LANDISVILLE, PA, USA - It may not have been a WTA-level tournament, but a win is a win - and after everything she's been through, this was a big one. Alisa Kleybanova made a return to the courts at a $10,000 ITF Women's Circuit event last week, winning eight matches in a row to take the title.
Last March, Kleybanova returned from eight months out due to Hodgkin's lymphoma and won her comeback match in Miami, eventually falling second round - but she didn't play again for over a year.
"I wasn't playing too much," Kleybanova said of her time out. "I was doing more fitness. I struggled with my recovery when I came back in Miami and really didn't want to overdo things. I was waiting until I really felt better, and basically I felt better a couple of weeks ago. I decided that it was time to play some small tournaments just to see how it goes, and if I would recover from my matches and play every day without too many ups and downs, physically. It was the perfect time to try to come back.
"And I made a good start - I don't think I'll have to stop anymore."
Playing the Koser Jewelers Pro Circuit Tennis Challenge, held at the Hempfield Recreation Center in Landisville, Pennsylvania, Kleybanova made it through three rounds of qualifying then five main draw matches in a row, the biggest test coming in the semifinals against Hiroko Kuwata, coming back from 5-1 down in the third set and eventually saving seven match points to beat the Japanese, 63 46 75.
Kleybanova cruised to a 63 60 win over American Natalie Pluskota in the final to take the title.
"I didn't care if I started in qualifying or main draw, I just thought it would be a great test for me to see if I could make it through that many matches in a week without any trouble. It wasn't such a high level of tennis, but playing eight matches in a row after such a long break was such a great test, especially since we never even have to play eight matches in any tournaments at WTA level. The quantity was there, and I was happy with everything physically, so I feel really good about my tournament.
"Of course there's always positive emotions when you win, even when you're tired!"
And what about that semifinal thriller? "I was struggling with my tennis the whole match," she said. "Training and tournaments are always different. Plus there were so many expectations on me there - it wasn't easy to go on the court and compete against players who have completely nothing to lose.
"The semifinal match was crazy. I was lost a little bit, kind of making too many unforced errors, and the girl I was playing started feeling more and more confident and she was up 5-1 in the final set, and she had something like seven match points. I just thought to myself, 'I want to stay here, so if she wants to win it she has to do something big. I'm not going to give it to her like that.' So I put myself together and fought for every point, and as it got to 5-2 and 5-3, I could feel that she was struggling to close it out. I kept fighting and my game kept getting better, and by the end I had no trouble anymore.
"Hiroko played very well, though. Her ranking has nothing to do with her level. If she keeps going the same way, I'm sure she'll improve a lot and have some big results. I really wish her luck."
The Russian, a former Top 20 player in singles and Top 10 player in doubles, seems on the verge of a full comeback. "I need to go to Russia now and do a few things, but I'll continue training and I'm playing World TeamTennis in July for the Springfield Lasers. I may even play an event before that. But after that I will try to play tournaments as much as I can. It's difficult to say 100%, because it depends on using wildcards and my protected ranking, and where I can play without any of those, so we'll see."