Baltacha win breathes life into British game

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The Independent Online

Elena Baltacha and Jane O'Donoghue banked stirring first-round wins over high-ranking opponents yesterday to maintain the mini-renaissance in the British women's game.

Elena Baltacha and Jane O'Donoghue banked stirring first-round wins over high-ranking opponents yesterday to maintain the mini-renaissance in the British women's game.

Baltacha, ranked at No 331 in the world, beat Spain's Marta Marrero, ranked at No 61, in straight sets, 6-1, 6-3. O'Donoghue, ranked No 243, came from a set behind to outfight America's Lindsay Lee-Waters, the world No 89, 2-6, 6-3, 6-3.

Four British women will be playing in the second round here following first-round successes for Anne Keothavong and Emily Webley-Smith on Monday. Not since 1989 have so many home players cleared the first hurdle in the women's singles.

Perhaps Baltacha should consider changing her nickname from Bally to Lake. She wept enough tears to fill one after yesterday's success.

"My God, I was so overwhelmed to be back, to be playing again," she said by way of explanation. The flood was understandable given the mental and physical torment the Ukraine-born 20-year-old has endured over the past two years due to a liver complaint.

Having made her senior Wimbledon debut in 2001, losing on Centre Court to Nathalie Dechy, she reached the third round in 2002 by shocking the No 10 seed, Amanda Coetzer. Before this week, that was the last win by a British woman here.

After the championships two years ago, however, just at the stage when she seemed destined for a reign as the British No 1, Baltacha's health problem worsened and her ranking plummeted below 300. It was only in January this year that her doctors cleared her to resume full-time tennis. Even now she has been told not to play for more than three consecutive weeks before taking time off to recuperate. "My coach says I'm a walking miracle," Baltacha said yesterday. "It's not easy, what I've been through. These two years have been a nightmare. But I'm just so, so happy to be back. I've realised how much I actually love tennis. I see things in a completely different way now."

Contrary to the assured manner of her win, which was based on her trademark big serve and booming groundstrokes, Baltacha said she had felt so nervous beforehand that "it felt like my arms weren't attached to my body and my legs were so heavy they weren't quite moving". Goodness knows how she might perform if she felt in one piece.

She will need to be firing on all cylinders to reach the third round. As she was reminded in her post-match press conference, her next opponent would be coming from the winner of Jennifer Capriati v Claudine Schaul. "I can't wait," Baltacha said. "[Capriati's] such a great player. I really admire her. I'm just really looking forward to it. There's no pressure whatsoever on me. I'm just going to go out there and give it a go, just love it and enjoy it and battle."

O'Donoghue, a 21-year-old from Wigan, followed Baltacha's example by crying after her own win. "It's very emotional for all of us [British players] to play in Wimbledon," she said. "It's the ultimate tournament, especially being British, and winning here. I was so pumped to win the match. We're crying happy, we're happy, not sad. I've just got to get out there now and look forward to my next match. I've got nothing to lose."

Keothavong and Webley-Smith were taking the same approach yesterday as they prepared for their second-round tasks, scheduled for today. Keothavong, the British No 1 and world No 188, faces an enormous challenge in the form of the Russian No 13 seed, Maria Sharapova.

Webley-Smith, ranked No 349, faces America's Amy Frazier, the world No 36. "I'm in with a good chance of competing," said Webley-Smith, who is only just returning to fitness after breaking her ankle two years ago.