Elena Baltacha: Her natural talent may have been limited, but kindness to others knew no bounds

British former world No 49, who tragically passed away on Sunday, may have had a limit to her natural talent but her warmth of spirit and kindness to others knew no bounds

Tennis Correspondent

There was snow on the ground outside and on the indoor courts it was almost as cold, but the warmth that Elena Baltacha exuded would have melted a polar ice-cap. This was December 2009 and the Elena Baltacha Academy of Tennis was still just a twinkle in her eyes, but they sparkled as she talked about her plans to provide tennis opportunities for under-privileged children in her home town of Ipswich.

Parents turned up with children who had already benefited from Baltacha’s help and advice. One was a young Russian girl, who perhaps reminded the Ukrainian-born Baltacha of her own early days on the tennis court. Given the vigour with which the girl struck the ball, Baltacha’s enthusiasm was clearly infectious.

Within a year, EBAT was up and running. Today the academy provides tennis coaching for more than 70 players aged between five and 13. Many come from deprived areas and receive free or subsidised coaching. The youngsters’ joy is summed up by a wonderful photograph of Baltacha with one of her classes which featured yesterday on the academy’s website (www.ebatuk.com/news).

The academy is a fitting legacy left behind by Baltacha, who died on Sunday from liver cancer at the age of just 30. For all her achievements as the best British player of her generation, the former world No 49 will be remembered above all for her generous spirit and for her determination to fight the odds despite the numerous physical setbacks she suffered in her tragically short life.


If you think it is all very well for former tennis players to plough their wealth into their academies, which might quickly turn a profit and will help keep their founder’s name in the public eye, then think again if talk turns to “Bally”, as she was known throughout the sport.

The former British No 1 made very little money from tennis (her career earnings of just over £1m were spread over 15 years) and producing future champions was never EBAT’s main aim. Baltacha simply wanted to give back, having been grateful for the opportunities that tennis had bestowed on her.

It says much about Baltacha that she found time to set up her academy when she was at the height of her career. Whether she was baby-sitting for Laura Robson, which she did as a teenager, giving advice and support to less experienced colleagues in Britain’s Fed Cup team, or coming up with ways to help local children, Baltacha was always thinking of others.

Elena Baltacha took great pleasure in giving back to youngsters Elena Baltacha took great pleasure in giving back to youngsters (Getty)

Until Andy Murray came along, the image of most young British tennis players – despite notable exceptions like Tim Henman and Greg Rusedski – has often been of pampered individuals who enjoy the benefits provided by the Lawn Tennis Association’s wealth but who ultimately lack the hardness and commitment of those players from other countries brought up in less privileged environments.

Those who did not know Baltacha and viewed her career from afar might have been tempted to put her in the same category. After an initial flourish as a teenager, when a bright future was predicted, she played most of her matches either on the International Tennis Federation circuit, which is the next level down from the main women’s tour, or battling for ranking points in the early rounds of Women’s Tennis Association events.

At Wimbledon Baltacha never improved on her performance in 2002, when she reached the third round at the age of 18 after knocking out the No 32 seed, Amanda Coetzer, who was ranked 258 places above her. She never reached a final on the main tour and spent most of her career ranked outside the world’s top 100.

What those bare facts conceal, however, is the extraordinary courage that Baltacha showed through the many physical problems she had to overcome. Surgery on a prolapsed disc and on ankle spurs led to long lay-offs, but the most crushing news she had during her career was her diagnosis, at the age of just 19, with a chronic liver condition, primary sclerosing cholangitis, which affects the bile ducts.

For the rest of her life Baltacha was on medication and was unable to push herself as hard as she would have liked in training. Her back problems, meanwhile, meant that she was often in great physical pain after the many long-haul flights she had to make, nearly all of them in economy class.

Nevertheless, Baltacha never complained about her physical difficulties. At our interview on that frozen morning in Ipswich five years ago, I asked her if she ever wondered why she had been so unlucky. She replied: “I don’t question it at all because I believe there is always someone who has it worse. I also believe that obstacles are put in front of you for a reason and it’s a question of how you deal with them. Either you jump over them, go round them or run straight through them. It either makes you or breaks you and I really believe that. I believe that whatever’s been thrown at me it was up to me to deal with it.”

The only time when you might have questioned Baltacha’s warmth was when she was on court. She was a ferocious competitor. When she played Maria Sharapova in Memphis at a time when the former Wimbledon champion was at the height of her powers, Baltacha started talking aloud to herself in Russian in an attempt to unsettle her opponent,

“She didn’t know I spoke Russian,” Baltacha recalled. “So I started shouting ‘Come on!’ and talking in Russian. She didn’t like it – and I knew she didn’t. Then on the next point she hit this unbelievable drive volley. That was it. Off she went and the Russian curses came out. I thought: ‘Yes, I got to her a little bit’.”

Baltacha, who lost 6-2, 7-5 but pushed Sharapova harder than most, added: “With someone like that you have to go in there and give them no respect. You have to go in there and try to play your game and if it’s not working change it up. But you’ve got to keep believing. If you’re like ‘Well I’m going to go out and I’m going to lose’, what’s the point?”

That competitive edge and will to win were Baltacha’s greatest assets on the court. Her natural talent was limited, though she thought hard about her game and, as she grew in experience, would sometimes surprise opponents with the variety of her shots.

The coach during the latter and most successful years of her career was Nino Severino, who came from a kick-boxing background and knew little about tennis. Initially he helped with her movement and physical preparation, but as they grew closer he became her coach. They married in December, just a month before she was diagnosed with liver cancer.

They were an utterly devoted couple. An agonised Severino could look as though he was playing every point as he watched her in competition, while Baltacha, when discussing her career with the press, always talked about her Nino. We in the British media, who loved Baltacha’s candour and passion, sometimes smiled at her post-match conferences as we recalled the number of times she had mentioned Severino.

Baltacha was never going to win Wimbledon, but in her latter years she achieved many of her goals. She reached the top 100 and then the top 50 in the world rankings and represented Britain in the Olympics at Wimbledon. Having just lost her British No 1 ranking to Anne Keothavong, Baltacha feared that she might not make the 2012 Olympics. The news that she was in the team was broken to her by Judy Murray after a match at Wimbledon. Both women were in tears.

Murray had known Baltacha from her days as Scotland’s national coach. Baltacha spent most of her childhood in Scotland after her father, Sergei, a former Soviet Union football international, joined St Johnstone. He had initially moved to Britain with his family when his daughter was five after signing for Ipswich Town from Dynamo Kiev.

Baltacha grew used to travelling the world and her popularity outstripped her on-court achievements. Nick Bollettieri, who has coached a host of world No 1s at his famed academy in Florida, never knew Baltacha personally but telephoned yesterday to offer his condolences to the family and friends of a player he knew was “an inspiration to all those around her”.

Tennis will have a chance to show its appreciation for Baltacha on 15 June, when charity mixed-doubles matches at the tournaments at Queen’s Club, Edgbaston and Eastbourne will raise money for her academy. There could be no more fitting tribute to someone who represented the very best that British sport has to offer.

The surrealist comedian at the Q Awards in 2010
Russell Brand arriving for the book launch in East London
peopleRussell Brand cancels his book launch debate due to concerns about the make-up of the panel
Christiano Ronaldo enjoys his opening goal
champions leagueLiverpool 0 Real Madrid 3: Ronaldo and Benzema run Reds ragged to avenge thrashing from their last visit to Anfield
Arts and Entertainment
Awesome foursome: Sam Smith shows off his awards
music22-year-old confirms he is 2014’s breakout British music success
Life and Style
Six of the 76 Goats' cheese samples contained a significant amount of sheep's cheese
food + drink
Arts and Entertainment
Contestants during this summer's Celebrity Big Brother grand finale
tvBroadcaster attempts to change its image following sale to American media group
Arts and Entertainment
Sir Nicholas Serota has been a feature in the Power 100 top ten since its 2002 launch
Arts and Entertainment
Sarah Dales attempts to sell British Breeze in the luxury scent task
tvReview: 'Apprentice' candidate on the verge of tears as they were ejected from the boardroom
Call me Superman: one of many unusual names chosen by Chinese students
newsChinese state TV offers advice for citizens picking a Western moniker
Wilko Johnson is currently on his farewell tour
New look: Zellweger at Elle's Women in Hollywood awards on Monday
voicesRenée Zellweger's real crime has been to age in an industry that prizes women's youth over humanity, says Amanda Hess
Let’s pretend: KidZania in Tokyo
educationKidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day
Life and Style
CHARGE BOOSTER: Aeroplane mode doesn't sound very exciting, but it can be a (phone) hacker's friend. Turning on the option while charging your mobile will increase the speed at which your phone battery charges
techNew book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone
Arts and Entertainment
Julianne Moore and Ellen Page are starring together in civil rights drama Freeheld
Caption competition
Caption competition
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Daily Quiz
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

A crime that reveals London's dark heart

How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

Lost in translation: Western monikers

Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
Handy hacks that make life easier: New book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone

Handy hacks that make life easier

New book reveals how to rid your email inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone with a loo-roll
KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

KidZania: It's a small world

The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker
Renée Zellweger's real crime has been to age in an industry that prizes women's youth over humanity

'Renée Zellweger's real crime was to age'

The actress's altered appearance raised eyebrows at Elle's Women in Hollywood awards on Monday
From Cinderella to The Jungle Book, Disney plans live-action remakes of animated classics

Disney plans live-action remakes of animated classics

From Cinderella to The Jungle Book, Patrick Grafton-Green wonders if they can ever recapture the old magic
Thousands of teenagers to visit battlefields of the First World War in new Government scheme

Pupils to visit First World War battlefields

A new Government scheme aims to bring the the horrors of the conflict to life over the next five years
The 10 best smartphone accessories

Make the most of your mobile: 10 best smartphone accessories

Try these add-ons for everything from secret charging to making sure you never lose your keys again
Mario Balotelli substituted at half-time against Real Madrid: Was this shirt swapping the real reason?

Liverpool v Real Madrid

Mario Balotelli substituted at half-time. Was shirt swapping the real reason?
West Indies tour of India: Hurricane set to sweep Windies into the shadows

Hurricane set to sweep Windies into the shadows

Decision to pull out of India tour leaves the WICB fighting for its existence with an off-field storm building
Indiana serial killer? Man arrested for murdering teenage prostitute confesses to six other murders - and police fear there could be many more

A new American serial killer?

Police fear man arrested for murder of teen prostitute could be responsible for killing spree dating back 20 years
Sweetie, the fake 10-year-old girl designed to catch online predators, claims her first scalp

Sting to trap paedophiles may not carry weight in UK courts

Computer image of ‘Sweetie’ represented entrapment, experts say
Fukushima nuclear crisis: Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on - and may never return home

Return to Fukushima – a land they will never call home again

Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on from nuclear disaster
Wildlife Photographer of the Year: Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize

Wildlife Photographer of the Year

Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize
Online petitions: Sign here to change the world

Want to change the world? Just sign here

The proliferation of online petitions allows us to register our protests at the touch of a button. But do they change anything?