Elena Baltacha: 'I needed to build my game, get more variety because I'm not the biggest hitter'
Britain's Elena Baltacha starts US Open campaign with renewed belief thanks to more flexible game plan
At 28 Elena Baltacha is hardly a veteran, but nor would you consider that an age at which to reinvent yourself as a player. As the US Open got under way here yesterday, however, she was preparing to unveil her new game on a Grand Slam stage for the first time. Exit Baltacha the baseline ball-cruncher, enter Baltacha the creative shot-maker.
The world No 58, who will meet America's Jamie Hampton in the first round, has enjoyed an Indian summer to her career after breaking into the world's top 100 for the first time less than two years ago. She believes it is never too late to learn. Having transformed her fortunes after teaming up with Nino Severino, a former kick-boxing coach, she has now changed her game style in the belief that she needs a different approach if she is to make further progress.
The match that altered Baltacha's thinking was her defeat to China's Shuai Peng at Wimbledon this summer. There was no shame in losing 7-5 in the final set to the then world No 20, but it confirmed the Briton's fears that she could no longer match the power of many of the game's younger players.
When Baltacha made her Grand Slam tournament debut at Wimbledon 10 years ago she was regarded as a big hitter, but the latest generation of players has taken the power game to new levels. Meanwhile Baltacha has had to modify her service action following back surgery.
"I used to think that I had a big serve," Baltacha said. "My fastest serves were 120mph. Now I'm serving at 108, 110. The girls are stronger and faster, they hit the ball harder.
"After Wimbledon the biggest thing I realised was that I couldn't quite go through Peng. I needed to build my game, to get more variety in it, because I'm not the biggest hitter. I'm not a [Petra] Kvitova or a [Julia] Görges. I won't be able to hurt girls going through them, especially now the girls all hit the ball so hard.
"For me to go to the next level, my game has to change. I realised after Wimbledon that it had only got me so far and I needed something different in my game. Now I'm using the slice much more, messing up the rhythm. I've been looking at my serve a lot – when to throw in the kickers and trying to disguise the serve as well.
"I'm not saying that I'm going to completely change my game, that I'm chipping and coming in and all that, but I think I have to adapt, so it's not just bang, bang, bang, bang, because I don't know what else to do. My game is always going to be my game, where I'm trying to be aggressive, but at the same time I'll try to mix it up."
The change was not easy at first, but by the time Baltacha arrived in Dallas last week she was playing with renewed confidence. She dropped only three games in beating the Czech Republic's Barbora Zahlavova Strycova before recording one of the best wins of her career against Görges, the world No 21. She eventually lost to France's Aravane Rezai in the quarter-finals.
"Last week was the first week that I felt really comfortable," Baltacha said. "In my win against Strycova I felt like I was in control the whole time, like I was two shots ahead of her. I've never felt like that before. To me, that was really exciting."
The victory over Görges, one of the game's emerging talents, also showed the value of playing a more varied style. "Sometimes when you play a hard hitter, they want the ball to come hard to them," Baltacha said. "When you throw in a kicker they have to generate their own pace, I found that myself. I preferred playing players who had pace whereas if someone is spinning you this way and chipping you that way, it's more difficult."
Baltacha has talked in the past about retiring next year, but with her continuing success she is not so sure. "I've given myself a target to get to the Olympics, but it all depends on how I'm feeling," she said. "If I feel like I'm improving then I'll carry on. There's no doubt. And if I still love it then I'll keep doing it."
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