What would Bal think about the documentary? I think she would probably just laugh!”
Bal is Elena Baltacha, the Ukrainian-born Scottish tennis star who died from liver cancer five years ago. The documentary is a wonderful insight into an inspirational life, cruelly cut short, which will be screened on BBC Alba tonight. The man who can imagine her chuckling at the fuss is her coach, her husband and soul-mate Nino Severino.
Through interviews with former coaches and competitors, family and friends, the documentary tells the story of an extraordinary life that ended when Bal/Bally/Elena was just 30, recently retired, newly married and full of ideas and enthusiasm for the future.
Born in Ukraine, she moved to Ipswich with her family – dad Sergei, mum Olga and older brother Sergei Jr – when she was just five, after her father became the first Soviet Union footballer to sign for a British club. That was where Baltacha fell in love with tennis and the soggier Scottish weather did nothing to dampen her ardour for the sport when her dad signed for St Johnstone and the Baltachas moved to Perth.
In the years that followed there were sacrifices and challenges, as she sought out the best coaches and embarked on a route to the top of the sport. In Perth it was Jimmy Mackechnie, the coach she eventually followed to Glasgow, travelling back and forth on a daily basis before the whole family bought into her dream and uprooted to Glasgow as well.
“I remember the first conversation I had with her [at the tennis club],” said Mackechnie. “We were standing downstairs and she looked quite small because Olga and Sergei were both quite tall and I said ‘are you good?’ – and she looked at me and didn’t flinch, didn’t smile and she had this baseball cap on and she lifted it up and just said ‘yes’. And it was the way she said it, she meant it. So we took her on court to see what she could do. I think the thing that I noticed most about her was her desire, things that I couldn’t give her as a coach, her heart, her desire. She was there to become a tennis player.”
There was also personal strife as injury and illnesses tested her resolve and ultimately claimed her life, just five months after her wedding. But, through it all there were rarely doubts, never any negativity, just off-court warmth and a match-day feistiness that made her a remarkable ally and a formidable opponent.
As well as back surgery, when she was 19, she was also diagnosed with primary sclerosing cholangitis but, demonstrating the steely resolve she was known for on court, she battled against the debilitating disease to win 11 ITF singles titles and four ITF doubles titles. And despite it all, prior to retiring from tennis in 2013, she achieved her childhood ambition of a top 50 ranking, and became an Olympian, representing Team GB at the 2012 Olympics. She was also a pivotal and motivational member of the GB Fed Cup team.
“I did feel so much emotion [when watching the documentary] but also an immense feeling of pride,” said Severino. “The reason people remember her after all this time, and everything is getting bigger and stronger, is because of the people who loved her and were devoted to her. It’s because of the person she was.”
He admits that for a long time after her death, he was in “real pain” but as he oversees the tennis initiatives they talked of and instigated together, he says he can feel her supporting and guiding him every day. The Elena Baltacha Academy of Tennis was already up and running when Bally retired and it was aimed at introducing more girls to tennis, heading out into deprived areas as well as traditional tennis strongholds, and working to remove barriers and support players looking to develop and move up the performance pathway. It was something Baltacha was passionate about. Her strength of character and drive made it happen, her compassion and empathy made it work.
This was the tennis player who took on Maria Sharapova in her prime and defied the pre-match predictions of many in the locker room that the contest would be over by the end of the warm-up. She might not have won but from the first fist pump and ‘c’mon’ to the gallus retort when the former Wimbledon winner cursed in Russian and was stunned to get a verbal volley back in their shared childhood language, she would put up a fight. But that intimidating competitor would then step off a plane after an overseas tournament and head straight to the academy to coach kids, or into a school for an introductory session. Reflected back was her own youthful impatience and excitement to develop. She did that when illness had drained her of energy and when rest would have been an easier option. But taking the easy option was never her thing.
“Bal was just so caring,” says her husband. “At home she said to me, ‘look we have a couple of girls with real problems, the parents were using drugs or this, that and the other’. She said, ‘Nino I want to go and visit them, I want to give them support’. I said: ‘Are you sure you want to get that involved, it is a helluva level to go to Bal and we’ve got tournaments to get ready for’, we were flying out in two days, but she made me arrange a meeting and we went to this house and it was pitiful. This family, talk about a deprived area, but she sat with them for an hour and a half – that was Bally, she was such a special woman. One of my biggest regrets is that I did not appreciate it all. Not enough. That is a lesson for everyone.
“But I am really lucky. A lot of people lose partners and if you are soulmates it is even more difficult. We were together all the time, and when I lost Bal there were a number of years of real pain. But I’m lucky because the life we had was so entwined so there is no way that you could remove Elena from my life. From the moment I put my feet on the floor when I wake up, to going to bed, it is strange and it is a weird feeling, it is all about what we were doing together or what we were going to do, so she is still with me and it is a huge motivation and drives me like you wouldn’t believe.”
Which is why, five years after her death, Elena Baltacha, the warm, loving, fierce and formidable adopted Scot is still inspiring people.