Baltacha battles through to Melbourne third round

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The Independent Online

Whether or not it has anything to do with the fact that they come from her native Ukraine, Elena Baltacha clearly enjoys playing the Bondarenko sisters. The 26-year-old Briton beat Alona, then the world No 33, at Wimbledon last summer and today reached the third round of the Australian Open here with a 6-2, 7-5 victory over her younger sister, Kateryna, the current world No 32.

Considering that it was on foreign soil, this latest win was arguably the finest of Baltacha’s career, eclipsing both her Wimbledon victory last summer and her triumph over Amanda Coezter, the world No 37, at the All England Club eight years ago. That was the only occasion on which she has reached the third round at Wimbledon, but this is the second time she has made the last 32 here, having fallen to Silvia Farina Elia at that stage five years ago. To reach the last 16 she will now have to overcome Dinara Safina, the world No 2.

Much has happened in Baltacha’s life since she made that breakthrough victory over Coetzer at Wimbledon. The British No 1 has regularly had to overcome injury and illness and to this day has to take 10 tablets a day to manage a liver condition that once threatened to finish her career.

The last 12 months, however, have been the best of Baltacha’s professional life. She has worked hard on her fitness and her mental game under the guidance of her coach, Nino Severino, and finally broke into the world’s top 100 last year. Currently at a career-best No 83 in the ranking list, she will make further progress when it is updated at the end of this tournament.

Baltacha’s shot-making power has never been in doubt, but she has often had trouble sustaining her level of performance, whether over the length of a tournament, a match or even a set. Twelve months ago she was well placed to beat Amelie Mauresmo in the second round here only for the match to slip away from her.

There were still periods in today’s match when the Briton let her level drop, but these days there is more discipline about her game and on each occasion she played her way back into the match. When things went wrong she usually went to the back of the court to compose herself and prepare for the next point.

Bondarenko is the sort of opponent Baltacha has struggled against in the past. The Ukrainian has no major attacking weapons but is a good athlete and has an excellent defensive game. Baltacha had to work hard for almost every point, manoeuvring Bondarenko around the court and targeting her weaker forehand before putting herself in position to go for the kill. While most of the match was played from the baseline, the Briton attacked the net every now and then and even threw in a drop shot or two.

The match was played on Court Six in front of a good crowd, including a fair number of British supporters. Although it was not hot, the sun was bright and made serving difficult from one end.

Baltacha got off to a flier, winning the first three games, and held firm after Bondarenko had brought the score back to 3-2. The Briton saved a break point in the next game and at 5-2 converted her first set point with a smart backhand volley.

When Bondarenko had three break points to take a 4-0 lead in the second set the course of the match seemed to have turned, Baltacha’s error count having risen sharply. She quickly regained her composure, however, winning four games in a row to take a 4-3 lead.

Bondarenko broke back, but at 5-5 the Ukrainian’s forehand wobbled and Baltacha forced two break points, converting the second after putting her opponent under pressure with a driven backhand into the corner. Two aces in the following game created two match points for Baltacha. The excitement seemed to get to her on the first as she hit a double fault going for a big second serve, but on the second Bondarenko struck a backhand long.

“I feel fantastic,” Baltacha said afterwards. “I knew I had to play well. I had a game plan to attack her forehand and I think I did that. There was a dip at the beginning of the second set. I knew the first set was excellent. I knew I could get it back. It was about settling myself again and then going again, which I did.”

Baltacha faces a major challenge if she is to go into the fourth round of a Grand Slam tournament for the first time. Safina, who today beat Barbara Zahlavova Strycova 6-3, 6-4, reached the final here last year. Baltacha will not need reminding what happened on the last occasion the Russian faced a Briton in a Grand Slam tournament: at last year’s French Open Safina beat Anne Keothavong 6-0, 6-0.