Scottish tennis 'warrior' Elena Baltacha to be celebrated in TV documentary five years after her death

Scottish tennis star was just 30 when she passed away in May 2014.
Scottish tennis star was just 30 when she passed away in May 2014.
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Judy Murray is to lead tributes to a Scottish tennis star who lost her life to liver cancer at the age of 30 - months after being urged to see a doctor by friends and family after suffering coughing fits in the run-up to her wedding day.

A new TV documentary will see the tennis coach recall the impact Elena Baltacha made on the sport as rose through the rankings to become British number one despite being dogged by illness and injury.

However family and friends recall for the first time the devastating impact of a diagnosis she was given just weeks after organising her "fairytale" wedding to her former coach, Nino Severino, a month after retiring from the sport.

Speaking on the documentary, which will be shown on BBC Alba on 1 December, Nino Severino revealed that Baltacha was "suffering quite a lot" on the day of their wedding, after her family had put her earlier coughing fits down to a virus.

Describing the moment she told him about her cancer diagnosis in hospital, he said: "That was the start of the hell."

Baltacha had been diagnosed with primary sclerosing cholangitis (PSC), a rare liver condition which compromises the immune system, when she was 19, and had to have medication and regular blood tests throughout her career.

Nino Severino, Elena Baltacha's long-time coach, married her in December 2013, just weeks before she was diagnosed with cancer.

Nino Severino, Elena Baltacha's long-time coach, married her in December 2013, just weeks before she was diagnosed with cancer.

The documentary recalls how Baltacha was taken to hospital in severe pain in January 2014 and was told several days later that she had terminal cancer. Despite flying to America with her family in a desperate bid to survive, she passed away five months later.

Read more: Obituary: Elena Baltacha, former tennis player

Baltacha was born in Kiev but raised in Perth, where her father Sergei played for St Johnstone Football Club, and started playing tennis when she was six years of age.

She went on to win 11 singles titles during her career, made it into the top 50 ranked players in the world and represented Britain in the London Olympics. She also set up her own academy to try to get more children playing tennis, regardless of their backgrounds.

Judy Murray was a friend, mentor and captain of Elena Beltacha.

Judy Murray was a friend, mentor and captain of Elena Beltacha.

Her death less than two years later shocked the tennis world, with Billie Jean King, Rafa Nadal, Maria Sharapova, Serena Williams, Andy Murray and Martina Navratilova among those to pay tribute.

Read more: Tennis world shocked at death of Elena Baltacha

The documentary has been made for BBC Alba by Purple TV, the Glasgow-based production company behind recent tributes to Scottish football legends Tommy Burns, Jock Stein and Jim Baxter.

Murray, one of Baltacha's key mentors and her Federation Cup captain, recalled the impact made by a promising new player at a tournament in her home town of Dunblane when she was just nine years of age.

Elena Baltacha's father Sergei was a star player for St Johnstone Football Club in Perth.

Elena Baltacha's father Sergei was a star player for St Johnstone Football Club in Perth.

She said: "She won the tournament, her thumping serve meaning she lodged the balls in the hedge upsetting her opponent in the process. It was an indicator of her natural strength. You know, little girls aged nine just do not serve like that."

Recalling Baltacha's rise to prominence in British tennis, Murray said: "She was just really generous of spirit and yet if you watched her playing tennis you would see a ferocious competitor that looked as tough as nails.

"It's almost like this split personality. On the court. the competitor and the warrior, and off the court, just an absolute gem.

"If you want somebody to lead your team and you want somebody to be a great role model as a British number one, both on and off the court, you would pick her every time.

"She was a great leader of the team because you could stick her in as your number one in the absolute certainty that you are going to get 100 per cent effort."

Recalling the build-up to Baltacha's wedding, just weeks after announcing her retirement, Murray said: "She was so happy and so ready for what was going to come next.

"Hopefully family, a career in coaching, building up her academy and so forth."

Baltacha's husband admitted he did not appreciate the impact that her liver condition had during her career.

He said: "It was very difficult because it was a really serious disease and I don't think both of us knew the extent of the disease, now after going through the nightmare I realise how serious it as and I realise why so much of the time she felt so bad. She tired, lethargic and fatigued after tournaments particularly."

Recalling the run-up to her wedding, former British number one Anne Keothavong said: "I just remember her coughing and coughing and she was on her second or third bout of antibiotics. That's what I remember at that meal, thinking: 'You're not well."

Judy Murray said: "She had this cough, and I remember saying to her: 'Have you still got that cough? You've had that for weeks now.' She said: Yeah, I can’t shake it off.' It seemed strange to me at the time that it had lasted for so long."

Nino Severino said: "She he had a lot of coughing at the time on the run up to the wedding. She wasn't feeling that well but we thought she had a virus because none of the medical people had picked it up. But on the day of the wedding she was suffering quite a lot.

"The wedding was the best day our lives, it was something that she wanted so much, to be married. It was a fairytale for both of us. She was beautiful, absolutely beautiful."

Her brother Sergei recalled: "Obviously knowing now what it was, that was the start of it, but nobody really knew then. Eventually, when she did go to the doctor it was too late at that point."

Severino said: "She was in hospital for a few days and after a few days she said to me 'please come in, I've been diagnosed with cancer.' And that was the start of the hell.

"It was just the most mind breaking experience really, a terrible end to an incredible life."

Her father Sergei added: "She led us, she was leader. We started to prepare for her to have operations but this was so fast. It happened so fast. It’s unbelievable and we did not have time to save her because it was so quick."

Margot McCuaig, writer, producer and director of the documentary, said: “Elena Baltacha didn’t just pursue her dreams she embodied them.

“Her strength and resilience was manifested in the empowering manner in which she led both on and off the court.

“As a Scottish national hero it is only just that her life should be celebrated in film and her achievements treasured as part of our rich cultural firmament.”