ELENA Baltacha believes she has three or four more years left in tennis, and has set herself the target of reclaiming the British No 1 spot.
Speaking after her 6-4, 6-1 defeat by Flavia Pennetta in yesterday’s first round, Baltacha revealed that she had retired – without announcing it – after last year’s Olympic Games, but said that during an eight-month break to recover from foot surgery she had rediscovered her love for the game.
In the build-up to London 2012, the Ukraine-born Scot mentioned retirement a lot in interviews, hinting that she would devote herself full-time to running her tennis academy in Ipswich with coach Nino Severino. But, while she retains her enthusiasm for that project, she has also decided that she should continue playing while she is able.
“Actually, I did retire after the Olympics,” Baltacha explained. “Since I had the surgery, I said to Nino, there’s no point going through the rehab, going through all that, trying to get myself back to say, ‘I’m only going to play for a year’. There’s too much you’re sacrificing, the hard work.
“I’m 30 this year. So I still think I’ve got a good three, four years unless something happens and I won’t be able to with the body. I think if I look after myself, I have a good few years left.”
Baltacha received a wildcard for Wimbledon, and can also claim the right to wildcards for forthcoming tournaments because of her time out recuperating from that surgery. She will use that right to try to get her world ranking up from its current 167 and back toward the top 50, which she briefly entered in late 2010. Only if she approaches that position is she likely to have a chance of overtaking Laura Robson and Heather Watson and reclaiming that national
No 1 ranking.
“At the moment I really need to get my ranking back up so I can get myself into the bigger events,” she explained. “I’ve probably missed the cut for the US Open main draw, [so] my main goal would be to try to make the cut for the Aussie main draw.
“From there you can set like bigger targets. The challenge I’ve kind of set myself is I want my No 1 spot back. I had it for a while. Laura and Heather, they’re young and very talented. Seeing what both of them are doing, I just find that it’s a really good challenge.
“Realistically, am I going to get it? I don’t know. But I think in a year and a half, maybe two years, with all the work I’ve put in, hopefully I’ll be a contender for it.”
The press conference at which Baltacha delivered these words was the first to be held in the Wimbledon auditorium at this year’s Championships, and the British player, whose match on court three began at 11:30am,
was out of the competition by the time Roger Federer began his defence of the men’s crown. Her match against Pennetta promised to be close on paper – the Italian is only one place higher, at 166, in the present rankings – but in reality there was a yawning gap between the two.
Perhaps a more relevant comparison is in the players’ relationship to the top ten. Baltacha has three career wins over the women from that elite group: Pennetta was once a member of it herself.
The British player has been in good form recently, having won in Nottingham earlier this month. But she looked leaden-footed compared to Pennetta, whose superior mobility was evident from the first game, in which she broke serve.
Baltacha’s principal weapon throughout her career has been her serve, which at its best is one of the fiercest in the women’s game. In this match it did not deliver a single ace for her, while Pennetta served consistently well.
After being broken for a second time to go 5-2 down the home favourite rallied by breaking back immediately, then closed to 5-4 with her best game of the set. But Pennetta kept her composure, wrapped up the set in the next game, then raced into a 4-0 lead in the second before closing out the contest in comfort.
“I knew going into the match that if someone has been ten in the world, they’re going to be dangerous,” Baltacha added. “Even if she’s dropped in the ranking. I know she’s had some problems with her wrist, because I get on well with her, so we speak quite a lot in the locker room. I knew she was going to be dangerous and not to take her lightly. I think on the whole she played a very, very solid match. And I think I didn’t play my best. I didn’t play how I have been the last week and a half.”