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Elena Baltacha: Feisty to the point of mischievous, she battled through to her limits

The outpouring of heartfelt support from the tennis world and beyond towards Elena Baltacha, who lost her battle with liver cancer in the early hours of Sunday morning, tells you all you need to know about the regard in which the 30-year-old was held by everyone who had been lucky enough to cross her path.

Elena Baltacha
Elena Baltacha

You will not find anyone willing to offer a bad word against Baltacha and, in many ways, her tennis matched her personality.

It was honest, pure, gutsy, feisty and competitive to the last.

It has often been a criticism of British tennis that the players' talent is not matched by their work ethic, that they let themselves down by not giving their heart and soul on the court and in practice to be the best they can be. No-one could accuse Baltacha of the same failing.

The Scot was the first to admit that she was not the most gifted player in terms of ability but she more than made up for it with a determination, drive and skill that took her to a career-high ranking of 49 in 2010, the last 32 of a grand slam event on three occasions, three wins over top-10 players and a place at the 2012 Olympics, one of her proudest moments.

Maybe it was her upbringing, as the daughter of footballer Sergei, who played for the Soviet Union team that lost to Holland in the finals of the 1988 European Championships or the pentathlete mother, Olga, who gave up her chance to represent her country in the 1980 Olympics to stay at home to look after Elena's brother, Sergei.

"I have never thought of giving up," she said, in one interview, towards the end of her career.

"I love playing tennis and it's my life. Everyone has it tough in different ways but that's what builds character."

Any meeting with Baltacha would be fun, interesting and uplifting. Here was a woman who was endlessly optimistic about the future, about how high she could get her ranking, how much more there was still to be done.

Given that she was just 19 when she was diagnosed with primary sclerosing cholangitis, a chronic liver condition which compromises the immune system, it's remarkable that she managed to build a career at the top level.

But that was Baltacha in a nutshell. What others might have seen as obstacles were just dismissed as a challenge. The list of ailments was always a talking point, but she battled back from back surgery, ankle injuries, hip trouble and numerous other niggles to make it inside the top 50, a truly outstanding achievement.

She won 11 ITF titles and reached four WTA Tour quarter-finals, as well as producing an outstanding record in the Fed Cup, where she played for more than a decade and had a record of 33 wins to 16 losses in 39 ties.

When she finally broke inside the world's top 100, she never stopped looking upwards. She talked of banking ranking points with each win and then moved on to the next event, always with a smile to hide her fierce determination.

On court, she never hid that persistance and she could be feisty to the point of mischievous, with one particular match against Maria Sharapova in Memphis in 2010 standing out in the memory.

"What was funny was that she didn't know I spoke Russian," Baltacha said, a few months later. "So when I started shouting 'Come on!' and talking in Russian she kind of went: 'All right, ok.'

"Then I remember the next point she hit this unbelievable drive volley and that was it. Off she went. The Russian curses came out and I was like: 'All right, ok, I've got it'. She didn't like it and I knew she didn't like it.

"And I think especially when I was like jigging around on her serve - I was like on the other side - but I had to do it. I was in trouble anyway. I thought I had to do something because I couldn't just let her ... but she was not happy.

"The handshake was comical. It was so good. It was perfect. It was: 'Yes! I got to her - a little bit.' Obviously she never said anything, but hopefully she thought: 'Actually, I've got to give it to her. Not a lot of people would do that'."

While the likes of Sharapova deal only in the millions when it comes to prize money, Baltacha spent enough time way down the ladder that she never lost her sense of humour, thinking a gift of a one-size fits all, bra and knickers set, from the French Open, absolutely hilarious.

But it was her sheer tenacity that won her so many friends on the tennis circuit and so many matches in the process.

Arguably her greatest win came in Indian Wells in 2010, when she saved three match points to beat China's Li Na, now the world No.2 and then ranked 10th.

"It's unbelievable," she said at the time. "I'm really excited I'm in the third round and I'll just go out there and fight my heart out as always."

Her best Wimbledon came in 2002, when she reached round three and she did the same thing at the Australian Open in 2008 and again in 2010, when she fought through qualifying to make the main draw.

Reaching the 2012 Olympics had been a goal for several years and there were no prouder members of the GB team.

Baltacha was also a role model for the younger generation of British players coming through, a team-mate to Laura Robson and Heather Watson in Fed Cup, and a rival with and, later on, a friend to Anne Keothavong.

Her attitude was never in question, her aim always to improve and keep her rivals at bay.

"I've always said rivalry is very good," she once admitted. "You need that in every single sport. I don't want to lose my No.1 spot. That means I have to work harder. I'm capable of doing that and I can do that. I want to keep my No.1 spot. I don't want to lose it to juniors."

Her legacy, though, will be her own tennis foundation (EBAT), which offers help to under-privileged juniors and a certainty that she did everything she could to be the best player she could be.

She will be sorely missed.

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