INFLUENCE of tragic tennis star is husband’s driving force as her academy builds link in Scotland
NINO Severino is never alone. He wasn’t when Elena Baltacha was alive and he isn’t now that she is dead.
Initially her coach, they fell in love and eventually married, spending almost every minute together, their lives completely intertwined. “She used to say ‘Nin, I’m just so comfortable with you’ which was just as well because we would wake up together, have breakfast together, go to a tournament together, train together or do work for the Foundation together, then we would go home, have dinner together, sit and laugh together and then we would go to bed together. The next day we would wake up and do it all again and I loved every minute of it. My wife was a wonderful woman. But I do think we took it all for granted. I don’t think we appreciated it as much as we should have. Not when I look back now.”
The pain of losing his wife, his best friend and his soul-mate – “It’s funny but, for me,the fact she was a world-class tennis player always comes last now” – aged just 30 after a dogged but all too short battle with cancer, is still exceptionally raw but having first managed to survive it, a year on, he is finding a way to deal with it.
Whether he is sitting at home, just him and the dog that used to occupy the space on the sofa between him and Bally, or out on a tennis court coaching; in the middle of the day or engulfed by the darkness of night, he feels the presence of his wife in everything he does.
He says he can hear her telling him that he’s “going on a bit” as he sits talking about the warm, engaging and inspiring young woman he still can’t fully comprehend life without. But most of all he can feel her encouragement as he seeks to preserve her legacy through the Elena Baltacha Academy of Tennis and the Elena Baltacha Foundation.
Based in her hometown of Ipswich, it was set up to tackle the elitism of middle-class tennis and take tennis into schools and introduce it to kids who would not have the opportunity to try it otherwise. Opportunity was a word she used a lot, according to her husband.
“She knew that to have an opportunity was important,” he says. “She knew she had been given great opportunities through tennis and she wanted to pass that on, starting in Ipswich and we are now branching out in Scotland.
“It was quite a mission to try to change the mindset of some of the middle-class people involved in tennis. It was a big fight and she did that at the same time she was touring. That’s what I like to say now because she wouldn’t let me when she was here. She would say ‘don’t go on about it, Nino’. I wanted people to know what but she was humble. She would just say ‘Dont!’ and that was me put in my place. So we would fly back from wherever and we would still be at the airport when she was asking what schools we were at the next day. She would go there, promote the tennis and still train twice a day and get herself ready for somewhere like Indian Wells or Miami. It was a hell of a commitment. I can still see Bal’s butt sticking up in the back of the van as she is in there loading rackets and balls, because it was only me and her in those early days. What a woman!
“If she was normal she wouldn’t have done what she did and she wouldn’t have attracted so many people to her to love her and be devoted to her. On the courts she always seemed so aggressive and a fighter but off it she was the softest, kindest thing ever. But she had that engine and she never saw limitations.”
It sums up the drive and the dedication of a woman who never lost her humilty or her humour. Severino still takes solace from silly home videos they made larking about with their dog and although he still hasn’t been able to confront the wedding album, he has learned to find comfort in the giant images of his wife that look down on him as he coaches others at the National Tennis Centre or at the Academy.
Her death came just seven months after she had retired from a career in which she was ranked in the WTA top 50 in two consecutive seasons and included 11 ITF singles titles and four ITF doubles titles. It also came just six months after she and Severino married and much too soon after her liver cancer was diagnosed.
It was also after she launched the Academy to offer kids from underprivileged backgrounds a route into tennis. It is her vision for the Academy and the Elena Baltacha Foundation which will be her lasting legacy.
“At first it was hard to go in there and see Bal’s picture. I would just cry so much. It was very, very traumatic but now it is much more of a comfort. When I see the children I know they are there because of Bal and I see the coaches, who have a real passion, and they are there because of Bal. We go into schools and we see thousands and thousands of children and it is comforting but at the beginning it was just so raw, I was just so deeply immersed in hurt and going there just made it more hurtful. I now see it as a positive and being up here in Scotland, establishing this partnership with the Western Tennis Club is helpful for me.”
The club staged a Rally for Bally fundraiser last night and will now work in partnership with the Academy going forward.
“Even though Bal is gone, the people who knew and still love her and are devoted to her are driving everything forward. To have this Scotland link is very, very important to me because I know it would have meant the world to her because she absolutely loved Scotland and we were even talking about buying a place up here so we could spend a lot more time here.”
They had their life together plotted out and plenty to look forward. But in coming to terms with that being snatched from them he says it is his wife he feels sorry for as much as himself. He knows how much she attacked life and would love to see things at the Academy evolve, relishing the chance to open her sport up to even more communities. “That’s one of the biggest things I miss,” he says, “her coming in and all the girls running up and hugging her. There was a big girl inside of Bal. She was young at heart and we have a video clip of her walking into the school with all the girls and you would think she was ten herself the way she was having fun. That’s what we miss and not having Bal there is a big loss.”
Baltacha’s life was a colourful, eventful one, with trials, tribulations, triumphs and tears along the way. It just ended too soon. “Bal always used to talk about the story. She knew she had an interesting story and this is part of it now,” says Severino.
But it’s not the final chapter. For Severino and those closest to her, it’s not the same but a person like Bally cannot truly die – not when she is alive in so many minds, dancing in countless hearts and impacting on so many lives.