TRIBUTES and messages flooded in after the news of Elena Baltacha’s death at the age of 30. From the legends – Billie Jean King and Martina Navratilova – to today’s superstars, Serena Williams and Maria Sharapova.
Jo Durie had known her for 15 years, first meeting Baltacha when she went to work with Durie and Alan Jones in north London and for the next decade they worked and travelled together.
“When she first came to us, she was this kind of bundle of energy and enthusiasm – it was quite raw,” Durie recalled. “She had a very good serve, a totally natural serve, but all this energy that needed to be channelled in the right way because sometimes it was just a bit much.
“Some of the time we had to just calm her down a bit – calm down, breathe – because she got so excited and so motivated for her matches that she couldn’t quite get the best out of herself.
“I’ve seen her win some matches that she had no right to win. It was only because of her own character and wanting it so much and so badly.
“She took the same kind of attitude to her liver condition. We were with her when she was diagnosed with it at 19.
“Alan went with her to the specialist, with Olga, her mum, as well, and he said, ‘Look this is really, really serious’, so we knew from the age of 19 that this was serious, that it was not curable but it was manageable for a certain amount of time. We just thought that she would have so much more time.”
The world of tennis is not known for its sense of camaraderie. The women’s locker room in particular can be a hostile environment for the faint-hearted, but Baltacha was that rare thing in the women’s game: a genuine and open personality. No-one had a bad word to say about her.
“How many messages have we seen around today?” Durie asked. “Hundreds of them from players on the tour saying what a nice person she was, you could always approach her, she was very chatty and had a laugh.
“We had so many laughs together. I travelled with her for a little bit and we had the hard work but we had a good time off the court as well. She was very easy to be with, very friendly.
“I think she made the absolute most of her tennis because she not only had this condition, she had the back surgery, loads of other things that went wrong as well as that.
“What I liked about Bally was that she didn’t like to talk about that side, she just got on with it. She would never use that as an excuse. She was very motivated to get on with the tennis and not let anything hold her back.”
When she revealed that she had cancer, Baltacha vowed to fight it “with everything I have”. That was Baltacha’s way – to fight for all she was worth. That is what made yesterday’s news all the more shocking: Bally had lost that fight. The mood in the players’ hotel at the Mutua Madrid Open was more than sombre as the world’s best players came to terms with the news.
“I came down for breakfast at the hotel this morning and it felt like the atmosphere was very dark,” Andrea Petkovic, the world No 28 from Germany, said. “Everybody was speaking more quietly than usual, no-one was laughing, they all had their heads down. Everybody was shocked.
“When you are confronted by death, you really don’t know what to do, especially when it is someone who is around you all the time.
“What does a win or a loss matter? You get depressed afterwards when you have lost a match, you have certain injuries and there are things you can’t control but it doesn’t really matter that much when something as shocking as this happens.
“These people are your opponents but what does the word opponent really mean? It doesn’t matter that much.”
As Sam Stosur, the former US Open champion who had known Baltacha since they were juniors together said: “I think she will be remembered as a nice girl, always would say hello, one of those players that you respected but, more importantly, just a nice person. Somebody who shouldn’t be gone.”