Following Sunday’s sad news that former British tennis star Elena Baltacha has passed away, Eevee’s Martin Whiteley takes a look at her life and her career…
Former British tennis number one Elena Baltacha has passed away at the age of 30 from liver cancer. Born in Kiev, Baltacha came to Britain aged five when her father Sergei — a professional footballer — joined Ipswich Town. Baltacha’s mother Olga was also a renowned athlete in her own right and competed for the Soviet Union in both the pentathlon and heptathlon. After a year at Ipswich, Sergei moved to Scottish League side St Johnstone and that was where Baltacha grew up and took her first strides in tennis.
Baltacha started her junior career in 1997 and although she never won a title, she reached two finals and also the semi final of the Wimbledon junior event in 2001. In 2002, Baltacha burst onto the international scene when she reached the third round at Wimbledon, defeating seeded player Amanda Coetzer. Baltacha also reached the third round twice at the Australian Open in 2005 and 2010 — she also reached the second round of the US Open — in her two appearance — as well as the French Open.
The first of many obstacles Baltacha faced came when she was 19. Now close to the top 100, she had surgery to determine what was causing her persistent liver problems. Baltacha was diagnosed with primary sclerosing cholangitis, a rare and chronic condition.
When she returned to the court, Baltacha never used it as an excuse – more a weapon. The mental strength and focus allowed her to dig deep and with her trademark fist pumps, a more determined player. With these qualities in her locker Baltacha proved more than once that talent alone does not win matches as she saw off numinous opponents ranked significantly higher than herself.
In 2006, Baltacha had a further setback when she underwent keyhole surgery on a prolapsed disc on 7 June and spent the rest of the season out-of-action recovering. As a result, her season-ending world ranking fell dramatically to 347.
Baltacha gained a career best ranking of 49 in 2010 and remained in the top 100 for almost three complete seasons. Baltacha always said clay was the surface she struggled the most on. So when she defeated Sloane Stephens at the French Open in 2011, she described it as the most satisfying win of her career.
One of her proudest moments was being told by Judy Murray — Federation Cup Captain — at Wimbledon that she had been selected for the Great British Olympic team for the 2012 games. Although tennis is seen as quite a lonely sport, when the Federation Cup team was announced Baltacha was always there. Winning 33 of her 44 ties -many with Anne Keothavong. Although very much rivals to start with — which saw them push to get the best from one another — over the years their attitude towards each other mellowed and they became close friends.
Injury struck again for Baltacha in her last two years on the tour, and it was an ankle problem that eventually forced her to retire on the 18 November 2013, with a world ranking of 221 and British number 6.
The inspiration for Baltacha both on and off the court came from her relationship with Nino Severino, a former kickboxer who turned to coaching tennis. It was Severino who gave her the belief and encouragement to reach the heights that she did. The pair married in December a few weeks after Baltacha’s retirement, but sadly only a month before she was diagnosed with the cancer that would ultimately claim her life.
Baltacha already had her retirement plan in place when she set up the Elena Baltacha Academy of Tennis in 2010. It was originally set up to give under-privileged girls a chance to get involved in tennis, but it quickly grew to take in children of all backgrounds. Typically, Baltacha threw all the commitment and enthusiasm she had shown on the court into it, and the academy will be one of the recipients of the money raised by the Rally For Bally next month, which will sadly now be a tribute to her too.
This will be the second Rally Against Cancer charity event – Rally For Bally – and takes place on Sunday 15th June. Andy Murray, Martina Navratilova — who battled and overcame breast cancer in 2010 — and Tim Henman will lead an all-star line up in exhibition matches that will feature three mixed doubles contests — one each on finals day at the Aegon Championships at The Queen’s Club and the Aegon Classic in Birmingham and another ahead of the Aegon International in Eastbourne — with the proceeds being split equally between the Royal Marsden Cancer Charity and her own tennis academy.
With these events and her academy in place, it gives the chance for the name of Elena Baltacha to live on and allow future generations the chance to take up the sport that gave her joy, love and a fighting spirit in her all too brief life.