SO, WHAT have we learned from the Rally for Bally? First and foremost, the rest of the world has discovered what everyone in the sport has known for years: that Elena Baltacha was a one-off. Maybe she was not the greatest tennis player the tour has ever known but she was one of the feistiest competitors on the court and one of the nicest and most genuine people off it.
The collection of grand slam champions who turned out for the charity exhibition match at Queen’s Club yesterday, the Rally for Bally, was proof positive that Baltacha’s character, personality and sheer love of the job she did and the life she led affected everyone who knew her. The money raised yesterday will be divided evenly between the Elena Baltacha Academy of Tennis – known as EBAT – and the Royal Marsden Cancer charity.
The good and the great lined up to take part and, true to Bally’s memory, they all wanted to win. Ross Hutchins led the team of Victoria Azarenka and Heather Watson while Andy Murray was joined by his brother Jamie – a fellow Wimbledon champion – and Martina Hingis. Laura Robson, sporting a huge cast on her left arm, obviously could not take part but, instead, practised for her television role at Wimbledon this year by doing a few off-the-cuff (or off-the-cast) interviews and offering a few words of punditry and wisdom. And she did a lot of tweeting.
What would have given Baltacha the greatest joy, though, was the sight of four girls from her own academy being coaxed onto the court by Andy Murray to join in the moment. By that stage in the match – a pro set and a champions’ tiebreak – the Wimbledon champion had fluffed chance after chance and was being given serious stick by Hingis, his partner for that game. Fleeing the court, he persuaded Patricia Conde, Ellie Robus-Miller, Amber Harding and Jasmine Payne to stand in for him.
The four wandered shyly towards the service line only to be given their instructions by Hingis. Acting like a rather fierce mother hen, she arranged the kids in front of her and acted as wicket keeper on the baseline – if they missed a ball, she was there to collect it and keep the rally going. After a couple of air shots, finally the kids got the hang of it and got into the rally. The first ball that went over the net got the biggest cheer of the day and before long, all four were having the time of their life. All but one of them could barely see over the net, but they gave it their all – in true Baltacha fashion – and impressed the man they had come on to replace. “They were great,” Murray said. “Some of them were playing for the first time with big rackets as well which makes it even harder for them. I hope they enjoyed it and I’m pretty sure we will be seeing some more of them in the future.”
“It’s a very big day, very important,” Hingis added. “To have the kids continue – give a lot of money so the little ones can play in the future. It’s a great sport and I was very fortunate to be able to play tennis so this day gives a chance for the kids to play in the future.”
On the clubhouse balcony, Baltacha’s husband, Nino Severino and his son and daughter, Carlo and Anna, and Baltacha’s brother, Sergei, and sister-in-law Rosie looked on. It is only six weeks since Baltacha lost her battle with liver cancer, and attending events like yesterday’s celebration of her life is still hard for her immediate family. Even so, the affection that flowed from the court in waves will have helped and will, in time, be a memory to treasure. “Bally was obviously a great person,” Murray said. “So many players have turned out – it shows what a tremendous amount of respect people have for her.”
Azarenka was having a great time. Persuading the nearest policeman to lend her his helmet, she ended up umpiring the match during the deciding tie-break. And being on Hutchins’ team, she was awarding every point possible to her team-mates.
“The first match I played with Bally was in Eastbourne,” she said. “She was such an amazing fighter. In Fed Cup, too, you could see how proud she was representing her country.”
What we also learned from yesterday’s supposedly good-natured exhibition match is that Hingis does not do hit-and-giggle; she plays to win. When Murray made four consecutive errors and Team Andy dropped serve (Hingis was doing the serving), she was quite blunt. “I lost my serve because of Andy,” she pointed out when offered the microphone. And when he missed a simple put-away, one presented to him on a plate by the Swiss former world No 1, the old flounce and toss of the pig-tail was back in evidence – and that is never a good sign. Which probably explains why Murray called the kids into play.
In the end, Team Ross won, more or less. Azarenka may be one of the world’s best players but her grasp of simple counting is a little lacking and that can be a problem for an umpire. According to her, her team-mates won the tiebreak but when the EBAT kids joined in, there were at least six points that went missing in the middle of that decider. Murray did admit defeat but there was a distinct feeling that if the event is held again next summer, Miss Hingis will want to be on the other team.
• To donate to the Rally for Bally, go to www.justgiving.com/RallyForBally