THE world of tennis paid tribute yesterday to former British number one, Elena Baltacha, who lost her battle with liver cancer aged just 30.
The Scottish player was diagnosed with the illness in January, just two months after retiring from the sport and weeks after her marriage to long-time coach Nino Severino. She died at home early on Sunday morning.
Born in Kiev and raised in Perth, she made the British number one slot her own for 132 weeks, won 11 singles titles, and reached the third round of Wimbledon in 2002 and the third round of the Australian Open in 2005 and 2010.
She was diagnosed with a liver condition – primary sclerosing cholangitis, which compromises the immune system – when she was 19 and had medication and regular blood tests throughout her career.
Mr Severino said: “We are heartbroken beyond words at the loss of our beautiful, talented and determined ‘Bally’.
“She was an amazing person and she touched so many people with her inspirational spirit, her warmth and her kindness.”
Seminal figures from the women’s game were among those to pay their respects.
Martina Navratilova, an 18-times grand slam singles champion, who announced in 2010 that she had made a full recovery after being diagnosed with breast cancer, said: “Elena Baltacha was a great fighter on the tennis court.
“We as tennis players always worry about our bodies, trying to keep injuries at bay.
“But cancer – you can’t prevent that and you can’t rehab it either and no matter how much of a fighter you are, sometimes cancer wins.
“Elena was taken from the world much too soon – fighting to the end and we will miss her.”
Baltacha’s British team-mate, Ross Hutchins, who is in remission from Hodgkin’s lymphoma, said he expected she would win her fight with cancer, but was distraught to learn of her death.
He said: “It’s incredibly sad news but we’ll remember her for a long time.
“I heard she was very ill and was struggling for a while, but Elena was a fighter. Whether it comes down to Fed Cup matches, big matches, or with the disease – we always thought she could get through this battle.”
The previously announced “Rally for Bally” – a fundraising series due to be played in June to raise funds for cancer charities – will now go ahead in her memory.
Her childhood friend Andy Murray, said it was “tough” to understand such a “tragic” loss.
Murray, the current men’s Wimbledon singles champion, has committed himself to play in the event along with Navratilova, Greg Rusedski, Tim Henman and Jamie Murray. The money raised will go to the Elena Baltacha Academy of Tennis and the Royal Marsden Cancer Charity.
Mixed doubles exhibition matches at the Aegon Championships at Queen’s Club, the Aegon Classic in Birmingham and the Aegon International in Eastbourne will also raise money for the Royal Marsden charity and the Elena Baltacha Foundation. The Lawn Tennis Association’s head of women’s tennis, Iain Bates, said in a statement: “We have lost a shining light from the heart of British tennis – a true role model, a great competitor and a wonderful friend.
“We have so many special memories to cherish, but this leaves a gaping hole for everybody in both British and women’s tennis, and words simply cannot express how saddened we are by this news.
“All our thoughts are with Nino and the rest of Elena’s family. We will miss you Bal.”
Baltacha’s former coach, Jo Durie, a two-time grand slam champion in mixed doubles, said: “She fought on the tennis court and she had problems she had to fight for the rest of her life. She didn’t find out about the condition until she was about 19, she had to fight through that as well but she always took such a positive view of everything.”
Ms Durie added: “It’s awful, I think we’re all so shocked that it happened so quickly.”
First Minister Alex Salmond said: “With Elena Baltacha’s sad loss at the age of 30, Scotland has lost one our most well-loved sports stars. She was as much a role model for young people off the court as she was a dedicated and superb talent on it.”
Despite her ongoing liver condition, she was Britain’s foremost women’s tennis player from December 2009 to June 2012, achieving her highest singles rank of 49 in September 2010.
The daughter of former Ipswich, St Mirren and Inverness Caley Thistle footballer Sergei, she represented Great Britain for 11 years in the Fed Cup and the London Olympics in 2012.
After deciding to quit the professional game, she had been coaching junior tennis players at her Ipswich-based academy prior to her illness.
Stars past and present united in sadness for ‘lovely’ Bally
SOME of the most celebrated names in sport paid tribute to Elena Baltacha’s “fighting spirit”.
Players past and present took to Twitter to remember the Scot, known in the game as “Bally”.
Current world number one Serena Williams: “My deepest prayers, thoughts, concern and love goes out to Elena Baltacha’s family. I am deeply sorry for your loss. Revelation 21:4.”
Chris Evert, another former world number one who reached more Grand Slam finals than any player in the history of tennis, wrote: “Rest in Peace, beautiful Elena Baltacha. No words…thoughts and prayers…”
Billie Jean King, six times a Wimbledon singles champion, tweeted: “Saddened to hear about Elena Baltacha’s passing. My fondest memory with Bally was sharing a wonderful chat when we met the Queen at Wimbledon.”
Former world number one Maria Sharapova: What sad news to wake up to today. My thoughts and prayers are with Elena’s family on their tragic loss.”
Men’s world number one Rafa Nadal: “Very sad to hear that Elena Baltacha has passed away. RIP.”
Current woman Wimbledon champion Marion Bartoli: “I have no words to describe my sadness. RIP @ElenaBaltacha.”
Ipswich Town football club, where her father Sergei played from 1988-90, wrote on their website: “The club is saddened to learn of the death of Elena Baltacha. Truly inspirational woman, a sad loss. RIP ‘Bally’.”
British number two Johanna Konta said: “You inspired and humbled everything you touched. I know you’re in heaven because that’s where angels belong. Rest in peace Bally. You will never be forgotten.”
Olympic winning cyclist Sir Chris Hoy: “Such sad news about Elena Baltacha. My thoughts go out to her family and friends.”
British number three Heather Watson wrote on Twitter: “We’ve lost our lovely Bally, too young. Rest in peace. My thoughts are with Nino and her family xx”
Elena knew she would be at risk of killer disease
Elena Baltacha would have known for more than a decade that she was at high risk of liver cancer after contracting a chronic condition which affects the immune system.
The tennis star was diagnosed, aged 19, with primary sclerosing cholangitis (PSC), a rare chronic condition which affects the bile ducts and the liver.
PSC affects around one in 16,000 people in the UK and can be diagnosed at any age, but is more common in people aged around 40. The condition is twice as common in men as in women.
Andrew Langford, chief executive of the British Liver Trust, said PSC carries a “high chance” of developing liver cancer.
He said the condition can cause fibrosis in the liver, resulting in a gradual deterioration followed by cirrhosis, a hardening of the organ that can lead to liver cancer.
Although PSC is more common in older people, Mr Langford said they also saw a “lot” of people with the disease in their 20s.
He said Baltacha might have benefited from a liver transplant – but there was a shortage of organs in the UK for transplantation.
“Liver cancer is on the increase at the moment, not because of PSC, but because of other factors around liver disease. It does mean that, unfortunately, there is a great draw not only on liver services but also for any organs that become available for transplantation,” he said.
“We have such a short supply in the UK that it means that some people don’t get them.”
Mr Langford paid tribute to Baltacha’s achievements as a tennis player in spite of her diagnosis.
“It shows the strength of her character. Obviously tennis was her passion despite her liver disease and it makes her achievements even more significant,” he said.
Figures from Cancer Research UK’s website show there are around 4,300 primary liver cancers diagnosed in the UK every year, with the disease more common in men than women.
The risk grows with age with almost 90 per cent of cases in people aged over 55.