Fighting spirit will serve Elena well

Elena Baltacha has revealed publicly that she has liver cancer. Picture: Jamie McDonald/Getty Images
Elena Baltacha has revealed publicly that she has liver cancer. Picture: Jamie McDonald/Getty Images
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WHEN tennis players find their backs to the wall, they fight. It is all they know. But in an individual sport, they usually fight alone.

Sometimes they put in a spirited effort for their nearest and dearest, but basically they are trying to win for themselves.

This past year, though, has been different and after everyone in the sport rallied around Ross Hutchins in 2013 as he battled against Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, now they are gathering behind Elena Baltacha as she takes on the greatest fight of her life against liver cancer. And just as Andy Murray did everything he could to support his best friend Hutchins, so now he is offering to do whatever he can to help his fellow Scot.

Last summer, Murray and his coach, Ivan Lendl, starred in a charity gala match at Queen’s Club – the Rally Against Cancer – in order to raise money for the Royal Marsden Hospital, the medical centre where Hutchins was being treated. At the time, it appeared to be a one-off fundraiser but on Friday Murray revealed that the event would go ahead again in June and that he wants Baltacha to be a part of it.

“If there’s anything I could do, I’m sure any of the guys on the tour, the girls, if there’s anything we could do that could help, we would do it,” Murray said. “I’m sure this year when we do the Rally Against Cancer at Queen’s, that’s something that would definitely be great to get Elena involved in at an early stage. I believe that helped Ross a little bit as well so maybe that would be a nice thing to do.

“I heard about Bally from my mum a couple of weeks ago – she’d gone in to see her in the hospital. You’re obviously shocked to hear that. I’ve known Bally for a long time; I don’t know her as well as I know Ross, but it’s still shocking. She’s so young, she’s just retired, you’re expecting her to enjoy just a nice happy life. She’s just got married as well so you just feel bad. And life is unfair. It’s a shame.”

When Hutchins first discovered that he had cancer at the end of 2012, he set himself goals and targets just as he had always done as a professional athlete. At the time, he and Colin Fleming were working themselves narrow to try and qualify for the ATP World Tour Finals in London and even though they just missed out on a place in prestigious end-of-year jamboree, they were flying high.

But once the diagnosis came through, Hutchins’ goals changed. Instead of working on forehands and backhands, he was just trying to find some sort of structure to keep himself sane, a way to feel normal in the middle of the terrifying and alien world he now found himself in. Part of that was helping to set up the Rally Against Cancer event. It is a piece of advice he will pass on to Baltacha even though he knows that every cancer patient faces their own unique battle.

“I think that’s what helped me in a big way,” Hutchins said. “I said it right when I started treatment to all these boys [on the tour], I said, giving ourselves goals – a goal to come back on the other side and play again with Colin; a goal to have what we had for the last three or four years to try and improve our ranking and try to make World Tour finals and doing well in the big tournaments and having consistency and improve certain shots – that gives us goals week in and week out. And that is what I went through with my treatment.

“It was goals each week, whether it was to have a certain number of meetings each week or – we were buying a property – to try to get to a certain deadline date on the property and try and take my mind off the actual treatment and try and give myself goals in different aspects of life. And when I speak to Elena, I will give her that advice. But it’s not that it works for everyone; that’s what I did and it definitely helped me: having that sense of desperation to achieve things other than the chemotherapy, other than just getting healthy. And it helped me in a big way and hopefully it will help her come out stronger.”

Murray was in Indian Wells for the BNP Paribas Open when Baltacha announced that she had cancer but the world No.6 had known of her condition for a while. His mother, Judy, has known Baltacha since she was a feisty young junior trying to make her way in Perth and when she heard that her former charge was ill, she went to visit her straight away. Right from the very start, Judy reported back that Baltacha – always a determined, dogged and downright cussed competitor – was dealing with the diagnosis head on: this was another opponent and it could be beaten.

“I think Bally has the right attitude,” Murray said. “My mum told me that she was unbelievably positive very soon after finding out. I think that’s probably not easy when you initially hear the diagnosis but she does have that attitude. She always had that attitude when she was playing. She worked very hard – everyone says that. And hopefully she can get through.

“It does put things into perspective. People are asking me ‘oh, you’ve dropped down one place in the rankings’ and it’s like, well, it doesn’t really matter that much at the end of the day. It’s obviously your health that is the most important thing and it’s in situations like this when you start to realise that and respect that because life is very, very unfair. You wouldn’t expect that to happen to someone who is so young and healthy. She’s worked hard her whole life: she’s an athlete, she’s done all the right things… it sucks.”

At the age of 30 and newly married, Baltacha was beginning a new and exciting phase in her life. She retired last November after 16 years on the tour and was devoting herself to her tennis academy – EBAT, the Elena Baltacha Academy of Tennis – in Ipswich. With 70 young hopefuls aged between five and 12 under her wing, business was good and there was everything to look forward to. Throughout her playing career she had fought through serious injury problems and a chronic liver condition – primary sclerosing cholangitis – and yet still reached a career high ranking of No.49 and sat proudly at the top of the domestic pecking order. After all of that, she deserved to enjoy her retirement – and then the doctors gave her the awful news.

“I think all of us in the tennis world wish the best for Elena and all our thoughts and prayers go towards her,” Hutchins said. “I know she will be very strong mentally. Having known her not so well personally but having watched a lot of her matches and having spoken to people about her, I know she is a tough girl with a great family backing, very close, people who are around her who she’s stuck with for many years. And I know she’ll need all that because that’s what I had with Colin and all my close family and friends and they’ll help her get through it.”

Elena Baltacha certainly has her back to the wall but this time she is not alone. This time she has Andy and Judy Murray, Ross Hutchins and the rest of British tennis fighting alongside her.