NEW YORK — Alisa Kleybanova defeated No. 44 Monica Puig 6-4, 3-6, 7-5 on Monday to advance to the second round of the U.S. Open. This marked her first win over a top 50 player since her comeback from Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
Kleybanova, 24, announced her diagnosis and a leave from tennis on her 22nd birthday, in July 2011. After undergoing chemotherapy in Italy in December 2011, Kleybanova slowly began training again, but it wasn’t until this summer that the Russian, who reached a career-high ranking of No. 20 in 2011, began to compete on a regular basis.
As an unranked player, Kleybanova won a small ITF tournament in Landisville, Pa., in May — her first of the season — and then reached the final of another ITF tournament in Buffalo, N.Y., in June. She spent this summer playing World TeamTennis alongside Andy Roddick for the Springfield Lasers, in which she won Rookie of the Year. Kleybanova says the high volume of matches has not only helped her get match fit but also taught her how her body is responding and recovering between matches.
“I’ve been training a lot,” Kleybanova said after her first victory in a major since her return. “I know I’m doing the right things. I know I’m getting there. But I still need a lot more matches, a lot more tournaments to be more consistent, to feel better on the court, to be able to manage the stress level out there. Everything is a little bit new for me right now, so I’m just trying to deal with things as well as I can for the moment. Just try to win every point and not think about which tournament I’m playing, how important it is, all that stuff.”
Kleybanova was in great spirits after the win, but she made it clear that she’s not just content to be back on tour. Thoughtful, articulate and quick to laugh, she grew serious when discussing her comeback. It was tennis that motivated her during her chemotherapy sessions. She wanted to beat the cancer not simply for the sake of beating cancer, but also so that she could get back to doing the thing she loved: competing on a tennis court.
“For me, at that moment, I just wanted to come back on the court so much,” Kleybanova said, talking about her diagnosis. “I was ready to go through anything. I wanted to be back healthy and play again.
“I think [having that goal of returning to tennis] gave me a lot of power, a lot of confidence, and I was also very patient. … I think because I had that goal I just was very focused on doing the right things, and it helped me to go through everything strong without giving up, without having negative thoughts.
“It’s like playing a match: You just do everything to be a winner.”
When Kleybanova announced her intent to return to the tour in February 2012, her official website, which lists her match results, read “Alisa Kleybanova d. Hodgkin’s lymphoma 6-0, 6-0.” Now, her site simply lists her win over Puig and looks forward to her next match against an old foe, Jelena Jankovic. The two have played through some intense battles, with Kleybanova leading the head-to-head 3-2 before her illness.
“I’m happy all those things are over for me now,” Kleybanova said. “I went through them. I came [out] as a winner on that battle. Right now I’m back on court, and all my focus is on the matches. You know, I try to do my best. I want to win. I want to come back so much. It’s just all my mind is in tennis right now.”