Baltacha's shock victory brings cheer for Britain

The Women's game has the Williams sisters, the Belgian sort-of sisters and a swelling troupe of formidably talented Russians. Then there is Elena Baltacha, who set British hearts aflutter yesterday by fighting her way into the second round of the Australian Open.

The Women's game has the Williams sisters, the Belgian sort-of sisters and a swelling troupe of formidably talented Russians. Then there is Elena Baltacha, who set British hearts aflutter yesterday by fighting her way into the second round of the Australian Open.

Such is the woeful state of the game in the nation that produced Margaret Croft and Virginia Wade that the mere fact of Baltacha's participation in the season-opening Grand Slam was a major story. Yesterday the world No 185, who qualified for the first time to play at Melbourne Park, defied the doom-mongers by beating the Slovenian Katarina Srebotnik in three sets.

Played in baking heat, on an outside court so remote that one observer joked that it was practically in Sydney, the 5-7, 6-4, 6-4 victory did not come easily to Baltacha. The first set went to her 23-year-old opponent, and the momentum then swung back and forth, with five breaks of serve in the second set and five in the third.

Srebotnik entered the match with a 119-point rankings advantage and the psychological boost of winning the singles title at the Auckland Open just over a week ago. But Baltacha - born in Kiev, raised in Ipswich and Perth (Scotland), and now resident in Middlesex - could draw on the confidence instilled by three hard-fought wins in the qualifying rounds.

This time last year, the British No 1 made her comeback at a £535,000 tournament in Hull. The 21-year-old, known as much for her likeable temperament as her big serve, said yesterday that, for now, she was glad to be playing tennis at all after she took six months out after Wimbledon in 2003 because of a serious liver problem.

"I realised then how much I love tennis and how much a part of my life it has been," she said. "Now my whole life is tennis, on and off court. I have to admit that it never really was before then. I used to leave tennis on the practice court; now it's on my mind all the time. I eat and sleep tennis. I do everything I can to keep injury-free. I was so happy when I was told [by her doctors] that I could play again, and I'm really delighted that I'm back."

Srebotnik was disconcerted by her opponent's form. "I don't know what she had for breakfast, but she was on fire," she said. "I was told that Elena is always either on or off, and today she was on. I'm not sure if she can keep it up, but if she plays like today, she can beat anyone. Some of the shots she was hitting were unbelievable."

Undeterred by losing the first set, Baltacha - watched by a small crowd of British fans, including the Davis Cup captain, Jeremy Bates - broke serve twice to take a 3-0 lead. Srebnotik broke back for 1-3, and the pair traded breaks until the Briton took the set.

Baltacha kept her nerve when a mini-Balkans dispute erupted in the third set as Srebotnik prepared to serve at 3-5. A group of noisy Croatian fans sparred with some Serbian supporters, delaying play for several minutes. The Briton lost that game to love, but then held serve, sending a forehand down the line on match point.

Tomorrow she meets the Frenchwoman Stephanie Cohen-Aloro, who knocked out her compatriot, the 24th seed Mary Pierce, 6-2, 6-2. Ai Sugiyama, the No 16 seed, also departed prematurely, defeated by Martina Sucha, of Slovakia. Other leading women, including Serena Williams, Amélie Mauresmo and Maria Sharapova, sailed into the second round.

The most spectacular men's casualty was Carlos Moya, the No 5 seed, beaten 7-5, 6-3, 3-6, 6-3 by a qualifier and fellow Spaniard, Guillermo Garcia-Lopez. The 28-year-old, rated a leading contender to wrest the Australian Open title from Roger Federer, converted only three of 16 break points offered him by his Davis Cup hitting partner.

Garcia-Lopez is ranked No 128 and appearing in only his third Grand Slam. But the 21-year-old took less than three hours to demolish his hero, and afterwards described it as "the most important win of my life".

Moya, who beat Garcia-Lopez en route to winning the Chennai Open this month, said: "I was playing well before I came here. It was the perfect preparation, but something was wrong today. My serve and forehand didn't help at all, and they are my two best weapons."

Other leading men's seeds had an easier time in the first round. Federer dispatched Fabrice Santoro 6-1, 6-1, 6-2, while Andre Agassi, the No 8, beat Dieter Kindlmann in straight sets. Marat Safin, twice a runner-up in Melbourne, defeated the Serb Novak Djokovic 6-0, 6-2, 6-1.

Comments