Baltacha's spirit rises to new levels

Battling Scot joins Murray in third round with best win of her career over Bondarenko
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The Independent Online

Elena Baltacha and Andy Murray are both Scottish and British No 1s but that is usually where the similarities end. While Baltacha has spent most of her professional life chasing ranking points at the sport's more obscure outposts, Murray was playing regularly on the biggest stages within months of making his professional breakthrough.

Tomorrow, however, the two Britons will share equal billing here in the third round of the Australian Open. The last 32 of a Grand Slam tournament is familiar territory for 22-year-old Murray, but it will be only the third occasion that 26-year-old Baltacha has gone this far. Murray, having beaten Marc Gicquel 6-1, 6-4, 6-3 yesterday, faces another Frenchman in Florent Serra, while Baltacha's prize for beating Kateryna Bondarenko 6-2, 7-5 is a meeting with Russia's Dinara Safina, the world No 2.

Baltacha, who also reached the third round at Wimbledon in 2002 and here in 2005, has been scaling new heights in the last 12 months. Having broken into the world's top 100 for the first time in September and reached a career-best No 83 this week, she will make further progress when the rankings are updated at the end of this tournament.

The win over Bondarenko, the world No 32, was the best of her career and showed the extent of her recent improvements under the coaching of Nino Severino. Baltacha has always been a big hitter, but she has rarely played with such controlled aggression. Most impressive of all was her ability to play her way out of bad spells like the dip she suffered when going 3-0 down at the start of the second set.

The Briton's career has been dogged by injury and illness – she is on permanent medication for a liver condition, for which she takes 10 pills a day – but now she wants to think only about the present and the future.

"We could talk all day about the past, but what's the point?" Baltacha said. "The only way is forward. I'm tired of thinking about the past. We don't discuss it anymore. A lot of the time I used to think of myself as the girl who had the liver problem, or the girl who had the back surgery or the girl who could have been a good player. I'm not that anymore. I look at myself in a different way. I'm OK with everything and I take each day as it comes."

Safina beat Anne Keothavong 6-0, 6-0 at last year's French Open in her previous Grand Slam meeting with a Briton, but Baltacha is looking forward to taking on the 2009 runner-up. "It's fantastic," she said. "I know Safina is a good player, but she has had her blips recently. I'm just going to go for it. I've got nothing to lose. I'm very excited about it."

Serra, Murray's next opponent, is the world No 64, but such is the depth of talent across the Channel that he is only the French No 10. "I would prefer to be on the front page of the newspapers, but I've never played well in Grand Slams and I've only won two titles," he said. "I'm really pleased to have got this far. At the start of the tournament my dream was to get to the third round and play Murray on one of the show courts."

The 28-year-old Frenchman, through to a Grand Slam third round for only the second time, has never played Murray. He said he would seek advice from Gicquel, though the world No 57 rarely troubled the world No 4. Murray had more difficulties with the wind swirling around a packed Margaret Court Arena, though there were times when he used it to wonderful effect by hitting drop shots into the breeze.

A boisterous crowd gave Murray vociferous backing. "The support every time I have played here has been really good," he said. "I get the chance to play on the big courts quite a lot, which helps. It does make a difference."

Katie O'Brien played in front of a similarly large crowd on Court Two but 42 unforced errors cost the British No 2 dear in a 6-2, 6-2 defeat by Jelena Jankovic, the world No 8. "I hit some good winners, but I was a little bit wayward at times," O'Brien said.

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