Sunday 25 February 2018

Baltacha counted her days the right way

Elena Baltacha
Elena Baltacha

Eamonn Sweeney

If you look at the stats, it wasn't a special career. She made the world's top 50, consistently qualified for Grand Slam events, reached the third round of the Australian Open and Wimbledon, won over $1 million in career earnings, won 11 International Tennis Federation tournaments and four years ago beat current world number two Li Na and then reigning French Open champion Francesca Schiavone.

It was a good professional career, she was better at tennis than most of us will be at anything in our lives, but it wasn't out of the ordinary. Not till you consider the fact that at the age of 19, the year after she'd reached the semi-finals of Junior Wimbledon and just as she was beginning her professional career, Elena Baltacha was diagnosed with a disease known as Primary Sclerosing Chlorangitis.

PSC is a disease of the bile duct. A serious one which can lead to cirrhosis and liver cancer, sufferers live an average of 25 more years after they're diagnosed. On average, they either die or receive a liver transplant within ten years. It was some burden to place on a teenage girl. For the rest of her life, Elena Baltacha would have to take eight tablets twice a day to keep the condition under control. At the time a doctor told her that she had worse scarring on her liver than George Best did.

Yet it did not stop her pursing her tennis dreams. She was known on the circuit for her cheerful demeanour and positive outlook in the face of her debilitating disease. Just three years ago, she told an interviewer, "Thanks to medicine, a disease that would have killed me is manageable. That's pretty amazing . . . I don't ask for any special consideration. I'm proof that you can overcame a serious condition and live a normal life. I'm not cured but I'm not going to let it stand in my way."

In the end, it got her. In January, just a month after Elena's marriage to her coach, Nino Severino, she was diagnosed with liver cancer. And this day last week this brave and brilliant woman died at her home in Ipswich at the age of 30, surrounded by her friends and family.

It would break your heart to think about it. Elena Baltacha, who worked hard all her life and never complained in public about the bum hand she'd been dealt and tried to always look on the bright side, was as undeserving of her fate as anyone could be. She had achieved a great deal in her life yet there was not the same massive outpouring of public sentiment which attended the death of Peaches Geldof or various recent public declarations of depression and gambling addiction by sportsmen.

You could say that this is because that pool of sentiment is an extremely shallow one. It measures tragedy by the celebrity of the victim. It is selective in its sympathy, the journalists and keyboard warriors who stuck the boot into young Pádraig Gaffney last week would have forgiven far worse sins had he been famous. And it is inordinately fond of depression, or at least the milder forms which can be cured by a few visits to a counsellor. The chronic long-term mental illness or the junkie goofing off on the Luas maybe not so much.

Cancer resists sentiment. Terminal cancer simply proves that life is unfair. You can't claim an identification with those who die young from cancer. You can't, for obvious reasons, go online and say that you died from cancer and found it an ultimately enriching experience which made you stronger. There is no tidy little homily or self-glorifying message the social media narcissist can extract from a fate like Elena Baltacha's.

And that's why her death got a fraction of the coverage afforded to that of Peaches Geldof who had choices Elena Baltacha never had after she turned 19, Elena, who also had an unsettled childhood, moving to Ipswich from Kiev with her footballer father Sergei, moving soon afterwards to Perth and Paisley as he pursued the peripatetic life of an ageing pro. She overcame that but she could not overcome cancer.

Her life was an example. Her death is a tragedy. A meaningless tragedy. In the words of the American poet James Schuyler, "A few days are all we have. So count them as they pass. They pass too quickly out of breath: don't dwell on the grave which yawns for one and all."

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