Olympics: Games, set and match to Elena Baltacha

Baltacha is looking forward to playing at Wimbledon for Team GB. Picture: PA
Baltacha is looking forward to playing at Wimbledon for Team GB. Picture: PA
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WHEN Elena Baltacha lost her British No.1 ranking last month, she thought her hopes of competing at the Olympic Games – and thus of continuing a family tradition – were gone.

So she was overjoyed last week to learn that she will after all be playing at London 2012, 32 years after her father Sergei played for the Soviet Union football team at the Moscow Games.

Her mother Olga almost made it into the Soviet team too, but had to withdraw from the pentathlon squad to look after Elena’s older brother, Sergei junior. So Elena’s participation is a realisation of her mother’s dream as well as of her own, and will be all the more special for the 28-year-old Scot as the tennis tournament is taking place at Wimbledon.

“The atmosphere is going to be amazing, but I must admit it’s going to be a bit strange to come back and not be wearing white,” Baltacha said of her forthcoming appearance in a Team GB uniform, of which she was informed by Judy Murray after her first-round match last Tuesday. “It’s going to be a bit weird. I know there was a whole thing about it and they wanted it to be all white.

“But it’s going to be special. I still can’t believe it. To have something that big is going to be great.

“The thing is, you’re part of an elite. Only the best athletes in the world are going to be competing, and to be part of that, to see what they do and how they operate – it’s just absolutely unbelievable. I think anyone would want to be in that position.”

“It’s been pretty stressful but, when I found out when Judy told me on court, I can’t explain to you how emotional it was. Everything I felt the last three or four months just all came out. I still can’t believe I’m going to the Olympics.

“When my mum found out she was driving and had to pull over. She’s been stressing about it as well. She rang me up and said ‘I’m so proud, and finally, after all that, it’s amazing’. She was really tearful, but she’s going to come down, which will be nice for her, because she missed out.”

Only one thing would have made last week’s good news even more special for Baltacha – if David Beckham had been chosen for the football squad. “A friend of mine rang me up and said ‘I can’t believe he’s not in the squad’,” she continued. “He travelled to try and promote it and all that. I think he should have been given a slot.”

Beckham is on the brink of retirement, but Baltacha, after suggesting last year that she would call it quits after the Olympics, is now minded to carry on playing for longer. When she does call it a day, a future in coaching awaits – more likely than not at the Academy of Tennis which bears her name and is based in what is now her home town of Ipswich.

“It started about two years ago and we ID’d about 600 girls from five schools, and they’re all from deprived areas in Ipswich, “she explained. “It’s only girls.

“The first lot of ID’ing we did I think went a little bit wrong, cos we ID’d girls from about eight to ten, and then we realised that is probably a little bit too late, that age group. So last year we went in and ID’d girls from five to about eight.

“The highest girl, Justice Hall, is seven. She’s a very, very talented girl. She’s already beating everyone in Suffolk – the boys as well, because there’s no girls left to play.”

Perhaps in time Hall, too, will take part in the Olympic Games. But the protegee can wait. This summer, Baltacha has a long-held ambition of her own to realise.