Elena Baltacha: Beating ill health is Baltacha's first target

Britain's former No 1 faces Dokic at Wimbledon next week hoping she is approaching the end of a series of problems
Click to follow
The Independent Online

It is at least 15 years since Rex Bellamy wrote in The Times about a Norwich-based tennis player called Uli Nganga. "One of the Norfolk Ngangas," Bellamy added, cheekily. It was a funny line, but it couldn't be written now, partly because it would be crushed by the forces of political correctness, and partly because so many of the current hopes of British tennis have names which, similarly, originate a long way east of East Anglia. Alex Bogdanovic springs to mind, as does Jamie Delgado (a Real Madrid fan even before David Beckham signed), and indeed Greg Rusedski. Then there are our top-ranked women, Anne Keothavong and 19-year-old Elena Baltacha.

Which brings me to a windy day in Eastbourne, where Baltacha is being beaten 7-5, 6-2 by the Australian, Alicia Molik. At 6-5 in the first set, Molik drives a winning forehand just beyond the scurrying Baltacha's reach.

"*!*@!*!!," cries the bespectacled Baltacha, but she does so in Russian. Afterwards, I ask her what it meant. She grins. "I said 'oh damn'," she tells me. "No, you didn't," says her garrulous coach, Alan Jones. "I've heard a lot of Russian over the past few years, but I've never heard that one before. I said to your mother, 'Olga, I've never heard that one. What did it mean?' And she said 'I can't tell you'. So it wasn't 'damn'."

Baltacha gives a merry laugh. "Well, it was along the lines of 'that wasn't very good'."

There might be more Russian best left untranslated in her opening match in the women's singles at Wimbledon, against the former world No 5 Jelena Dokic. Although Dokic is short of confidence, Baltacha has some fundamental health problems still unresolved, which are significantly affecting her tennis. We will come to those, but first I want to talk to her about her intriguing background.

She was five when she arrived in a mini-maelstrom of publicity to live in Britain, the fuss because her father was Sergei Baltacha, a footballer signed from Dynamo Kiev by Ipswich Town. A fine centre-back with 50-odd international caps, he was also the first man from the Soviet Union to play for a British club. Not that young Elena was much into football. But it was in Ipswich that she first discovered an aptitude for wielding a racket, albeit in rudimentary form. "Swingball," she says. "That's what got me started."

As her father's sporting career declined, her's flourished. He was transferred to St Johnstone, then joined Inverness Caledonian Thistle as player-manager, before winding up as assistant coach at St Mirren. She, meanwhile, started to win junior tennis tournaments galore, and was 14 when she first came to the notice of Jones, who also coached Jo Durie. "I saw her and thought 'what a joy, a youngster who really wants to cane the ball'," he recalls.

It was no wonder that Baltacha had natural sporting ability; not only was her father a footballer, her mother represented the Soviet Union as a pentathlete, and would have competed in the 1980 Olympics but for the unutterably prosaic reason that she could find nobody to look after her newborn son, Elena's big brother.

Anyway, Baltacha and Jones teamed up, although the relationship was fractious at first. "I phoned my mum and said 'I hate him, I want to come home'. But she stuck it out and a mutual respect developed, then genuine affection. She began to improve, and we all saw the fruits of that improvement at Wimbledon a year ago, when she defeated the seeded South African Amanda Coetzer - at one stage ranked third in the world - in the second round.

It was Baltacha's second appearance at the championships. In 2001 she went out in the first round to Nathalie Dechy, an experience she recalls keenly. "I was supposed to be on Court 4, but it was taking ages, so the referee called me over and said: 'I'm going to put you on Centre Court.' I just burst out crying, so he said: 'OK, we won't put you on Centre,' but I said: 'no, it's OK'. And I remember getting out there and seeing the pigeons flying round and that...for the first set I could hardly see the court, I just couldn't focus."

In the second set she got her focus back. She finally lost 6-1, 7-5, and in so doing, issued notice that she had at least one formidable weapon. One of her serves was clocked that day at 118mph, which remains her personal best.

So Wimbledon has been good to her; the £20,000 cheque she received last year for reaching the third round is by far the biggest of her career. But this year Dokic stands in the way of even the second round. "And she'll get herself up for Wimbledon, there's no doubt about that. I watched her match here yesterday, and she's very aggressive, hits at everything, she's got a good serve..."

Perhaps in the locker-room beforehand, I venture, she should bring up the unpalatable subject of Dokic's volatile father, Damir, whom Dokic keeps trying to forget. She laughs. "Yeah, that might work."

Baltacha is a bright, bubbly young woman, with a soft Scottish accent which offers no hint that she was once a reluctant English speaker. "I was bribed," she says, with a laugh. "There was a Pink Panther bike I really wanted, and my parents said I could have it if I started to work at learning English."

So she knuckled down to her English lessons, and duly got the bike. It is a lesson in self-discipline that has stayed with her; Jones says he has rarely met anyone who works harder. Which makes it all the more distressing that a shadow looms over her tennis career: her health.

The list of problems she has suffered over the past two years is a hypochondriac's delight. In January 2001, she had flu. From February to April, running colds. In November, chicken pox and tonsillitis. In December, more flu. In January, February and March 2002, tonsillitis. Then she stayed reasonably healthy until August (a period which coincided with her excellent effort at Wimbledon), before debilitating diarrhoea, then yet more tonsillitis. In November last year she had her tonsils out; since then, she has suffered a series of nasty colds.

"This young lady is the genuine article," Jones says. "She's not frightened of hard work, and she's not frightened of pain. But Jo [Durie, who is also on her coaching team] and I realised two years ago that she was struggling with breathing and not getting fitter."

Eventually the problems were traced to her liver. She was referred to a liver specialist, who declared that her liver had been poisoned by antibiotics. So she stopped the antibiotics, but still didn't improve. Seven weeks ago she underwent a biopsy; that too was inconclusive.

"Then a phone call was made," Jones says, "to a Professor so-and-so, the leading liver guy in the world. He's meant to be the business. He was flying in from Egypt on the Wednesday, saw Bally on the Thursday, and was off to the States on the Friday. He looked at her notes and looked at her over his glasses and said '19 years of age, this doesn't make sense, young lady. It could be something you were born with.' Except that the LTA [Lawn Tennis Association] did a routine screening when she was 14 and there was no sign of any liver trouble.

"Anyway, the guy said that he wanted to do two tests, and one would be quite intrusive. He said: 'let's get Wimbledon out of the way first, and we'll do it then.'" Jones takes a deep breath, and looks fondly at his young charge. "So the match against Dokic doesn't matter. If she gets fit and well, there'll be plenty of matches against Dokic."

How good, given restored health, does he think Baltacha can be? "Well, I watch some players and struggle to find ways I can make them better. With her I see maybe 10 things that would make her better. But it's hard to say. When I first saw Jo Durie I never thought she'd make the top five. I thought maybe the top 55. With Bally, if she retains the love for the game and is prepared to keep working, I see a player who could definitely sit in the top 60, and after that we'll see."

At present, Baltacha is outside the world's top 150, which puts in perspective her ranking, until she was dislodged by Keathavong last week, as British No 1. "When I heard I was No 1, I thought 'wicked'," she says. "But then Alan pointed out that in the French ranking list, in the German, in the Czech, I'd be no higher than seven. I'd rather be seventh in Britain and in the top 100 in the world."

Before that happens, hell will freeze over and the Wimbledon referee, Alan Mills, will say: 'bugger the dress code, you can wear a Clingfilm body-suit for all I care'. Unless, of course, there is a revolution in the way tennis is administered in this country. I ask Baltacha why she thinks the women's game is so relatively hopeless. Is it (here a sidelong look at Jones) the coaching?"

"No, I think it's more to do with the players than the coaches," she says.

"There's no difference," Jones interjects, "between the women's game and the men's game, once you take Tim [Henman] out of the equation."

"Yeah, take out Tim and Greg..."

"Greg has nothing to do with it," Jones says, flatly. "He wasn't raised here. I'll give you six reasons why [British tennis is in a mess]. First, we are a nation of small tennis clubs, which don't have enough courts to offer juniors. And we've been pursuing the wrong surfaces for years. Professional tennis players have to grow up on hard or clay; grass is an obsolete surface which happens to have the biggest showpiece of the year. And our tennis club culture is doubles-based. And when parents drop their kids off for coaching on Saturday morning, it's not coaching, it's babysitting.

"Two, we have a very weak competitive base, and a cash-rich governing body, the LTA, which needs to be tougher at dishing its dosh out. Very often, and with good intent, the LTA has been a form of social security for tennis.

"Three, we have to be honest with parents, and coaches need to be able to evaluate performance. The required level of performance is an area we struggle with because our own players aren't good enough.

"Four, we don't teach our young players enough about the game, only about the stroke. We are too stroke-based, which is why British players, with a few exceptions, are historically reasonable technicians but slow. There's no point having good technique if you can't get to the ball.

"Five, we don't tell anybody what a dreadful life it is. The chosen few live the life of O'Reilly (sic) but for the pack it's bloody expensive."

Baltacha, who has been listening intently, nods her head. "Yeah, I went to Australia last year and it cost a grand and a half just getting there. So if you then get a bad draw or whatever, you're spending more money than you're getting. I'm really lucky, in that the LTA pay for Alan and Jo, but there are plenty of girls out there who pay for their coaches."

"And six," continues Jones, unfazed by the interruption, "is that it's very easy between the ages of 10 and 13 to become a non-loser as opposed to a winner. When Jack Nicklaus was playing golf at that age, [his teacher] Jack Grout would say, 'hit it as hard as you can, then we'll go and find it.' But here, young tennis players are encouraged to play non-losing, as opposed to winning tennis."

So there we have it. Not only everything which ails Elena Baltacha, but everything which ails British tennis. If Baltacha beats Dokic next week, though, both sets of ailments will, however briefly, be forgotten.

Elena Baltacha the life and times

Born: 14 August, 1983 in the Ukraine.

Also known as: "Bally".

Lives: Enfield, North London.

Rankings: British No 2, World 149.

Career earnings to date: $90,079 (£54,000).

Career: After impressive appearances in youth competitions - and with the British Fed Cup team - she made her Grand Slam debut at Wimbledon in 2001. She lost in the first round but returned in 2002 where she recorded her first All England Club victory as she reached the third round. In 2003 she made her debut at the Australian Open where she was eliminated in the first round.

High point: She surprised the tennis world by reaching the third round at Wimbledon in 2002. She knocked out the experienced 32nd seed Amanda Coetzer and hit the third fastest serve in women's tennis history at 118mph - a speed only beaten by the Williams sisters.

Low point: Her Wimbledon success was followed by a year of injuries, causing her to say, "I think I'm cursed or something."

Goals: To reach the world's top 100, avoid injury and perform well at this year's Wimbledon.

She says: "If I could have anything then I would like a new pair of feet so I could be quicker moving around court."

They say: "Even when she was small she had willpower. I'm sure she will reach the top 100 - top 10 even - with her ability and potential. She has power and she also has a good personality." Sergei Baltacha, Elena's father and former Soviet football international.