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Tennis: Cancer survivor Kleybanova aims to boost second class Russia

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(Globalpost/GlobalPost)

Alisa Kleybanova will summon the fighting instincts which helped her defeat cancer when an under-powered Russia tackle favourites Italy in the Fed Cup final this weekend.

Kleybanova, who only returned to the sport this year after being diagnosed with Hodgkin's Lymphoma in 2011, is part of a Russian squad which has been decimated by injuries and pull-outs.

The 24-year-old is currently ranked at 183 in the world while her team will be led by Alexandra Panova, ranked at 136.

Russia are missing the injured Maria Sharapova while fellow top-30 players Maria Kirilenko, Elena Vesnina and Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova opted instead to chase points and prize money at the WTA Tournament of Champions in Sofia.

Despite the odds being stacked against Russia -- Panova is rated only the 12th best player in her country -- Kleybanova refuses to believe Italy are comfortably guaranteed a fourth title to add to their 2006, 2009 and 2010 triumphs.

"Mentally I am ready for things not to work out because I still really want to enjoy my time," Kleybanova, a former top 20 player before her illness, told www.fedcup.com.

"Our team is pretty positive. We shouldn't be upset by a bad day. We have to be happy: we're playing tennis, we're playing for our team, our country, we're proud of it and we are in a great place. Everything is very good."

Kleybanova is the only player in the Russian squad to have previously featured in the Fed Cup while their squad is made up of teenagers Irina Khromacheva, ranked 236, and Margarita Gasparyan, the number 315.

The final, to be played on Saturday and Sunday on slow red clay at the Cagliari Tennis Club, will see the hosts represented by world number seven Sara Errani, Roberta Vinci, the 13th-ranked player, US Open semi-finalist Flavia Pennetta, the number 31, and Karin Knapp, ranked at 41.

Errani and Vinci are also the world's top-ranked doubles pairing.

Russia are four-time Fed Cup champions, having defeated Italy 4-0 in 2007 in Moscow.

Meanwhile, the tournament received a much-needed boost on Thursday when the International Tennis Federation (ITF) announced that the 2014 final will be put back a week with the title showdown to be played on November 8-9.

Next year, there will be an extra week between the ATP's Paris Masters and the ATP World Tour Finals in London, so the Fed Cup final will now be held in that space.

Unlike this week, the final will no longer coincide with the WTA Tournament of Champions.

"Fed Cup is celebrating its 50th birthday this year, and has enjoyed an illustrious history," said ITF president Francesco Ricci Bitti.

"By changing the date we believe we have shown flexibility and concern for the players in helping them to continue to represent their country in this prestigious competition."

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http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/news/afp/131031/tennis-cancer-survivor-kleybanova-aims-boost-second-class-russia