ON Sunday, Marion Bartoli will repay a debt. Last summer, Elena Baltacha helped her win Wimbledon and, this coming weekend, the Frenchwoman will turn out at Queen’s Club for the Rally for Bally, one of a series of exhibition matches to be played in order to raise money for Baltacha’s tennis academy in Ipswich and for the Royal Marsden Cancer charity.
When the news broke last month that Baltacha had succumbed to liver cancer at the age of just 30 and only a little over three months after she was diagnosed, everyone in the sport was shocked. Those who knew her well were heartbroken and even those who barely knew her were stunned that one of their own could struck down at such a young age.
As a result, the response to the Rally for Bally has been both impressive and heartfelt.
Three mixed doubles matches will be held at the three grass court venues in England. Anne Keothavong, Tim Henman, Martina Navratilova and Jamie Murray will be in action in Birmingham. Petra Kvitova, Greg Rusedski, Agnieszka Radwanska and Johnny Marray will play in Eastbourne and, at Queen’s Club, Bartoli will join Andy Murray and Ross Hutchins and one more star player, yet to be announced.
Bartoli retired from tennis a month after her Wimbledon victory but immediately offered to do whatever she could for the charity fundraiser. Last summer, as she trudged around the tour, she found herself in Eastbourne. She had not won a title in two years, she was constantly battling injuries and the best results she had had all year were a couple of quarter-final spots – she had just about had enough. And then she ran into the ever-optimistic, ever-positive Baltacha.
“I will always remember the chat we had together before Wimbledon started,” Bartoli said. “She really gave me this extra boost to just enjoy it more on the court. I was really not feeling good mentally in Eastbourne and I will never forget that chat we had in the locker-room. She even gave me some advice on my hair colour. I had to cancel many things in order to be there, but I couldn’t miss it for anything in the world.
“She helped me to put tennis more in perspective, to put happiness in first, instead of tennis in first. Everyone said my attitude even on the court changed. I was so much more relaxed during Wimbledon. Of course we spoke about girls’ stuff, hair colour and whatever. But that was who she was – trying to help to be just happy.
“To me, in a way, she is almost still with us. It’s hard to imagine she will not be there and I will not see her again.”
The fact that so many of the great and the good in tennis want to be involved in the Rally for Bally is a testament to Baltacha’s personality and character. Feisty and a fighter on court, she was cheerful and direct off it. There was no side to Baltacha and absolutely no self-pity, no matter what the circumstance. She battled through career-threatening injuries, she dealt with a chronic liver condition but never once did she complain. She just got on with it and tried to look on the positive side of every situation.
“Of course, everyone knows her as the tennis player,” Bartoli said, “but I knew her outside and I was very lucky. She was always so humble and so nice, sometimes in the locker-roomm, especially when it’s so competitive, you end up with everybody on their own and thinking about themselves only.
“Bally was someone who was open to everyone and who was feeling the sadness of someone else and she was there to help you, or the joy of someone else and she was there to share it with you.
“I remember her as someone so open to everyone. Obviously she was a fighter on the court. She had so many injuries and so many problems, she was always coming back and I never saw her make a bad comment about any of the other girls. She was gentle and ready to share the happiness or the tough moments.”
• To donate to the Rally for Bally, go to www.justgiving.com/RallyForBally