Judy Murray pays tribute to Elena Baltacha: Bally was an amazing feisty warrior but selfless and humble
Britain's Fed Cup captain speaks as tragic tennis star's academy prepares a fitting farewell
Next Sunday promises to be quite an occasion for the 70 children who play tennis at one of the country's more recently established academies. Among those leading the way on an afternoon of fun and games in Ipswich will be Judy Murray, Britain's Fed Cup captain, Leon Smith, the country's Davis Cup captain, Laura Robson and Anne Keothavong, current and former British No 1s, Iain Bates, the head of women's tennis at the Lawn Tennis Association, and Louis Cayer, one of the world's great doubles coaches.
The only key figure missing will be the one person who gave those 70 children – most of them from under-privileged backgrounds – their chance to enjoy a sport which most of them had never experienced before. They all play at the Elena Baltacha Academy of Tennis, which the former British No 1 set up four years ago. Baltacha died last Sunday from liver cancer at the age of just 30. Her funeral will be held the day after the fun day.
"We think it would be the perfect way to celebrate everything that Bally did and that was important to her," Judy Murray said. "It will also be something that the academy's coaches and in particular the kids can join in with. For Bally it was all about the children."
Baltacha established the academy when she was British No 1 to provide tennis for children who would not have had an opportunity.
During the second week of Wimbledon, after she had been knocked out and at a time when most players head for the beach, Baltacha and her coach, Nino Severino, later to be her husband, visited schools in her home town of Ipswich asking for the chance to give local children a taste of tennis.
"It takes a lot of time to set up something like her academy and to have done that at a time when she was at the top of her game says a lot about Bally," Murray said. "She was a fantastic person. As her Fed Cup captain she was my dream player. On court she was an amazing feisty warrior, but off it she was selfless, humble and undemanding. She was a wonderful support to other players."
Murray, who is patron of the academy, had known Baltacha since she played her very first tournament, at the age of nine, in Dunblane. "She was a tomboy with a baseball cap," Murray said. "I remember her arriving and saying: 'I'm Elena Baltacha. I'm here for my match'."
As tournament organiser, Murray was called to the court when the players ran out of balls in the final. Baltacha had been hitting her serves so hard they lodged high in the fence, out of the girls' reach.
"In a way it didn't surprise me given the athletic potential you could see in Bally even at that age," Murray recalled. "She had a totally natural service action and great raw power."
Baltacha soon joined the likes of Andy and Jamie Murray, Colin Fleming, who is now world No 36 in doubles, and Jamie Baker, a future British Davis Cup player, on Tennis Scotland minibus trips to play tournaments in England.
"Bally didn't mix so much with the other kids when she was young, but became much more positive and outgoing as she got older," Murray said. "She was always a very nervous flier. I remember her clinging to me for the whole of a flight from Glasgow to Cardiff when we went to play in a Four Nations tournament. We laughed about that 16 years later when we flew to Eilat for my first Fed Cup in 2012 and she was doing exactly the same thing."
Baltacha always made the best of her ability and overcame many physical setbacks. Murray believes she would have become an excellent coach and Fed Cup captain.
"She was always upbeat, always positive, always lively," Murray said. "She had a lot of the skills that make a good coach. She was a great communicator, very caring and had a huge knowledge of the game as well as a great passion for it. When she came up to Scotland with some of the kids from her academy she had her notebook out the whole time."
Murray believes Baltacha's academy is exactly what Britain needs to arrest the decline in numbers playing the game. "Tennis is a high-profile sport right now and it's vital that we strike while the iron's hot," she said. "The way to open up the sport is to take it into places where it currently doesn't exist."
"Rally for Bally" on 15 June, when charity mixed doubles matches will be played at the tournaments at Queen's Club, Edgbaston and Eastbourne. Donations can also be made at: www.justgiving.com/rallyforbally
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