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Dead at 30: liver cancer claims Elena Baltacha

Elena Baltacha, the former British number one tennis player, has died of liver cancer, aged just 30.

Baltacha, who was born in Ukraine and raised in Scotland, revealed she had the illness in March. She retired from tennis last year.

Her husband Nino Severino said: "We are heartbroken beyond words at the loss of our beautiful, talented and determined Bally.

"She was an amazing person and she touched so many people with her inspirational spirit, her warmth and her kindness."

Baltacha was diagnosed with primary sclerosing cholangitis, a chronic liver condition which compromises the immune system, at the age of 19.

She was diagnosed with cancer in January, just two months after retiring from tennis and only weeks after she married Severino, her long-time coach.

According to her family's statement, Baltacha died peacefully at home.

Baltacha had retired from professional tennis last November after a career which had seen her ranked as the British No. 1 for 132 weeks, from December 2009 to June 2012.

Her highest international singles rank was 49, which she reached in September 2010.

The Lawn Tennis Association's head of women's tennis Iain Bates said in a statement: "Today we have lost a shining light from the heart of British tennis - a true role model, a great competitor and a wonderful friend.

"We have so many special memories to cherish, but this leaves a gaping hole for everybody in both British and women's tennis, and words simply cannot express how saddened we are by this news.

"All our thoughts are with Nino and the rest of Elena's family. We will miss you Bal."

Baltacha had dealt with the cholangitis throughout her career with medication and regular blood tests.

She went on to win 11 singles titles, reached the third round of Wimbledon in 2002 and the same stage of the Australian Open in 2005 and 2010.

The daughter of former Ipswich, St Mirren and Inverness footballer Sergei, she represented Great Britain for 11 years in the Fed Cup and also played in the London Olympics in 2012.

However, she struggled with injury and illness during her career and ankle problems eventually forced her to retire.

After deciding to quit the professional game, she had been coaching junior tennis players at her Ipswich-based academy prior to her illness.

The previously announced 'Rally for Bally' - a fundraiser due to be played in June - will now go ahead in her memory.

Her childhood friend Andy Murray had committed to play in the event along with the likes of Martina Navratilova, and Tim Henman, and the money raised will go to the Elena Baltacha Academy of Tennis and the Royal Marsden Cancer Charity.

In a statement, the LTA said: "Today British Tennis mourns the loss of one of our own. The news of the death of Elena Baltacha, one of the shining lights of British women's tennis of recent generations, is devastating to everyone who has ever had the privilege to know her, play against her, or call her a friend or team-mate.

"It leaves a huge hole within our sport. Bally gave new meaning to the word 'fighter.' She fought tirelessly during her career against opposition on court, and never gave in to the struggles she endured off it.

"Forever remembered for her relentless determination, unbelievable drive and a will-power that never ceased to amaze us, it was a pleasure to watch Bally develop into a world class player and become an outstanding role model for everyone in the game.

"With her enthusiasm, spirit and passion for life, she was a pure joy to be around, and having recently just got married to her husband Nino Severino, she was embarking on a new chapter in her life.

"The health issues she battled since her teenage years made what she achieved during her career all the more impressive."

Stacey Allaster, chairman and chief executive of the Women's Tennis Association, said in a statement: "We are deeply grieved to lose our friend Elena Baltacha in her battle with cancer. Elena's journey was never an easy one and yet she consistently showed her strength, good humour and indomitable spirit.

"The WTA was blessed to have such a champion compete and represent women's tennis; Elena passionately represented Great Britain on the world stage and her personal commitment to excellence inspired us all throughout her career to strive for more, to be more, to give more. The loss of this special person will have a significant impact on her fellow competitors who not only respected her, but more importantly, loved her.

"'Bally' was such a caring human being, always putting others before herself, and a warm, fun person. A shining example of her commitment to looking out for the welfare of others is the Elena Baltacha Academy of Tennis, which she established so that children from disadvantaged backgrounds could learn to play the game she loved so dearly.

"I am honored that I had the opportunity to know Elena, to call her 'Bally' as her friends do. She was a gift that was taken from us too soon; she will be deeply missed. On behalf of the WTA family of players and tournaments, our hearts and prayers go out to her loving and supportive husband Nino, her parents, brother and friends on this terribly sad day."

First Minister Alex Salmond said: "With Elena Baltacha's sad loss at the age of 30, Scotland has lost one of our most well-loved sports stars.

"Despite suffering from illness since she was a teenager, Elena refused to let this stand in the way of her tennis ambitions. She was as much a role model for young people off the court as she was a dedicated and superb talent on it."

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