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KEY BISCAYNE, Fla. -- At this time last year, Alisa Kleybanova thought everything was fine.
She was ranked 20th in the world and hoping for a good performance in the Sony Ericsson Open tennis tournament.
She was working hard in practice with her coach and close friend, Julian Vespan, trying to get stronger and overcome her nerves, which were impacting her game. As it turned out, Kleybanova lost 7-5, 6-3 to Ekaterina Makarova in the first round in Miami, and she began working to shake off the disappointment.
But there were mounting signs that something was wrong with Kleybanova, physical symptoms that would soon become too serious to ignore. She was feeling weak, suffering from a strength-sapping tiredness with fever and chills that seemed to fit a diagnosis of the flu. She kept playing, taking antibiotics, but was losing matches and feeling more run-down.
The terrible truth was revealed last May: Kleybanova, then 21, was diagnosed with stage two Hodgkin's lymphoma, a form of cancer affecting her lymph nodes. Tennis was put on hold for 10 months while she underwent radiation and chemotherapy in Italy. She is now cancer-free and will make her return against Johanna Larsson as a wild card in the first round of this year's Sony Ericsson Open, which begins March 20.
"For me, it's going to be like everything is new," said Kleybanova, a native of Moscow. "... It's going to be a different kind of match, nobody knows how it is going to turn out, I am just going to try to enjoy it, play the best that I can, see what happens. For now, my dream has come true, that I am here and back on the court. That is like the biggest thing for me in my life. From now on, I am just happy to play tennis, and if I am going to be successful, that's going to be fantastic."
Kleybanova puts a sunny spin on what she has been through, in keeping with her upbeat personality. She makes jokes about her ear-length hair, quipping that it looked better before chemotherapy, which stripped away her formerly long, thick, sun-streaked locks.
She hints at being weakened and ill from the treatments. The chemotherapy took away her strength, while the radiation on her upper chest to treat the lymph nodes burned her skin. The tennis rackets stayed in the closet, and she chose not to keep up with the game while she underwent treatment at hospitals in Rome and Perugia. Boyfriend Giacomo Rigoni, a professional volleyball player in Italy, stayed close.
Kleybanova's life as a professional tennis player was hanging in the balance while saving her life took priority. She finished treatments and was cleared to play in December. She has been working for the past two months in West Palm Beach, Fla., to regain her form and conditioning. She will continue to be watchful of her health, getting regular oncology checkups to make sure the lymphoma has stayed in remission.
"I am really emotional to be back, to just hit some balls," Kleybanova said. "I'm really, really happy already."
Kleybanova acknowledges she has been through a life-changing ordeal, discussing the details with a smile. Vespan beams when asked about Kleybanova's strength, realizing this return to the court is a happy end to a terrifying episode they have endured together.
"I never saw her cry, not once, but I could see she was in much pain from the treatments," Vespan said. "I would go see her, and she would be fine, but I was then not. I was not feeling as strong as she was because I saw how she looked. She was weak on the outside, but strong on the inside. Always."
Vespan used his left hand to further explain.
"We went down, it was bad," Vespan said, pointing his hand to the ground. "But I think now we are up, very high, and the good will be much better than the bad."
Vespan knows Kleybanova very well, having worked with her since she was 16. He felt she was becoming sicker by the tournament in early 2011, and he watched her growing symptoms, which by May included a small lump in her neck, with great concern.
She fell particularly ill in Rome, but still wanted to try to play in the French Open. Vespan begged her to see another doctor, to check for something more than just a nagging virus.
An X-ray of her neck was taken, and Vespan knew his friend was seriously ill by the concerned look in the doctor's eyes. He was told there was a strong likelihood of cancer, a potential diagnosis that floored Vespan.
"I was shaking, I was in shock," Vespan said. "It was so terrible, I couldn't even think about that. Why? Not my friend. Not Alisa. She was so young, too young to be so sick like they said. This is the last time I speak of this, it is too terrible, and it is now over."
Vespan broke the news to Kleybanova. He was upset just thinking about saying the word "cancer" to her; it was too horrible to utter out loud. To his surprise, she took the probable diagnosis very calmly, without tears. He said her eyes grew wide, she leaned back in her chair as if deflated and then perked up a second later to ask him a question.
"So, what do we have to do to fix this?" Kleybanova said, according to Vespan.
As they have for many years as coach and player, Vespan and Kleybanova got to work, trying to "fix" her cancer. And when she was ready to start playing again, they were back together on the court. Her return to practice in early February was challenging: Kleybanova wasn't sure what condition her game would be in and Vespan didn't know how hard to push her on the court.
Both were pleasantly surprised. Her powerful groundstrokes came back easily, and he discovered his player wanted him to push her again. There have been a few down practice days filled with frustration, but Vespan thinks Kleybanova, now ranked No. 177 because of the layoff, can get back to where she was before the cancer.
Kleybanova said she has no ranking or title expectations for herself, as she looks at the game in a different light. The once-significant annoyances of traveling, practicing when she doesn't feel like it or getting upset over a blown forehand don't seem as big anymore. Whatever happens in Key Biscayne, and the rest of the tennis season, she will approach it with a sense of gratefulness and joy.
A year has passed and many things have changed. The things that have always mattered to Kleybanova have become only more precious: good health, family and friends, and her love of competing.
"I obviously look at things differently -- I enjoy it more," Kleybanova said. "It's tennis, it's a sport, and you are never at your best every day. Keep working, and I think the most important thing is to be happy with a smile on your face, because if you're suffering, it's never going to work."