Baltacha's masterpiece of bravery and bravura

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The Independent Online

Elena Baltacha could not stop grinning. As she collapsed into a courtside chair, she shook her head and shrugged her shoulders, delighted and astonished in equal measure. After getting out of bed yesterday in a state of exhaustion, she had won yet another tough match, and earned herself a place in the third round of the Australian Open.

Britain's top female player had discovered reserves of energy and grit that she did not know she possessed. "There are the kind of matches that really count, where you really find out about yourself and ask questions," she said, after beating the Frenchwoman Stéphanie Cohen-Aloro 2-6, 6-3, 6-1 in an hour and 41 minutes.

Any player would welcome that sort of revelation but, for the Kiev-born Baltacha, it was particularly sweet. The 21-year-old was forced to take six months off after being diagnosed with a rare liver disorder, and made her comeback this time last year. She won three difficult matches to qualify for Melbourne Park, and has now won two more. These are achievements that bring self-affirmation, and her confidence is growing daily.

Baltacha is the first British woman for 14 years to reach the third round here, and she has equalled her own Grand Slam record, set when she knocked out Amanda Coetzer in the second round at Wimbledon in 2002. Tomorrow she meets the Italian No 15 seed, Silvia Farina Elia - and, if she triumphs, her next opponent would probably be the Wimbledon champion, Maria Sharapova.

Whether or not she maintains her winning streak, Baltacha - whose father, Sergei, played football for Dynamo Kiev and Ipswich Town - is certain to improve her current No 185 ranking. She has already accumulated more prize-money - £25,000 - than she earned in the whole of last year.

Yesterday she fought back after a dismal first set in which she produced 22 unforced errors and had her serve broken twice. Cohen-Aloro, who had defeated the No 24 seed and 1995 Australian champion, Mary Pierce, in the previous round, forced the early pace and ran her ragged. The Briton's frustration was plain in the howls and shrieks that echoed around Court Six.

In the fifth game of the first set, she saved four break points, only to succumb on the fifth. The umpire's needle seemed stuck, as he intoned "advantage Cohen-Aloro" over and over again, before the Frenchwoman won the game. Baltacha saved two set points, but then sent a forehand wide to surrender the set.

Her dream run appeared to be over but, when the second set began, the suffocating heat had subsided and she was newly focused. When her big chance came in the sixth game, she seized it, forcing a Cohen-Aloro error at break point that put her 4-2 up. At 5-3, she unleashed an ace to create a set point, and then converted the opportunity.

This was a different Baltacha from the woman seen in the first half-hour; she was in control, fired up, pumping her fist. Cohen-Aloro seemed cowed. After holding serve in the first game, she delivered the next five, and the match, to the Briton.

Afterwards Baltacha said she had no idea where she had found the spirit to win. She has been sleeping poorly, because of emotional stress and mental hyperactivity. "I was so tired today," she said. "I was really hurting. I woke up thinking, 'Oh my God, I have to do it again'. But I thought, 'If I just keep fighting, then anything's possible'." Now that she has nothing to lose, Baltacha intends to "relax and have fun, and just go for it and see what happens".

And the reason for her good showing? "I've been working very hard for the last year," she said. "I'm probably more dedicated than I ever have been. I'm enjoying the atmosphere here, the way the courts are playing, the way the balls are going, and I'm digging deep."

While Baltacha's unexpected success has forced her to change her plane ticket home for the fifth time, Vera Zvonareva, the No 9 seed, found herself booking an early flight after losing 6-3, 6-3 to her fellow Russian, Vera Douchevina.

The No 2 seed, Amélie Mauresmo, needed three sets to beat Dinara Safina, as did Sharapova, against Lindsay Lee-Waters of the United States. Serena Williams, by contrast, coasted into the third round.

Roger Federer, the men's title holder, went through in straight sets, as did Marat Safin and Andre Agassi.

Kuznetsova's threat

The US Open champion, Svetlana Kuznetsova, said yesterday that she is ready to sue the Belgian politician who accused her of failing a drugs test.

The 19-year-old Russian said she was trying her best to ignore the matter while she competes at the Australian Open - where she yesterday defeated Marion Bartoli, of France, 6-2, 6-0 - but that her lawyers were already considering action against the Belgian regional sports minister, Claude Eerdekens.

Eerdekens said this week that Kuznetsova had tested positive for ephedrine at an exhibition tournament in Charleroi last month. However, Kuznetsova was cleared of any wrongdoing by her governing body, the WTA, who pointed out that ephedrine was not illegal when taken out of competition. The Russian claimed that she had taken the substance in a cold remedy.

"He definitely has to pay for it," Kuznetsova said.

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