Elena Baltacha: True Brit

LONDON, England - Players on the 'shady side' of 25 taking their careers to new heights was the heartwarming theme of 2010. Prime examples: Francesca Schiavone and Samantha Stosur, who squared off in the final at Roland Garros and moved deep inside the Top 10; and Vera Zvonareva, who reached two Grand Slam finals. Although Britain's Elena Baltacha didn't make the same international headlines, she deserves mention too.

Not unlike Stosur, Baltacha has battled an illness that continues to challenge her ability to function as human being, let alone perform as a globetrotting athlete. While Stosur emerged better than ever after being sideswiped by the debilitating Lyme Disease, Baltacha's struggle with a life-threatening liver condition has been well-documented. She has also dealt with a string of career-endangering injuries, including a prolapsed disc in her spine.

And yet, the player affectionately known as 'Bally' - who must still take 10 different tablets a day to keep her liver and compromised immune system in check - cracked the Top 50 for the first time in 2010, peaking at No.47 and ending the season at No.55. These exploits, coupled with her efforts to bring the sport to disadvantaged girls, saw the 27-year-old British No.1 presented with the Player Service Award by the UK-based International Tennis Writers' Association (ITWA) last week.

"When I found out, I couldn't believe it," said Baltacha of the award that has been presented to luminaries such as Billie Jean King over the past half century. "The funny thing was that I went to the presentation ceremony last year as a guest, and felt honored just to be there… I never thought I'd be next. It's just amazing to be part of that line-up."

Baltacha received the award at a gala luncheon at the All England Club. Virginia Wade, the 1977 Wimbledon champion, paid tribute to her "indomitable spirit" while LTWA chairman David Luddy observed: "To be ranked around the world's Top 50 - and still improving - after battling through years of illness is sensational. Her determination, her positive approach and her consistent belief is an inspiration to all of us from club to professional level."

Baltacha arrived in the UK from Ukraine as a six-year-old, when her father Sergei, a top footballer in the USSR, signed to play for Ipswich Town. Until this year, her high profile gig tended to be an annual wild card appearance at Wimbledon. Indeed, the way Baltacha played in 2010, it's hard to believe it was the first time in her career she contested the main draw at all four majors.

In January, she reached the last 32 at Australian Open, falling to Dinara Safina but matching a third round showing at Wimbledon way back in 2002. She reached the quarters at Memphis, where it took Maria Sharapova to stop her, and then, as a qualifier, beat Li Na in the first round at Indian Wells - her first Top 10 win. Other highlights included defeating Zheng Jie to make the last eight at Eastbourne (losing to Stosur in three) and then-No.8 Schiavone to make the quarters at Istanbul. She also collected two ITF titles.

Receiving her ITWA prize, Baltacha said she felt she'd aged 10 years in one season. "I was referring to how much I've developed mentally, as a player and as a person," she later explained. "I feel completely different, that much more mature. I played mostly WTA events this year, and so there were a lot of new experiences like off-court responsibilities at tournaments. I've really enjoyed it… but I'm not a keen flyer and there have been a lot of long-haul flights - that has probably been the toughest thing."

Giving Back

At this stage, Baltacha hopes to compete at least until the London Olympics in 2012. "You can never plan these things," she said. "Hopefully I'll be healthy and fully fit next year and will be able to keep going. You just don't know. My first goal is to get back inside the Top 50, and I'd love to do something massive at one of the Slams - reach the quarters of semis.

"I know I haven't got long to go in my career and that excites me, because although I know it's coming to an end, there's still so much I feel I can do."

Making retirement a less foreboding prospect is the Elena Baltacha Tennis Academy (EBTA), which the player has set up in Ipswich with her coach, Nino Severino, her hitting partner, Matt Hough, and Alastair Jones, her physio. To get the venture off the ground, the team visited five schools in deprived areas of the city, giving 600 girls aged six to 10 a chance to play the game. From there, 25 were given a more thorough workout, with an initial group of six making it through to the academy proper.

To help ensure that girls who might otherwise have no chance to play tennis - or, indeed, any sport - can do so, Baltacha's racquet sponsor, Yonex, is involved. The LTA, which supports Baltacha through its Team AEGON elite player squad, has also provided backing.

Over time, Baltacha is also keen to develop another string to the Academy's bow, as a training ground for future pros. As it happens, one of the EBTA's current charges is a nine-year-old from Russia called Sophia, who has her sights set on an international career - and for whom Baltacha has a special affinity. "Sometimes when you don't go looking for something, it finds you," she said. "I speak Russian, and one day I bumped into her mother and we started chatting. Sophia's an amazing little girl - talented, and strong. I guess she reminds me a little bit of myself."

As for her own development, the current break from the tour has been invested in making the most of her remaining playing days.

"My coach plans out my strength and conditioning a year in advance," explained Baltacha, who opens her 2011 campaign in Auckland and Hobart. "Injury prevention is key - I'm really prone, so my program is specially designed around my needs. By the time I head for Australia I'll have been at home for two months and my pre-season has gone so well.

"One last push - I'm ready."


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