue never went away. Kleybanova grew frustrated. Though she was already a top 20 player, Kleybanova felt her body was preventing her from doing the hard work she needed in order to get better. After constantly trying to play through fatigue and flu-like symptoms, Kleybanova began to suspect it might be something more serious. By the time she arrived in Rome for the 2011 Italian Open, Kleybanova found herself unable to play through her fatigue.
"Until Rome I was still getting over it all the time. So there we were pretty sure it might be another thing. I was still hoping to play the French Open, but I didn't get better anymore. That's where we decided I have to stop and really see deep inside what's going wrong."
What was wrong was that Kleybanova had Hodgkin's Lymphoma, a form of cancer originating from white blood cells. Initially shocked by the diagnosis, Kleybanova says she was relieved to finally understand why she was constantly sick. Once she had time to process it all, she prepared herself for tough road ahead.
"This is going to be basically a very tough time for me and another big fight which is much tougher and is going to take a very long time. It's not like a big tournament. It's something completely different and something I really have to focus on beating."
Kleybanova stayed in Italy for treatment, which entailed extensive chemotherapy which broke down her body and caused some hair loss. "Almost," Kleybanova laughed when asked if the treatment caused complete hair loss. It's that good humor that helped her get through the painful chemotherapy treatments.
"I think the most important thing is to be happy, a smile on your face. Because if you are suffering it's never gonna work. You have difficulties and you obviously have fatigue and it's tough. But you have to still enjoy what you're doing. You can't be negative. You have to always be positive. This is the most important point and it helps no matter what you do."
It was a physically and emotionally grueling time for the young Russian, but surrounded by family and friends (her boyfriend, Giancomo Rigoni, a professional volleyball player in Italy, stayed with her every day), she says she was committed to beating the cancer and returning to the tennis court. After seven months of treatment doctors cleared her to return to court and begin training again. "The only concern was the physical condition because for such a long time I literally couldn't do anything so I obviously had to start almost from zero," she says. "Because it's not just that I didn't even do anything it's also the treatment that was breaking down the body."
Kleybanova had her last treatment in December, and after some time to let her body cycle through the last remaining treatments, she started hitting again in February. She's been training in Miami in preparation for the Sony Ericsson Open and, as good-natured as ever, sounded relaxed and excited at the prospect of taking the court for her first match on Tuesday. "I really hope the worst part is over and now I will try and keep myself as healthy as possible and enjoy.
"The biggest thing in tennis I like the most is tournaments, is matches," she said. "I really like the result, I like to win, I like to play, to have this excitement, emotions during my matches. I think this is what I missed the most and actually probably this feeling kept me always there to fight through all the problems I had. I think that's why in such a short time I'm here now and really excited to play my first round."
She has no idea if she'll be the player she was before her diagnosis but for now it's just about getting back on court and competing. "I don't want to think about my ranking, I don't want to think about where I want to be," Kleybanova said." I just want to be on the court and play tennis and feel good, you know? I know it's gonna be really tough. Everybody is progressing, it's improving every year." "For the now, my dream already came true, that I'm here, I'm back on the court. From now on I'm happy just to play tennis. If I'm gonna be successful that's gonna be fantastic. But if things won't go great from the beginning, I'm just really emotional to be back and hit some balls. I'm really, really happy already."