Elena Baltacha: Tennis player who overcame chronic illness and back pain to reach world No 49 and spend 132 weeks as British No 1

 

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The Independent Online

In terms of tournaments won and world rankings achieved, Elena Baltacha's career did not compare with those of so many great players in British tennis history. However, the impact she had on the lives of those she touched will last longer than the shine on any trophy. Baltacha's natural warmth and positive outlook on life, which was never compromised by the physical problems she had to overcome, inspired everyone around her.

Although the former British No 1 had retired from competition at the end of last year, her death from liver cancer at the age of just 30 will leave a huge gap in British tennis. She had already prepared for a life post-retirement by setting up her own tennis academy for under-privileged children and was the sort of character who would have wanted to remain involved in the sport at many levels.

The very fact that Baltacha became the best player in her country and reached No 49 in the world rankings was a remarkable achievement given that she had been diagnosed at the age of 19 with a chronic liver condition, primary sclerosing cholangitis, which affects the bile ducts. Thereafter she had to take 10 pills a day and had to be careful with how hard she pushed herself in training. In 2006 she also had surgery on a prolapsed disc and for the rest of her life suffered from back problems. In her latter years her career was further interrupted by surgery for ankle bone spurs.

"Bally" (pronounced like "Sally"), as she was known throughout tennis, was born in the Ukrainian capital of Kiev. She came from a family of high sporting achievers. Her father, Sergei, played football for the Soviet Union, winning 49 caps, and her mother, Olga, represented the country in both the pentathlon and heptathlon.

Baltacha was five when the family moved to Britain after her father joined Ipswich Town from Dynamo Kiev. Within two years they had settled in Scotland after Sergei signed for the Perth club, St Johnstone.

It was while growing up in Scotland that Baltacha's tennis talent began to emerge, although she did not take up the sport until she was 10. One of the first to take notice was Scotland's national tennis coach, Judy Murray. The mother of Andy and Jamie Murray remained close to Baltacha throughout her life and was her captain when she played in Britain's Fed Cup team.

Although not the most naturally gifted of players, Baltacha made the best of her ability through her dedication and steely resolve. Despite her warmth off the court, she could be ferocious on it. She had natural strength and was a formidable opponent to have on the other side of the net.

Having made her breakthrough as a teenager, when she was coached by Alan Jones, Baltacha played in the qualifying tournament for Wimbledon at the age of 16. Two years later she enjoyed one of her most famous victories at Wimbledon, beating the No 32 seed, Amanda Coetzer, who was ranked 258 places above her.

Baltacha played in the main draw at Wimbledon 12 times, won 15 titles on the International Tennis Federation circuit and reached the last 32 at three Grand Slam tournaments, twice at the Australian Open and once at Wimbledon.

She enjoyed her most consistent success in her late twenties after teaming up with Nino Severino, who initially helped with her physical training and eventually became her coach. The couple became devoted to one another and married in December last year, shortly after her retirement. Her liver cancer was diagnosed the following month.

Baltacha reached her career-high world ranking of No 49 in 2010 and was the British No 1 for 132 weeks between 2009 and 2012. If she prospered during a comparatively fallow period for British women's tennis, she was always kept on her toes by her great rival, Anne Keothavong, with whom she vied for the top spot in Britain.

A mainstay of the British Fed Cup team for 12 years, Baltacha played in 39 ties for her country. One of her proudest moments came in 2012, when she represented Britain in the Olympic Games at Wimbledon.

Having spent most of her childhood north of the border, she was bitterly disappointed not to represent Scotland at the 2010 Commonwealth Games in Delhi. She had been due to play but followed medical advice and withdrew because of an outbreak of Dengue fever.

Baltacha never made much money from tennis but was more than happy to plough what she had into the Elena Baltacha Academy of Tennis, which she founded in Ipswich in 2010 with the aim of giving under-privileged children a chance to play the sport.

The academy will be one of the institutions to benefit from the "Rally For Bally" next month. On 15 June Andy and Jamie Murray, Martina Navratilova, Tim Henman and Greg Rusedski will be among those who will take part in charity mixed doubles matches at the pre-Wimbledon grass-court tournaments at Queen's Club in London, Edgbaston Priory in Birmingham and Devonshire Park in Eastbourne. It will be a great coming-together for British tennis – the sort of occasion Bally herself would have loved.

Elena Sergeevna Baltacha, tennis player: born Kiev 14 August 1983; married 2013 Nino Severino; died Ipswich 4 May 2014.

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