Baltacha brings new life to British women's game

Neighbouring Ironbridge, the cradle of the industrial revolution, serves as a useful metaphor for the Lawn Tennis Association's aspirations in holding the National Championships here. Today, however, with Ironbridge flooded, the LTA might consider Irn Bru.

Neighbouring Ironbridge, the cradle of the industrial revolution, serves as a useful metaphor for the Lawn Tennis Association's aspirations in holding the National Championships here. Today, however, with Ironbridge flooded, the LTA might consider Irn Bru.

Elena Baltacha, a gift to the British game from Kiev, says the soft drink made in Scotland from girders is her most treasured possession; tongue in cheek, perhaps, although at 17 she is young enough to mean it.

Asked to describe herself in a few words, she chooses "self-confident, positive, fun, hardworking, determined", ideal qualities for a player with the potential to alert the WTA Tour to the fact that women have not abandoned the sport in this country.

The powerfully built Baltacha, who serves solidly and hits a mean two-handed backhand, is two matches away from adding the national championship to her under-18 title. She is due to play Julie Pullin, the second seed, in the semifinals this afternoon, having already recorded straight-set victories against Sam Smith, the former British No 1, and Lucie Ahl, the third seed.

While some tennis teenagers are handicapped by their parents, Baltacha's athleticism and psychological strength can be traced directly to her father, Sergei, a central defender who was transferred from Dynamo Kiev to Ipswich and St Johnstone, and her mother, Olga, who would have competed in the pentathlon at the 1980 Moscow Olympics but for having to look after her one-year-old son, Sergei Jnr, who grew up (6ft 4in) to play for St Mirren and the Scotland Under-2l team.

"When I was five, my dad brought some plastic rackets home for us to play with in the garden," Elena recalled. "I then played short tennis until I was 10." She has been accompanied by her mother, a sports masseur, since she began venturing to courts away from her home in Perth. "Mum even does my laundry," she said.

Based in Enfield, Middlesex, Baltacha is part of a squad coached by Alan Jones, Jo Durie, the former British No 1, and James Lenton. "In British tennis terms, she's way ahead of the game, but in world tennis terms, she's average," Jones said. "She had athletic potential in the wrong disciplines. We're trying to make her a tennis athlete. She's a good worker, hungry on the practice court. She's got a sniff at this game."

Richard Bloomfield, of Norwich, is another 17-year-old whose nostrils are starting to quiver, having qualified for the men's singles and defeated Miles Maclagan, the fourth seed, and James Nelson, to reach the quarter-finals. He now plays Mark Hilton, of Cheshire, the fifth seed.

Bloomfield, whose tennis ambition led him to leave school instead of taking A-levels, remembers watching on television in 1993 when Goran Ivanisevic saved a match point against Norfolk's Chris Bailey in the second round at Wimbledon.

Now based at the sports training centre in Bath, Bloomfield has been inspired by the work ethic of Colin Jackson, the Olympic hurdler. Tim Henman and Pat Rafter are his tennis heroes. "Rafter has a good attitude on and off the court and fights for everything, " he said. "And I'd like to be like Tim Henman, up in the world's top 10."

Yesterday's quarter-final defeat for Hannah Collin, the 18-year-old defending women's champion, was one of the week's disappointments, added to the elimination of Jamie Delgado, the men's champion, in the second round.

Collin was beaten by Surrey's Lorna Woodroffe, 6-3, 6-1. "I can't say I played particularly well," Collin said, "but she served unbelievably well."

Lee Childs and Nelson, who won the boys' doubles title at the United States Open, were beaten by the experience of Maclagan and Andrew Richardson in the second round, 6-7, 6-3, 6-4.

LTA NATIONAL CHAMPIONSHIPS (Telford) Women's semi-finals line-up: L Latimer v L Woodroffe; E Baltacha v J Pullin. Men's quarter-finals: L Milligan v J Auckland; M Lee v L Childs; M Hilton v R Bloomfield; N Weal v B Cowan.

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