Defeat, but hope for Baltacha's future

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The Independent Online

Elena Baltacha's Australian Open ended in defeat here today but the 25-year-old Briton could take plenty of encouragement from her performance.

Baltacha took the first set against Amelie Mauresmo and led 2-0 in the decider before losing 4-6, 6-3, 6-2 to the former world No 1 in two hours and 13 minutes.

Baltacha, who had reached the main draw by winning three qualifying matches, was the last of the four-strong British female contingent to bow out of the tournament, having reached the second round with a fine victory over Anna-Lena Groenefeld. She never looked over-awed and would have pulled off the finest victory of her career if she had maintained her form of the first set.

Mauresmo, a former Wimbledon and Australian Open champion, is not the force she was, but the Frenchwoman is still ranked No 22 in the world and has already beaten Ana Ivanovic this year. Baltacha is 112 places beneath her, though she is set to climb at least 20 positions when the updated rankings are published at the end of the tournament.

Not many women are able to outhit Mauresmo, but throughout the match the 2006 champion struggled to counter Baltacha's powerful ground strokes. It was only when Mauresmo started to vary her game that Baltacha's level started to drop. While the Briton's backhand remained consistent throughout, she had trouble controlling her forehand in the latter stages and repeatedly hit the ball long.

The statistics of the match told their own story. Baltacha hit 22 winners to Mauresmo's 18 but made 49 unforced errors to the Frenchwoman's 33. "I pretty well won the match for her with my mistakes," Baltacha admitted afterwards.

Conditions on a crowded Court Two could hardly have been more testing. Although there was cloud cover, the temperature climbed to 34C and the humidity was high. Under the tournament's extreme heat rules, there was a 10-minute break before the start of the final set. A gusty and unpredictable wind was so strong that advertising hoardings were repeatedly blown over. Even the refrigerator containing water for the players was blown along the side of the court.

Although Mauresmo made the first break, in the third game, it was Baltacha who took control of the first set, putting her opponent under constant pressure with the weight of her returns of serve. Mauresmo tried to dominate the net, but was regularly beaten by passing shots as Baltacha refused to be intimidated.

The Briton faltered briefly, making four errors in succession to drop her serve at 5-3, but Mauresmo responded in kind, serving two double faults at the start of the next game. At 30-40 Baltacha played a beautifully judged drop shot to convert her first set point.

Mauresmo again made the better start in the second set, breaking serve immediately, but Baltacha never let her get away. The Briton had points to break back at 3-2 and 4-3, but Mauresmo held firm and eventually broke serve again to take the second set.

Baltacha had played some tired-looking strokes in that final game, but made the more positive start after the break. She broke serve in the opening game of the deciding set, converting her first break point with a cracking forehand cross-court pass as Mauresmo tried to take control of the net.

Holding her own serve to 15 with an ace, Baltacha went 2-0 up, but it proved to be her final flourish. The Briton had three points for a 3-1 lead, but three successive errors handed Mauresmo the game. From that point Mauresmo ran away with the match, eventually securing victory on a double fault. The Frenchwoman will now play the No 13 seed, Victoria Azarenka, whose opponent, Tathiana Garbin, retired when 4-1 down in the first set.

"I'll take positives from it," Baltacha said afterwards. "I took a set off Mauresmo and I had points to go 3-1 up in the third set. That's really exciting stuff. But even at 2-0 I felt that it was slipping away from me. I was thinking: ‘You've got to somehow pull it back.'

"I just couldn't quite maintain my level and she started varying things. She started putting a lot of topspin on her forehand. She got more confident. She was coming in, staying back, slicing, looping the backhand. She really tried messing me around and it worked for her.

"I felt my level was going a little bit and I just couldn't sustain it. I pretty well won the match for her with my mistakes, but I've proved to myself that I can play at that level. I just need to play at that level all the time now, because I'm not used to playing at that kind of standard week in and week out.

"That was definitely the big difference today and that is something that, to go forward, I need to improve. But I've never played better tennis than that, even when I made the third round here [four years ago]. I don't think I was capable of that then and I've really shown that I've improved my tennis."