Elena Baltacha: 'I tried for 10 years to get where I've been this year'

Interview No.9: The British No 1 is off to the Australian Open in style after the best season of her career, writes Paul Newman
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The Independent Online

Elena Baltacha has a smile on her face. There is nothing new there, as the British No 1 always accentuates the positive, but she is, after all, talking about what are usually her most painful few days of the year.

Baltacha is heading Down Under for her first tournament of 2011 – after spending Christmas in bed with flu, she has delayed her reappearance until Hobart in the second week of the new year – and past experience tells her that for up to 72 hours after the flight she will suffer back pain, the legacy of an operation four years ago on a prolapsed disc. "It's usually so sore that for the first two or three days I just can't do anything," she said.

There are ways to alleviate the problem – Nino Severino, her coach, will interrupt whatever sleep she gets on the flight to ensure she is not sitting in one place for too long – but the main reasons Baltacha is not dreading the journey quite as much are the business-class tickets to which she has treated herself for the first time. "I'm happy to pay that bit more and feel comfier, knowing that when I get there I won't be struggling quite so much," she said.

The $232,430 (about £151,000) Baltacha has earned in the best year of her career will hardly see her taking private jets to tournaments, but it does mean that she has fewer money worries. When she won the British tennis writers' top annual award this month it was recognition of both her year and what she has overcome to make the world's top 50. She fought back from lengthy lay-offs after both the back injury and a liver condition for which she still has to take 10 pills daily. Such resilience was evident in the way the 27-year-old continued to bounce back from problems in 2010.

Baltacha's season began promisingly enough until a heavy defeat to Dinara Safina, then world No 2, in the Australian Open's third round. She laughs about it now, but the sheer size of the Rod Laver Arena disrupted one of her routines.

"As soon as I walked on I thought: 'That's got to be a 20-metre walk to the back of the court'," she said, concerned about her habit of going to the back of the court to compose herself between points. "The umpire told me I was wasting time. That just threw me – combined with the fact that the ball was coming at me at a million miles an hour because she was timing it so sweetly. Before I knew it I was shaking hands and walking back to the locker room."

In typical fashion Baltacha responded by winning her next tournament, an International Tennis Federation event in Michigan, which put her in good heart for Memphis, where she reached the quarter-finals before losing 6-2, 7-5 in her first match against Maria Sharapova, the eventual champion.

Baltacha, whose parents are Ukrainian, recalled: "Sharapova had been beating everyone 6-1, 6-0. Some of the other girls in the locker room said: 'You'll be lucky if you get a look-in during the warm-up. She'll be smacking winners everywhere just to annoy you.'

"I have great respect for Sharapova, but I thought that if I got some fist pumps going and said some things in Russian that might wind her up. I tried to rough her up a bit. I was staring at her, making eye contact. She was having some problems with her serve, so I was standing on the tramline, then on the other side. She looked at me as if to say: 'What's going on?' She didn't like it. I had some opportunities in the second set."

Next up was Indian Wells, where Baltacha won four matches and became the first British woman to beat a top 10 opponent for 16 years. "I was so in the zone that it felt like an out-of-body experience," she said of her victory over China's Li Na. "Nothing could have distracted me. I remember seeing her [final] backhand going long and it took me 10 seconds to realise that I had actually beaten a top 10 player."

Spring brought a return of back problems, though Baltacha still won an ITF tournament in Nottingham and beat both of China's Australian Open semi-finalists, Li and Zheng Jie, in Eastbourne.

Baltacha had performed well at Wimbledon in the past, but the All England Club was the scene of her year's greatest disappointment. She served for the match in the second set of her first-round contest against Croatia's Petra Martic, who was ranked 24 places below her, only to suffer a rare bout of big-match nerves. "It felt like everything came apart," she admitted. "I was absolutely devastated when I came off court."

She devoted her post-Wimbledon break to recruiting girls from some of the less privileged schools in Ipswich to the non-profit-making tennis academy she has set up in her home town. However, the Wimbledon defeat hung over her – notwithstanding a third win over a top 10 player when she beat Francesca Schiavone in Istanbul – until a rematch with Martic in the first round of the US Open offered the chance to put the past behind her, which she did with a 6-2, 6-2 victory. "I said to myself: 'Right, Martic started this blip for me and she's going to end it. I'm ready to move on now.' I remember waking up and thinking: 'I'm ready for her'."

The win took Baltacha into the world's top 50 for the first time, 12 months after making the top 100. "The top 100 was really special, but I think the top 50 is another level," she said. "Players pop in and out of the top 100, but to get to the top 50 shows you're a good player. You have to be consistent week to week."

There was one more major disappointment as Baltacha reluctantly pulled out of the Commonwealth Games on the advice of her liver specialist after an outbreak of dengue fever in Delhi, but as she prepares for her next challenge the British No 1 is in high spirits. "I'd been trying for 10 years to reach where I've been at this year," she said. "I've learned so much over the last 12 months."