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Alisa Kleybanova: An Incidental Inspiration

Aug 27th 2013

If you were wandering the grounds of the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center as light faded on Monday, you might have caught a glimpse of a battle between two unseeded players, Monica Puig and Alisa Kleybanova. As Puerto Rico’s top talent, Puig brought a commonwealth-sized cheering squad with her to Court 7 that included camera-wielding family members who hoped to capture what looked to be yet another memorable moment in the youngster’s burgeoning career.

Across the net was Kleybanova, a former top-20 star who looks like a battle-tested veteran, in stark contrast to her feisty opponent. Without an entourage or rowdy support system, the Russian quietly went about her business for three sets, striking her signature whipping groundstrokes with pace and precision. Kleybanova earned more than a few free points with her booming serve, a shot that appears to have improved after spending a week with Andy Roddick during the summer season of Mylan World TeamTennis.

Alisa Kleybanova

More impressive than her game, though, was Kleybanova’s attitude throughout the seesawing encounter with Puig. After racing out to a 3-0 lead in the final set, Puig edged back, winning a long game to break serve and level the match. Looking to capitalize on her good form, Puig had chances in the next game to break again. In another marathon serve game, the Russian righted the ship, making up for a few ill-timed double faults with a vintage Kleybanova backhand winner at full stretch. She would win that game and break Puig’s serve to lead 5-3, only to get broken again after holding three match points.

Through all of these shifts in momentum, Kleybanova’s resilience and pure grit were palpable. After winning a grueling rally, she would bear her teeth and exude a quiet confidence that surely could be felt at the top of the bleachers. As a spectator, it was clear that the Russian would not let this match go without a fight, and though there were times when she looked the lesser player, she never appeared less than completely assured that she would find a way to win.

For those unfamiliar with Kleybanova’s story, those are character traits that makes for a great tennis player. The fact that she is a young woman who beat a stage two diagnosis of Hodgkin’s Lymphoma gives her on-court mentality a much deeper level of significance.

Or does it?

Right now I'm back on court, and all my focus is on the matches…all my mind is in tennis right now,” remarked Kleybanova afterward. “I want to be here as a tennis player because I have skills that I can do that, not being here as someone who overcame and because of that people know me.  I'm not trying to pretend anything.  I just want to be a tennis player right now.”

Her words recall memories of the Kleybanova who burst on the scene to upset reigning Roland Garros champion Ana Ivanovic in Australia, Kim Clijsters in Indian Wells, and fight titanic battles against Jelena Jankovic and Maria Sharapova at the Rogers Cup. Wasn’t that the same gritty competitor who outfoxed Monica Puig with an offensive lob that set up the put-away for a 6-4 3-6 7-5 victory tonight?

Seeing Kleybanova compete today and knowing what she has been through, it is too easy to assume that her grit comes from that dark, life-changing event. Hodgkin’s Lymphoma took from the Russian her health and the sport she loved for nearly two years. The fact that she survived could give anyone perspective and determination, both of which translate to athletic success.

But all of that assumes Kleybanova lacked any of those things in the first place. Her game may continue to miss the fluid technique or tireless stamina of her peers, but no opponent, then or now, could question the Russian’s competitive fire.

The same fire comes across in her press conference. Now cancer-free, Kleybanova will not be content to be simply a sentimental story, although she admitted, “If my story inspires people and, you know, it gives them more belief on things, it makes them feel stronger at some point, I mean, that's great.”

A friendly personality off-court, Kleybanova is not ungrateful for the admiration but bristles at the notion of being idly idolized. Undoubtedly a survivor in life, she hopes to do more than survive on the court.

She wants to do things that she feels make her worth idolizing.