Saturday 21 April 2018

Obituaries: Elena Baltacha

Tennis star who battled ill-health to become the number one ranked woman player in Britain

FORTITUDE: Elena Baltacha. Photo: John Walton/PA Wire
FORTITUDE: Elena Baltacha. Photo: John Walton/PA Wire

ELENA Baltacha, who died last Sunday of liver cancer aged 30, was for much of this century Britain's top-ranked woman tennis player, an achievement made all the more remarkable given her record of ill health.

Diagnosed at 19 with a chronic liver condition, primary sclerosing cholangitis, she was left feeling drained and fatigued, with "barely the energy to get out of bed in the mornings". Thereafter she had to struggle with injuries to her back and hip, as well as a problem with bone spurs in her ankle which required a series of operations.

But "Bally", as she was known, was widely regarded as one of the most dedicated competitors on court. Judy Murray, mother of the British men's number one, Andy Murray, and a keen observer of players' mental and physical fortitude, noted that "[Baltacha's] work ethic and competitive spirit are second to none. If we could bottle those qualities, we would have many more top players."

Elena Sergeevna Baltacha was born on August 14, 1983, a month before Anne Keothavong, who was to be her longtime rival for the British number one ranking. Both were born to immigrant families: Keothavong's parents had fled war in Laos, while Elena Baltacha's father, Sergei, a professional footballer with Dynamo Kiev, arrived in Britain after signing for Ipswich Town. Elena's mother, Olga, was also an athlete, having represented the Soviet Union as a heptathlete.

Elena was just five when the family settled in Ipswich, though she did not totally forget the land of her birth, once notably knocking the Russian player, Maria Sharapova, off her stride by talking Russian on court. Most of Elena's childhood, however, was spent in Scotland, where her father moved after just a year playing for 'The Tractor Boys' in Ipswich. North of the border, he played for St Johnstone and Inverness Caledonian Thistle, and it was in Scotland that Elena Baltacha began to forge her tennis career. She played her first match as a junior aged 13, and was quickly among the pool of talented teenagers that Judy Murray began nurturing.

It soon became apparent that Elena Baltacha was a big hitter with great determination. Her unwillingness to complain would come to the fore as she embarked on a professional tennis tour that, for players like her, in the lower half of the world top-100 ranking, can prove more gruelling than glamorous.

Not that her career was without its highlights. She was just 18 when, in 2002, she knocked the seeded South African Amanda Coetzer out of Wimbledon. That year she won the first two, of 11, singles titles. Three times – at Wimbledon in 2002 and in Australia in 2005 and 2010 – she advanced to the third round of Grand Slam tournaments. Her career-high world ranking was 49.

For 11 years she was also a pillar of Britain's Federation Cup team, winning 33 and losing only 16 of her matches. In 2012 she was again able to play for Britain, in the London Olympics: "To be able to say I am an Olympian ... it was just an unbelievable experience."

Nonetheless she had found playing through the pain of her ankle injury an increasing strain. Instead she began to dedicate more of her time to the tennis academy in Ipswich that she set up with her partner and coach, Nino Severino, whom she was to marry. Then, suddenly, she rediscovered her appetite for the game.

"I'll be 30 this year," she told the Telegraph. "I could play for four or five more years if I got myself in incredible shape. I had been going for 10 years but to have that bit of time off, it really made me realise what I want to do." It was not to be.

In November she formally announced her retirement. It was in January this year that a routine scan revealed that her liver condition had led to cancer.

Elena Baltacha is survived by her husband.

Sunday Independent

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