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Elena Baltacha: Tennis loses an inspiring figure

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  • by STUART BATHGATE
 

ALTHOUGH she could play tennis with a fearsome ferocity, off the court Elena Baltacha was gentleness personified.

Hampered by health problems for most of her career, she never bemoaned her lot, and always preferred to pay attention to the needs of others.

By the time of her retirement in 2013, not long after her 30th birthday, she had already spent several years working at her tennis academy in Ipswich with her coach and husband Nino Severino, helping introduce the sport to children from a wide range of backgrounds.

Quietly spoken and unassertive, she was nonetheless comfortable when dealing with the media, a result in part of having grown up when Sergei, her footballing father, was very much in the public eye.

Her mother, Olga, was an international-class athlete who gave up her own career to look after Elena and her older brother, Sergei junior. She played a crucial role in Elena’s tennis development, not only through her own sporting knowledge, but also through her practical, daily support.

When Elena was on the verge of turning professional, her immense promise having become apparent, she and Olga moved from Scotland to north London.

I met her for the first time there in 2001, one evening when she came home exhausted from training, and I asked how she liked to spend what little free time she had. “Put my feet up, watch TV – and cuddles with mum,” she said.

She was 17 then, already dedicated to her sport at an age when many of her peers were discovering the joy of partying. “I don’t want to be the centre of attention,” she explained. “I just want to get on with my work – improving my tennis and being the best I can be.”

She got on with her work, all right, putting immense effort into her quest to realise her potential.

In 2002, her second year at Wimbledon, she beat the former world No 3 Amanda Coetzer on an outside court thronging with Scottish supporters, and it seemed there was little that could stop her from getting to the highest levels of the game. But then, the following year, having felt she was becoming unusually tired after matches, she went for tests. “How much do you drink, anyway?” the doctor asked on bringing her the results.

Virtually nothing, was the answer, and eventually it was realised that the damage to her liver was being done by a condition called primary sclerosing cholangitis.

The condition was kept under control, but there was always an underlying worry about its effects. In her early career she had one of the fastest serves in the women’s game – one year at Wimbledon, only the Williams sisters were faster – and when she was on song she could bludgeon opponents into submission.

Later on, she lacked that power, and at times the frustration was evident, as she struggled to comprehend how she had lost to less gifted opponents. The answer, of course, was that those opponents still had the gift of full health, something she would not enjoy for the rest of her short life.

Even so, she battled on with undemonstrative determination, and reached the best world ranking of her career as late as 2010.

She thought of calling it a day on several occasions before her eventual retirement, but each time her love of tennis dissuaded her. She had so much to give the sport, and always gave of it unstintingly, and uncomplainingly.

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