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.
Elena Baltacha, the former British women's tennis number one
Elena Baltacha, the former British women's tennis number one
1/5 Elena Baltacha
The tennis star, who was diagnosed with liver cancer in January, is pictured in Argentina at the Fed Cup in 2013.
2/5 Elena Baltacha
Elena Baltacha married her long term coach and boyfriend Nino Severino in December 2013.
3/5 Elena Baltacha
The Ukrainian-born sportswoman in action against Maria Irigoyen of Argentina during day two of the Fed Cup World Group Two Play-Offs between Argentina and Great Britain at Parque Roca in 2013.
4/5 Elena Baltacha
Pictured with (L-R) Anne Keothavong, captain of Great Britain ( and Andy Murray's mother) Judy Murray, Johanna Konta and Laura Robson at the Pan Americano Hotel during previews ahead of the Fed Cup World Group Two Play-Offs.
5/5 Elena Baltacha
Elena Baltacha celebrates winning a point against Melanie Oudin during the Mercury Insurance Open presented by Tri-City Medical at the La Costa Resort and Spa in California in 2011.
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.
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.