Baltacha's pedigree points to big future

From Ukraine to Enfield via Scotland, one of Britain's most promising tennis players hopes her journey will eventually lead to the global stage
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The Independent Online

Elena Baltacha ­ born and raised in Kiev, one-time resident of Ipswich and Scotland, and currently living in Enfield ­ may well be the future of British women's tennis. Whether the 17-year-old can prove that at Wimbledon just yet remains to be seen. She takes her bow in the senior singles competition next week thanks to a wild card and faces Nathalie Dechy, of France, ranked 241 places above her at No 37 in the world. It would take the game of Baltacha's life to progress, but even if that does not happen, then her recent advancement, including qualifying for the main draw at Eastbourne this week, where she lost to the world No 21, Conchita Martinez, suggests good things to come. Her attitude, moreover, speaks volumes.

"I want Hingis or Davenport [at Wimbledon]," she said with relish as she prepared last week for her first assault on the big time. "Or Serena, or Venus. It doesn't matter. Even if I get thrashed I don't mind, as long as I've been there and seen what they're like. I'll know what I need to do to come back and work even harder to be at their level. Wimbledon's where you get all the top players."

Judging by her sporting genes, Baltacha has a reasonable chance of becoming a top player herself. Her footballing father, Sergei, played at sweeper for Dynamo Kiev before becoming the first Soviet import to English football, for Ipswich, in 1989. Her mum, Olga ("Not only mum, but my best friend, it's good to have her around, because she's also a sports masseuse") was herself a world-class pentathlete. She missed out on the Moscow Olympics of 1980 only because her husband was competing for the USSR at the event and there was no one else to look after their young son, Sergei Jnr. He is now 21, a first-team defender with St Mirren and a Scotland Under-21 international.

In addition to the family athleticism, Elena has her own strengths, which have been evident from an early age and include a restless enthusiasm, a feisty single-mindedness and a desire to succeed on her own terms. "She could never sit still for a moment," her mum, now divorced from Sergei, says. "Around the house, in the streets, everywhere. To keep her in one place we bought her a swingball. From the first hit, it was amazing. We found someone to coach her, and that it was it."

Elena was bribed to learn English, aged five-and-a-half, only after agreeing a deal that would see her rewarded with a new bike. "She'd understand everything, translate it all, but wouldn't speak," Olga says. "When we told her she could spend as much as she wanted to on this bike if she spoke English, she did."

For the record, Elena's accent these days is essentially Scottish, having lived in Perthshire ­ where her father played for St Johnstone ­ during her formative years. There is also a subtle hint of mother tongue in the blend, however, and the overall effect approximates to an endearing burr that could easily be mistaken for a Lancastrian. There are no signs at all that when she first set foot in Britain her entire English vocabulary had been learnt on the plane and amounted to "Thank you", "May I?" and "Fasten your seat belt".

That final phrase, in the not too distant future, could become standard advice for opponents. According to Baltacha's coach, Alan Jones, who also coached Jo Durie, her powerful serve could become genuinely world class. Her double-handed backhand is another formidable asset. And her commitment, say those close to her, is second to none. Tell her to run five miles and she does six. Explain that she should not be disappointed by defeats against much more experienced players and she still ends up furious with a reverse in fortunes.

"I don't think we have had many genuine prospects in Britain, but she has something to offer," Jones said. "A coach looks for commitment, effort and hard work and in the two years since she has come down from Scotland she hasn't flinched and I'm confident that she is nowhere near fulfilling her potential yet."

Although his student has been showing potential for several years ­ she was part of the Great Britain youth team, along with other prospects such as Hannah Collin and Anne Keothavong, who walloped the United States 10-1 in the 1999 Maureen Connolly Trophy ­ it is her performances in the past year, and indeed the past month, that have especially impressed.

She was a semi-finalist at the National Championships in Telford last year after a run of results that earned special praise from, among others, Patrice Hagelauer, the French performance director of the Lawn Tennis Association. And earlier this month, at Surbiton, she racked up several scalps, including two top-six seeds, in the Powder Byrne Trophy, en route to another last-four finish. Among them was Jennifer Hopkins, ranked more than 250 places above her in the world at No 68. Baltacha's world ranking increased from No 348 to No 280 as a result of that run.

The player herself is in no doubt that Jones has made all the difference to her development. "I'd never seen such a high standard in practice in Scotland," she said. "And Alan has taught me so much about myself, about off-court behaviour and preparation, about confidence."

There is also praise for the LTA, which has helped "unbelievably" with funding and support, and her brother, Sergei Jnr. "He's the person I admire the most. Such a strong person. Always honest. What you see is what you get. He knows what he wants and he knows how to get it."

Does she share those characteristics? "I know there's still a lot to be done. It's anyone's dream to be No 1 in the world, to be the best. But for me, the dream is to fulfil my potential, even it I end up at No 500 in the world. I'll be happy as long as I know I've given my best."

For Wimbledon and the summer, the ambitions are equally straightforward. "To be injury free. To compete. To enjoy it. To love playing".

It is sincerely said, and, given the apparently ingrained pessimism and willingness to be second-best that has so often been the hallmark of some of her more conventionally British predecessors, refreshingly buoyant. It is time, it seems, to bring on the big guns.