There are good things ahead, insists Baltacha despite defeat
Saturday 25 June 2011
Let us hope this was not Laura Robson's future coming back to haunt her.
Even so, you would have to be fairly obtuse not to register the warnings implicit in the contiguous fortunes here yesterday of the British sport's blossoming young darling, and Elena Baltacha.
The two women would seem separated by an abyss in time and tide. At 27, Baltacha is a decade older, and the heady expectation now swirling about Robson has long since dissipated into the clarities of disappointment. As for the furlong or so that divided them, during their second matches of the tournament, it might be malignly extended to infinity.
For even as Baltacha was fatally losing the initiative, against Shuai Peng over on Court 18, she was being taunted by the rolling surf of noise and excitement saluting her young compatriot's insolent challenge to Maria Sharapova on Centre Court.
Yet Baltacha might be tempted to caution Robson that, for now, they retain rather more in common than the net result – they are both on their way home, after all – or the pluck they had shown, against the odds. For Baltacha had herself once strolled on to Centre Court as though to the manner born. At 18, she beat the world No 32, Amanda Coetzer, in the second round. That year, moreover, only Serena and Venus Williams served faster at the tournament.
But she has not managed back-to-back wins here since. Instead she has explored various physical and emotional fragilities, notably back injury and a liver condition. To that extent, her failure to close out a 4-2 advantage in the deciding set may seem a wearily consistent anti-climax. That, however, would do her a grievous injustice.
Instead she warrants praise for frequently giving the No 20 seed the run-around, and her ambition to break back into the world's top 50 – she arrived here as No 68, after a fleeting visit to No 49 last autumn – remains an entirely sober one. In aggression and athleticism, she has clearly flourished under Nino Severino, a coach with a background in karate and kick-boxing. Certainly some of the shots she played under pressure yesterday made it far too glib to attribute her capitulation to lack of backbone. She saved her first match point with a smeared forehand on to the far corner; and her second with a cobra of a first serve.
Ultimately, she could not pull off a third escape in what had become one of those doom-laden, attritional 12th games. But for much of the preceding two hours and 21 minutes, she had left Peng at the limits of her compact, resourceful game.
At 5ft 8in, Peng clings even to her forehand with a double grip. It is surprising that she has failed to devise a means of serving two-handed. Sure enough, Baltacha consistently deployed her powerful serve and forehand in wide arcs, to get Peng on the stretch. Every time she lunged, a hand came loose, the ball looped wanly into the air, and Baltacha came charging up to the net to put it away. It was pretty smart lawn tennis.
Her Chinese opponent, who emits an extraordinary, quivering moan with every shot, sometimes seemed to quail before all this rampant energy, and Baltacha's eyes were lighting up whenever Peng failed to avoid that sweeping forehand. In the end, however, she went for broke too often – and found Peng far too efficient. Peng scampered to and fro, fetching and carrying, and was so scrupulous in her coiled serve that she did not permit herself a single double fault. The bottom line was that Baltacha accumulated 29 unforced errors, and Peng just six.
Baltacha was unapologetic. "Peng gives you nothing," she said. "You really have to go for everything against her, and that's what I did."
In her very first service game, Baltacha pounded down four consecutive first serves, none of which made it back. In her next, she had to save three break points. She promptly did so and then, when the situation was reversed at 4-4, blasted a forehand right on to the remotest chalk in the court. But just as she seemed to have all the momentum, firing up the patriots and impatiently swatting winners, she suddenly faltered and the second set evaporated in no time. After that, the vacillations of the deciding set came as no surprise, and Peng won through 4-6, 6-2, 7-5.
If it can be so hard to predict what might happen from one game to the next, then few assumptions seem permissible over what an entire decade may hold for any player. At least Baltacha could bring a seasoned perspective to what happened, rightly professing no regrets. "I'm not distraught," she said. "Because I've been playing great tennis and I know that's going to continue. I'm proud that I'm now playing tennis like this on a consistent basis. I know there are good things ahead."
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