MIAMI, FL, USA - In a match she later said she would always remember, Alisa Kleybanova made a winning return from her battle with Hodgkin's lymphoma on Tuesday, rallying to win in the first round of the Sony Ericsson Open.
Kleybanova, a former World No.20 who had been out for the last 10 months, showed some signs of rust early on as she faced Johanna Larsson, losing serve twice en route to dropping the first set to the No.64-ranked Swede, 6-2.
"I was a little bit out of control in the first set," Kleybanova said. "The first match back from anything is always difficult, but especially this time I really had no idea how it was going to be out there. Tennis-wise I felt pretty good from the beginning but Johanna has a difficult game to play against, she makes you run a lot out there - she makes you tired even if you're in your best shape.
"But I'm looking at my matches differently now. It's my work, but I really just wanted to enjoy every point and every moment. Even when I lost the first set I wanted to stay positive and just enjoy myself out there, and that's why I was able to stay out there and change the way the match was going."
Kleybanova hung tough, breaking in the fourth game of the second set to move ahead 3-1, eventually holding the rest of the way to take the set, 6-3; her momentum was just too strong from there as she reeled off four straight games to build a 4-0 third set lead, and she rode it to a 26 63 62 victory.
"I felt I was playing better the more I was on the court," she said. "It's not just about the win though, it's that I'm back on court. If I didn't win, it's not like I would have been mad. I was just happy to be playing points, feeling all the emotions again... it's something I missed a lot and it was all out there today.
"For everyone else it's just the first round, but for me it's very emotional. I'll always remember it - it will always be the first match of my comeback."
Kleybanova's coach, Julian Vespan, was also touched. "It was very emotional for him too," she added. "But he's just really happy I'm back playing tennis again. Of course he's very, very happy I won, but he's also my best friend and he feels happy when I feel good and when I'm smiling. He just wants me to be happy. When he saw me enjoying myself again he was very happy for me."
Kleybanova will play No.22 seed Maria Kirilenko in the second round.
"I still feel like I'm building my game, and it'll take time before I reach my highest level," Kleybanova explained. "I'm just going to try to get better with every match. I hope the good results will come, but I'm not going onto the court just thinking of winning. Who knows what will happen in the next one."
Other first round winners later in the day were Chanelle Scheepers, Simona Halep and Anna Tatishvili. Halep had the toughest match of the bunch, coming back from 3-1 down in the third set to beat two-time Grand Slam quarterfinalist Carla Suárez Navarro in two hours and 45 minutes, 67(5) 63 63.
Kateryna Bondarenko, Vera Dushevina, Urszula Radwanska, Stéphanie Foretz Gacon, Sloane Stephens, Jamie Hampton, Eva Birnerova, Valeria Savinykh, Alizé Cornet, Melinda Czink, Misaki Doi and Madison Keys all made the main draw with wins in the final round of qualies. Radwanska had the toughest win, rallying from 64 53 down to beat Andrea Hlavackova, 46 75 61.