Baltacha draws positives from defeat by Henin

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The Independent Online

Elena Baltacha’s second appearance in Rod Laver Arena, the main show court at the Australian Open, ended in another defeat here today, but the 27-year-old Briton left the stadium in a much better frame of mind than she had 12 months previously.

Although she was beaten 6-1, 6-3 in the second round by Justine Henin, Baltacha pushed the former world No 1 hard in the second set and afterwards drew only positives from her performance.

Baltacha struggled to cope with the occasion against Dinara Safina, then the world No 2, in the third round on the same court last year and was beaten 6-1, 6-2. The sheer size of the court - there is more space behind the baselines and on the sides in Rod Laver Arena than in almost any other major tennis stadium - can be intimidating. Baltacha likes to go to the back of the court to compose herself between points, but an early warning for time-wasting – there was simply too far to walk to reach the back - disrupted her routine 12 months ago, while Safina’s bold ball-striking prevented her finding any sort of rhythm.

This time Baltacha never lost her composure, even though it was clear from the start that Henin would have too many much in her arsenal for the world No 55. If the Belgian’s backhand is one of the most feared weapons in tennis, she can also let rip with her forehand, while her serve is more damaging than you would expect from such a slight figure. Although this is her first competitive tournament since she suffered an elbow injury at Wimbledon, Henin is already being talked about as one of the favourites to win here.

Baltacha, nevertheless, maintained her poise throughout, even when Henin was repeatedly punishing her second serve. The Briton struck the ball well from the baseline, although she managed only occasionally to find the power or the angles to put Henin in trouble. The Belgian’s winning margin would also have been much tighter had Baltacha not lost three games, including one against serve, in which she had game points.

The size of her task was evident from the opening point. Baltacha played it well enough, but Henin drew first blood with a stinging backhand cross-court winner. At 15-40 a backhand return winner gave the No 11 seed her first break of serve.

Henin took a 2-0 lead, but Baltacha at least got on the scoreboard in the next game, even though the Belgian went on to break her serve for a second and third time to take the first set. The start of the second set, nevertheless, was much tighter and at 3-3 Baltacha was pushing hard. Henin, however, upped the tempo on Baltacha’s next service game and celebrated her winning forehand on her second break point with a cry of “Allez!”

When Henin served for the match Baltacha forced her only break points, but the Belgian saved both of them and went on to close out victory in style with two successive aces. The sizeable crowd in Rod Laver Arena, which has been considerably emptier for the first match of the day on other occasions, gave Baltacha a warm and deserved round of applause as she left the court.

Baltacha, who said it had been “a really amazing experience” to play an opponent she described as “an unbelievable legend”, felt she had tried too hard in the first set, but was pleased with her performance in the second. She explained: “In the second set I was thinking: ‘Just get into the match, get into the rally. You don't have to do anything unbelievable, just get yourself into the points and then see what happens.’

“I managed to do that in the second set. I really managed to get into the zone, which had slipped away from me towards the end of the first set. Then I really started enjoying it. I got the fist pumps again. I felt I really was in the match, but at 4-3 she stepped it up a notch and broke me. I had some opportunities, but I just couldn't hold it.”

Having gone out of what is one of her favourite tournaments one round earlier than last year, Baltacha will drop a few places in the world rankings later this month. However, she will leave Melbourne with a smile on her face.

“It was another great year here for me,” she said. “I always love coming back here. I've got very special memories here. I'm very happy. I gave it everything. I can't complain about my week. It's been wonderful.”

Baltacha’s defeat left Britain with only one representative in the women’s singles. Anne Keothavong, her predecessor as British No 1, was facing Germany’s Andrea Petkovic later today.