Baltacha takes winning form into Eastbourne

Success has come comparatively late for Elena Baltacha and, at the age of 27, the British No 1 yesterday won the biggest domestic title of her career. Baltacha's 7-5, 6-3 victory over the Czech Republic's Petra Cetkovska in the final of the Aegon Challenge at Nottingham clinched her second International Tennis Federation tournament, following success in Michigan last year.

Baltacha's decision to play in the lesser Nottingham event, rather than in the Aegon Classic at Edgbaston, was fully vindicated. The world No 74 wanted to get the maximum number of grass-court matches under her belt before heading for this week's Aegon International at Eastbourne and then Wimbledon, which starts next week.

Nevertheless, yesterday's final had to be moved indoors because of the bad weather. Baltacha adapted better to the conditions than her 26-year-old opponent, who is ranked No 92 in the world.

"It's great to win a title this big, especially playing at home," Baltacha said. "It makes it even more special. The decision to go indoors was made pretty quickly and, to be honest, I felt like I had a better chance going indoors, so none of that bothered me at all.

"In the first set, I think we both started a little bit hit-and-miss, probably because we hadn't hit indoors and we needed to get used to it. Then by the end of the first set, I felt like I was dominating. It was me getting things going.

"Once I won that set, I think I lifted," she added. "I felt very confident to push on and I relaxed and I thought: 'OK I can really go for it now.' She started playing better towards the end but by then it was too late.

"This is everything I could have hoped for from this week. I've had enough preparation on the grass going into Eastbourne and my form has been solid all week. I couldn't ask for more going into Eastbourne and Wimbledon."

Baltacha's first match in Eastbourne will be against France's Aravane Rezai, who reached No 15 in the world rankings last year but has since slipped out of the top 50 after severing ties with her father, who had been her coach. The winner will play either Victoria Azarenka, the world No 5, or China's Peng Shuai, the world No 20.

The British No 1 has a good record on grass. She reached the third round at Wimbledon nine years ago after beating Amanda Coetzer, then the world No 37, and has made the second round on three subsequent occasions.

Nevertheless, her greatest disappointment of last year came at the All England Club when she let slip a winning position against Croatia's Petra Martic in the first round.

Heather Watson, the British No 2, is the only one other home player in the Eastbourne field, which is so strong that Venus and Serena Williams are unseeded. Watson has been drawn against Vera Zvonareva, the world No 3 and top seed, with the winner to face Tsvetana Pironkova or Serena Williams in the second round. Zvonareva will be the highest ranked player Watson has ever faced. "It's a great opportunity," Watson said. "I'm really looking forward to it."

Watson, who won two matches at Edgbaston last week, was only 19 places behind Baltacha before today's updated world rankings list and welcomes the homegrown rivalry.

"We're pulling each other along and it's great to see her doing well," Watson said yesterday. "It's great to have someone more experienced and who has been at the top as like a leader for me. She's someone who can tell me about the tour and everything."

Seven of the world's top 10 women are in the field at Eastbourne and Watson said she had enjoyed being in the company of the leading players: "The higher up they are, the nicer they are actually. It's more down in the rankings where it is more cut-throat and everyone is just trying to get into the top 100.

"I've cracked the top 100 now, which was my end-of-year goal, and I just want to keep it going, keep improving, getting fitter and becoming a better player," she added:

"I'm just enjoying life at the moment. I'm not putting too much pressure on myself. I've been doing that previously and losing some very close matches which I should have won, just because I have put too much pressure on myself and got tight. But it's working a lot better now. It's working on and off the court and my results are showing."

A rainswept first day at Eastbourne yesterday was eventually called off without a ball being struck. "It's a little bit depressing," Azarenka said. "You just constantly want to sleep and wear two lifejackets not to drown in the rain. There is nothing you can do about it."

There were no further Wimbledon wild cards for British players when the final list was announced yesterday. Luxembourg's Gilles Müller and Israel's Dudi Sela were given places in the men's draw, while Greece's Eleni Daniilidou and Germany's Sabine Lisicki went into the hat for the women. There are two remaining wild-card slots to be awarded. They will be given to the highest-ranked man and woman who missed out on automatic places in the main draw.

Wimbledon Watch: How the British contenders are shaping up

Men

Andy Murray (age 24, world No 4)

Enjoyed best clay-court season of career, culminating in first appearance in French Open semi-finals, and has gone on to enjoy excellent first week on grass at Queen's.

James Ward (aged, world No 216) Progress had stalled until grass-court season. Ward (right) won four matches at Nottingham and enjoyed best week of career to reach Queen's semi-final.

Dan Cox (age 20, world No 273) Climbed nearly 300 places in world rankings in last 12 months to break into top 300. Makes his first appearance in main draw. Dan Evans (age 21, world No 300) Yet to realise his undoubted promise. Commitment has been questioned in the past but recent results on the Futures circuit suggest he may have turned a corner.



Women

Elena Baltacha (age 27, world No 74) Has blossomed late in her career. Reached the French Open second round for the first time and proved her quality on grass with yesterday's final victory at Nottingham.

Heather Watson (age 19, world No 93) Watson (right) has just broken into the top 100 after series of promising wins. Made third round at Edgbaston last week and now plays final warm-up at Eastbourne.

Anne Keothavong (age 27, world No 110) Recovered from second serious knee injury to return to world's top 100. Results have tailed off recently but has twice reached Wimbledon second round. Katie O'Brien (age 25, world No 221) Reached career-high No 84 in world rankings last year but has fallen away since. Seeking her second win at Wimbledon in eighth appearance in main draw.

Naomi Broady (age 21, world No 231) Has benefited from work at Mouratoglou academy in Paris. Qualified for main draw at Edgbaston.

Laura Robson (age 17, world No 234) Proved her grass-court ability by winning Wimbledon junior title three years ago. Has made limited appearances this year but time is on her side.

Emily Webley-Smith (age 26, world No 247) Has climbed more than 200 places in rankings since start of year thanks to good performances on ITF circuit in India, Australia and Far East.

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