Baltacha draws on fighting spirit for emotional success

Click to follow
The Independent Online

It says something about Britain's tennis aspirations when the nation's fourth-ranked woman sinks to her knees on the Wimbledon grass and weeps unbridled tears of relief after a first-round win over unseeded opposition. But Elena Baltacha, the wild-card entry whose three-set win yesterday over German Angelique Kerber guaranteed Britain the second round presence which – Andy Murray aside – had not entirely been expected, is grateful for the most modest steps in tennis.

Baltacha was limping around SW19 on crutches two summers ago, having just undergone keyhole surgery on a prolapsed disc and a serious liver complaint has been another cause for doubt about her ability to make it in the game. The condition, which for a time prevented her from playing more than three weeks in a row, is still being monitored.

Those experiences have bred a fighting spirit on which the Ukrainian-born 24-year-old drew to overcome a left-hander ranked 27 places above her. "It hasn't been an easy kind of road for me," Baltacha said after squeezing through 6-2, 2-6, 7-5. "I'm very emotional because this means a lot to me." Her win takes her through to face Slovak Dominika Cibulkova tomorrow. While "Bally", as Baltacha is universally known, contributed to the sense that the British women are developing as a force, "Boggo" – Alex Bogdanovic – failed to oblige for the men, suffering another of the setbacks which have seen him drift to 242 in the world rankings. Bogdanovic's defeat to unseeded Italian Simone Bolelli did little to suggest that the £375,000 a year the LTA is paying Brad Gilbert to develop Bogdanovic is taking him to a new level.

As early as 12.25pm yesterday afternoon, the crowd on Court 11 were preparing for a more familiar British script for Baltacha, too, after her service was broken at the first time of asking. But Baltacha, born in Ukraine, who owes her British citizenship to the decision of her father Sergei, a footballer, to leave Dynamo Kiev for Ipswich in 1989, broke back immediately and demonstrated the strong groundstrokes she is known for.

She lost only one more game in that first set and, equipped with her 115mph first serve and thumping double-handed backhand, outclassed Kerber.

Baltacha hinted, by starting the second set with a double fault, that the afternoon might not be straightforward and her inexplicable loss of range from the baseline throughout that set seemed to make Kerber the favourite for the decider. The ascendancy then swung back and forth but Baltacha was not to be denied. She said after the game that she had nursed suspicions this was "a winnable match" and so it proved. She overcame Kerber's early break to level at 4-4, was broken again, broke back, and then found the tennis gods with her. A net cord and overruled line call in the last game saw her take the match at the third time of asking, leaving Kerber enraged.

Baltacha's time at the new £32m National Tennis Centre has introduced her to a new tougher physical and dietary regime which has seen her ditch her beloved pepperoni pizza and lose weight. "I love tennis and still think I haven't fulfilled my potential. I think I can be dangerous. If I'm injury free for another few years, hopefully it will be a good couple of years."

Baltacha will be encouraged going into the match against Cibulkova by her own performance in a close exhibition match against Svetlana Kuznetsova at Eastbourne last week.

Bogdanovic, meanwhile, must wait yet another year, after sacrificing two points to level at two sets apiece on his way to a 7-6, 4-6, 6-3, 7-6 defeat against 46th-ranked Bolelli. The Italian's double fault at 5-5 in the first set gave Bogdanovich a crucial break point but he relinquished it, along with a mini-break in the first set tie-break. Bogdanovich insisted last night that he was unaware of rumours that the LTA might be considering withdrawing the finance which has seen the British No 2 team up with Gilbert but after his seventh successive first-round exit here he was unconvincing in his suggestions that he could make it back into the world's top 100 this year.

"I'm lot better than 250," said Bognadovich, whose suggestions after defeat that Gilbert is being employed to improve neither his results nor his technique but the mental aspect of his game, is destined to raise eyebrows at the LTA. "I don't think we expected to get better results, especially coming from Brad," Bogdanovich said. "It's a long process. He [Gilbert] knows if I keep going like this it's just a matter of time. [Brad] just got me to think a little bit more on court, trying to use my strengths."

One of the perplexing parts of Bogdanovich's response to defeat is that he never seems too upset by it but the 24-year-old said the experience sometimes stayed with him for days. "I have to play the bigger points better," he ended.

The hopes of the British No 3 woman, 22-year-old Mel South were extinguished last night when her valiant attempt to oust the Ukranian 28th seed Alona Bondarenko ended in a 6-3, 6-7, 6-4 defeat. South went two breaks of service down in the third set, then broke Bondarenko to love and saved three match points in the last game before finally succumbing. Hers was a display of powerful groundstrokes which gave more succour to the British women's game.