The mind of a champion differs greatly from those of most fans who fill a stadium’s stands. Its strength and singular focus to overcome inconceivable adversity has been on display for much of the 2017 season, starting Down Under at the Australian Open, when Mirjana Lucic-Baroni defied the odds to enjoy her biggest run in nearly two decades, falling to a then-pregnant Serena Williams who went on to win a record-breaking 23rd Grand Slam title.
Some call them fairytales. Former World No.20 Alisa Kleybanova feels it’s far simpler.
“Every time I’ve had a setback, I would think how I still wanted to play tennis, how I still had it in me, and had so much left to give out there on the court,” the 28-year-old Russian said in August, after qualifying for her second tournament in almost two years in Nonthaburi, Thailand. “I felt like I couldn’t close the book until I was ready.”
Other examples of that irrepressible attitude highlight the year’s biggest tournaments - from 20-year-old Jelena Ostapenko’s French Open triumph to 37-year-old Venus Williams' rise back into the world’s Top 5 - and the smallest, like the 25K ITF Pro Circuit final in Lubbock, Texas between Kleybanova and fellow Hodgkin’s Lymphoma survivor Victoria Duval. The pair also teamed up to win the doubles title.
Ever in competition mode, the big-hitting former junior prodigy witnessed few of those major moments unfold from afar, instead spending the time on court at the Pro World Tennis Academy in Delray Beach, where she resumed training in June.
“It’s never been easy for me to be away, especially for the reasons I’ve had to be away. There’ve been a lot of weird circumstances to the point that I just wanted to be in tennis while I was in it.
“Tennis is not going to go anywhere while I’m away. People are still playing tournaments, and because I didn’t know when my comeback was happening, I didn’t feel like I could keep up with it. It was too stressful for me.”
Kleybanova has dealt with plenty of stress in a once-promising career, one that featured wins over former WTA World No.1s Venus Williams, Kim Clijsters, and Ana Ivanovic - the latter in a classic 2009 Australian Open encounter. Proudly posting a 6-0, 6-0 victory over cancer on her website back in 2012, she returned her to the Top 100 two years later, beating the likes of Dominika Cibulkova and Petra Kvitova along the way.
Still in remission, it’s been physical issues that have sidelined her in the three years since.
“I had a knee problem, and the surgery I had last year didn’t work, so I had to have another one last summer. It was a long road with rehab, and then I had a little bit of a foot problem earlier this year. My comeback got postponed, but I finally feel like I’ve gotten over all my issues. I’m really trying to focus on my fitness and tennis, without looking back too much on past injuries.”
The waiting game nonetheless had its effect on Kleybanova, whose initially prescribed two weeks to heal turned into 18 months. Her voice darkens with irritation as she recalls numerous false starts.
“I would keep having to go to a different doctor because obviously whatever I was doing wasn’t working. Things weren’t diagnosed or treated properly the first time, and I had so many setbacks because I wasn’t doing things the right way.
“When you think it’s two months of rehab and going to the gym every day, you’re still a tennis player thinking about coming back. It was a very exhausting and tough time because I always felt a step away from the court, but that step turned into miles.”
Making the journey longer is the prospect of coming back without a protected ranking, having been off the tour longer than the maximum two years during which one is made available. It’s another setback, but one Kleybanova sees as the ultimate test of her abilities: does she have what it takes to start from scratch?
“This time, there’s nothing I can rely on, just my own skills, and making sure I schedule correctly to avoid injury. That way, I can focus on the quality of my performance, rather than play tons of matches and destroy my body.
“I just want to play and enjoy the process as much as possible because, if I’m able to do that, it’ll only be a matter of time for me to get my ranking up so I can get into bigger tournaments.”
The success has been immediate for the finally fit Kleybanova, who won 12 of her first 14 matches at several ITF tournaments in Thailand, where she worked with friends of longtime coach Julian Vespan. For all she’s been through, the belief still burns throughout the phone interview held at the Rogers Cup in Toronto, where she once made the semifinals and pushed Maria Sharapova to three sets.
“You don’t forget how to hit a forehand or backhand. Of course, precision and tactics aren’t there right away, but it’s also a matter of time. I don’t have any doubts about my game; the body was more necessary to make it happen.”
Though fans have yet to see Kleybanova back on a big stadium, she still feels their support, grateful for their good vibes as she aims to apply her champion’s mind to the tennis court one more time.
“The thing that makes me the happiest on the court is knowing that I had it in me this whole time, getting to be back playing with no pain and winning matches. A couple of months ago, I didn’t know if I’d be able to play tennis again because of my injury. It’s such a relief because I made the right decision.
“No matter what happens after, whether I make it back to the top or not, or whether I’m able to play for a few more years or not, I’ll never regret this decision to make it back.
"It’s not just about results, ranking points, or winning tournaments. It’s about wanting to come back, wanting to be back on the tennis court, playing matches when a lot of people didn’t think I’d be able to, people who thought that my tennis career was over.
“If you want something, you have to do everything until the end, even if a lot of people think you’re wrong. You have to listen to your heart, and keep doing what you’re doing, especially if it’s something you love to do. Never give up on it.”