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Racket Sports by Charlie Garfinkel: Russian star headlines Miller Center pro tourney

How often do tennis fans in Western New York get to see a female player who has defeated Venus Williams, Kim Clijsters, Ana Ivanovic and Jelena Jankovic, all of whom have been ranked No. 1 one in the world, playing in a professional event?

They can do exactly that by attending Buffalo’s only professional tennis tournament, the Sargent and Collins, LLP, Attorneys at Law Women’s $10,000 Championships, a USTA Pro Circuit event that will be held at the Miller Tennis Center in Williamsville for the third straight year.

The tournament starts today and runs through June 23. Admission is free.

The player who has beaten those four former top-ranked players is Alisa Kleybanova of Russia.

Two years ago, when Kleybanova was 21 years old and ranked No. 20 in the world in singles and 10th in the world in doubles, she was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma, a cancer of the lymphatic system. This forced her to leave the tour for treatment. She overcame the disease and tried to come back just 10 months after receiving her diagnosis.

She won her first match in a pro stop in Key Biscayne, Fla., defeating Johanna Larson, the world’s 64th-ranked player. After losing her next match to 22nd-ranked Maria Kirilenko, however, she realized that she had made a serious mistake. Simply stated, her body was not ready for such a high level of competition. Even though she had defeated Larson, she was totally exhausted long before the match was over. She credited her win to her mental toughness.

For the next few months she trained as hard as she could. She didn’t compete in any tournaments for many months. Fortunately, she has beaten the disease, has worked extremely hard to get her game in top shape, and will be playing in other tournaments like the Miller venue in an effort to attain her top form.

Due to the fact that she is playing again, she will be able to enter as many as eight tournaments that will allow her to use the ranking she had at the time of her diagnosis.

When asked how it felt to be back playing again, Kleybanova said, “It was hard anticipating when I would be back. However, now that I am back and starting to play tournaments again, I couldn’t be more thrilled.”

Kleybanova stated that even though she has trained very hard, it still isn’t the same as playing tournaments. “Playing and doing well in tournaments is what you need to build up your confidence,” Kleybanova said.

She has an extremely powerful serve and ground strokes. She is equally adept in doubles as she is in singles and hopes to be ranked in the top 100 in the world in singles next year by playing as many tournaments as she can. Kleybanova is scheduled to play her first match at the Miller Tennis Center on Wednesday at 5 p.m.

In addition to Kleybanova, there are other players entered in the tournament who are highly regarded. Some of those players and a brief bio follow:

• Sashie Ishizu, Japan: Ishizu is currently ranked 223 in the world by the Women’s Tennis Association. She has won eight Pro Circuit tournaments in her career.

• Jessica Moore, Australia: Moore is No. 398 in the WTA singles rankings. She has been ranked as high as 132 in singles and 109 in doubles. She has won 12 singles and doubles tournaments in Pro Circuit events. She reached the second round of the 2008 Australian and U.S. Opens and the 2009 Australian Open.

• Nika Kukharchuk, Russia: Kukharchuk is the defending champion in the Sargent and Collins tournament.

• Beatrice Capra, United States: She was formerly ranked 201 in singles by the WTA. She reached the third round of the 2010 U.S. Open, beating Karolina Sprem, a former Wimbledon quarterfinalist.

• Angela Haynes, United States: She has gone three sets with Serena Williams at Wimbledon and has also reached the third round of the U.S. Open. Haynes has been ranked as high as 95 in singles and 86 in doubles.

Todd Miller, who owns the Miller Tennis Center with his wife, Debbie, called it “an honor and a privilege for Debbie and I to present such a high level of tennis to the Western New York area.”