There was a time when the brightest of futures beckoned for Elena Baltacha. In 2002, at the age of 18, she reached the third round at Wimbledon, beating the world No 37, Amanda Coetzer. Even when injuries interrupted her progress she bounced back three years later to qualify for the Australian Open and reach the last 32.
Further injuries and, even more seriously, the realisation that a liver condition would always limit her physical capabilities, might have dampened the spirits of a less committed player, but as the daughter of a former Dynamo Kiev footballer and a Russian pentathlete, Baltacha (right) has never lacked competitive desire.
Two tournament victories last year on the International Tennis Federation circuit signalled another comeback and on Saturday the 25-year-old could barely contain her delight when she won her third qualifying match in succession to reach the main draw of the Australian Open, which began here today. Baltacha, who faces Germany's Anna-Lena Groenefeld tomorrow, qualified in style, beating the No 1 seed, Jelena Kostanic Tosic, 6-1, 6-3. By the end of the day she had been joined by Katie O'Brien, a 6-0, 7-6 winner over Betina Jozami, making Britain's female main draw contingent the largest outside Wimbledon since Jo Durie, Sara Smith, Sara Gomer, Monique Javer and Clare Wood played here 17 years ago. O'Brien was due to play Romania's Monica Niculescu today, while Anne Keothavong and Mel South, whose rankings earned direct entry into the first round, were meeting Anna Chakvetadze and Marion Bartoli respectively.
Nigel Sears, the Lawn Tennis Association's head coach for women's tennis, is particularly pleased for Baltacha. "I think she feels she can do so much more," he said yesterday. "She has had a rough time over the years with injury and illness and it's a question of being able to do the day-in, day-out stuff she needs to do. That has always been the issue. And if I could say she would have that stretch of time to do it every day, I think the future could see good things for Bally. This is a big opportunity she has earned.
"She was playing good tennis at the US Open qualifiers last year. She lost to Julie Coin, who went on to beat Ivanovic, but her body broke down in the end. She's come through qualifying here strongly and has looked good in each match."
The British women's results here, combined with Laura Robson's junior Wimbledon victory last summer, are the strongest indication yet that the changes instigated by Roger Draper following his appointment as the LTA's chief executive three years ago are bearing fruit. The LTA has spent heavily to bring together top coaches and the best fitness, scientific and medical personnel, as well as world-class facilities, at its National Tennis Centre at Roehampton.
All the leading British women are based at the centre, where a healthy personal rivalry has helped to spur them on. Baltacha believes improvements to her strength and conditioning programme, combined with better advice on nutrition and lifestyle, have been crucial. "That was never taken seriously enough before," she said. "It was all really about the tennis. To a certain extent that's fair enough, but the off-court stuff makes such a big difference."
O'Brien, 22, says that improved fitness has been the biggest factor in her recent form. "Two years ago I wasn't very fit," she admitted. "Over time I've gradually got in better shape and in December I think I got quicker and better at tennis-specific fitness. I feel like I can stay out there as long as I need to. I've been professional since I was 18, but it's probably only in the last year or two that I've had the knowledge to know what it actually takes to be a top pro. I think, now that everything is up and running, other players are actually envious of our set-up and they can see the results as well."
Sears, a highly experienced coach, said: "If these girls had had the opportunities when they were younger, they might also have got to a higher level earlier. And in some ways you won't ever know what level Anne Keothavong might have reached."
The LTA has made it clear that the players have to meet the highest international standards in terms of fitness. "If you are going to base yourself at the NTC it's what you have to do," Sears said. "If you don't come up to those standards, then you are not the right person to be based there." He added: "I have always felt that the fitness and movement was a big priority and I used to rant on about that way back when I was with the LTA the first time and ran the national centre. The expertise that we can now tap into in that field is a big asset, but the girls still have to get out there and do it every day."Reuse content