Tennis player

Tennis player

Born: 14 August, 1983 Died: 4 May, 2014

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Elena Baltacha, who has died of liver cancer aged 30, became Britain's women's tennis number one and made it into the top 50 players in the world, despite being diagnosed with a chronic liver disease at the age of 19.

Iain Bates, the Head of Women's Tennis at the Lawn Tennis Association said: "A shining light has gone out of British tennis with 'Bally's' death."

One of Scotland's brightest, but unluckiest sports stars, she was only five years old when her father Sergei became one of the first Soviet Union players to be transferred to the west, joining Ipswich Town in January, 1989. Elena was born in Kiev, Ukraine.

After he came north to St Johnstone then Inverness Caledonian Thistle, Elena was schooled in Perth, and it was here that she first picked up a tennis racquet.

When Sergei joined St Mirren as assistant manager, the Baltachas moved to Paisley, where the nearby David Lloyd Club offered Elena more-regular access to top-class facilities and she advanced rapidly through the British junior ranks.

She also became a regular spectator at Love Street, where she cheered on big brother Sergeiev, who played for St Mirren and won Scotland Under-21 honours.

She first competed on the International Tennis Federation (ITF) junior tour in 1997 and in four years at this level she amassed a 50%, 40/40 win/losses record, winning two tournaments, reaching the semi-finals of Junior Wimbledon in 2001 and, with Karen Paterson and Mhairi Brown, winning a silver medal for Scotland in the team event at the 2000 Junior Commonwealth Games in Edinburgh

She had dipped her toe in adult events, often with the aid of a wild card, from 1997, making her first appearance in the main draw at Wimbledon in 2001, but losing in the first round.

A year later she again received a wild card entry to Wimbledon, reaching the third round. She also made her maiden Federation Cup appearance for Great Britain that year, which ended with her ranked 157 in the world.

That same year, she won the first on an eventual 11 ITF singles tournaments, when she beat Ireland's Kelly Linnegan in an event in Felixstowe, near her first UK home in Ipswich.

Her 2003 season ended prematurely after she took world number five Jelena Dokic to three sets at Wimbledon. She was then forced to take a break from tennis whilst a persistent liver problem was investigated and she didn't reappear on the circuit until January, 2004.

She began that year ranked 373 in the world, but ended it ranked 202, carrying on her good form into 2005, where she swept through qualifying and on to the third round of the year's first Grand Slam, in Australia, before losing to number 15 seed Silvia Farina Elia. She continued to play well that year and lifted her singles ranking to 122.

However, 2006 was another injury-interrupted year. She played no tennis after June, while she underwent and recovered from surgery to a prolapsed disc in her back, sinking to a ranking of 347.

She had sunk even further, to 606, by the time she returned to action in March 2007. But, again she showed the bravery which characterised her career, ending the season ranked 187 and having beaten the then British number one Anna Keothavong along the way.

In 2008 she elevated herself to number 136, before in 2009, after winning an event in Shrewsbury, she entered the world's top 100 for the first time, ending the season ranked 87 and as British number one.

She reached the last 32 in Australia in 2010, then scored her first win over a top-10 player when she beat Li Na in an ITF tournament. She ended 2010 ranked 54 in the world, but passed-up a chance to represent Scotland in the Commonwealth Games in New Delhi, doubting that her still persistent liver problems would stand up to the poor sanitation in the sub-continent.

She broke into the world's top 50 in September that year, achieving a ranking of 49 which was to be her highest in her career. She also, in 2010, became patron of the Children's Liver Disease Foundation.

She matched her father's achievement of being an Olympian when she competed in the 2012 games in London but, after losing in the second round, her year was over as she underwent foot surgery.

She continued to play, in spite of illness, in 2013, winning her 11th and final ITF tournament in Nottingham in June, before, in November, 2013, she retired from tennis to concentrate on running the Elena Baltacha Tennis Academy which she and her husband and former coach Nino Severino, whom she married in December, 2013, had set-up in Ipswich in 2010.

However the couple announced early in 2014 that Elena had been diagnosed with liver cancer.

At her best, Elena Baltacha was a fast-serving, big-hitting power player who could also show moments of finesse. In British tennis terms, she ranks some way below the likes of Virginia Wade, Sue Barker or Ann Jones in achievement and titles won. However, in terms of bravery and a refusal to let injury and illness beat her, Baltacha is out there on her own and many will wonder what she might have achieved without such enormous additional physical challenges to face.

She was a fighter who, in spite of her injury and illness trials and tribulations, still amassed more than $1,000,000 in career winnings. She had a 324/243 win/loss record on the tour and, as well as her 11 singles titles, she won four doubles titles on the tour and had a 33/16 win/loss record for Great Britain in the Federation Cup.

If there is any justice in the world, some day, a British Wimbledon winner will emerge from the tennis academy she established before her all-too-early death, and the "Rally for Bally" charity effort on behalf of liver cancer which was launched in her name will be a huge success.