Elena Baltacha could talk the hind legs off a donkey. I hope she’d laugh if she read that.
At the age of 30, the Scot, born in Ukraine but raised north of the border and who then lived he bulk of her adult life in Ipswich, died in the early hours of Sunday morning, after a short battle against liver cancer. It was just about the only battle she didn’t win in a life that though tragically short, was lived to the full.
Having been diagnosed with a chronic liver disease when just 19, Baltacha managed illness and injury throughout her career but she never let things get her down, always using them as a tool to push herself on, always thinking the best was around the corner.
And so it was. A career-high ranking of 49, 11 ITF titles, four WTA quarter-finals, three times into the last 32 at a grand slam, an outstanding Fed Cup record of 33 wins and 16 losses from 39 ties and three victories over top-10 players, including Li Na, all came, thanks to her sheer determination and drive, more than making up for the fact – as she would happily admit – that she was not blessed with the talent of many others.
No one worked harder to achieve their potential; no one rebounded from adversity so well. Having had the pleasure to cover the second half of Baltacha’s career, for Scottish newspaper, The Herald, I was lucky enough to interview “Bally” several times and every single interview would leave you with a smile. In a world of sponsors and agents, niceties and platitudes, Baltacha was genuine, kind, warm and generous.
On the court, few were more competitive and she was never afraid to unleash her feisty side. Listening to her talk about her clash with Maria Sharapova in Memphis in 2010, when Maria, not realising Baltacha could speak Russian, cursed loudly at her expense, brings back great memories. I can still see the glint in her eye as she described the shock on Sharapova’s face when she spoke back.
It’s been said in many places that Baltacha fulfilled her potential. I am not so sure. Without her injuries and chronic liver condition, she might have gone higher and achieved even more. On the other hand, her troubles drove her competitive nature, so maybe she did.
What is absolutely sure is that she gave her all, every single time she went out on the court. I don’t know too many players who could truthfully say that.
The sad words of her husband of only a few months – her coach Nino Severino – will live in the memory but Baltacha will also leave behind her a nice legacy by way of the Elena Baltacha Academy of Tennis, in Ipswich, which helps under-privileged children get involved in the sport.
There will be suitable tributes next month in Rally for Bally, when several top players including Andy Murray, Martina Navratilova and Tim Henman, give their time, now in her honour, with proceeds going to the Royal Marsden cancer charity and her academy. Donations to her JustGiving page had trebled yesterday and they are sure to go higher.
Bally was a fighter, a competitor, a rival, a role model and a friend to many in the sport. She will be sadly missed but never forgotten.
If you would like to donate to the Rally for Bally, go to http://www.justgiving.com/