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Elena Baltacha: the shining star who departed too soon

I first met Elena Baltacha in May 2001 at Craiglockhart, Edinburgh, at the end of my first week at the Sunday Herald.

Elena Baltacha flew the flag for British women's tennis and was an inspiration to the next generation                Photograph: EPA
Elena Baltacha flew the flag for British women's tennis and was an inspiration to the next generation Photograph: EPA

The occasion was the Scottish National Championships, one of those events where paying customers are outnumbered by bored competitors slouching around waiting for their next match.

While she eventually lost in straight sets at the quarter-final stage to Marie-Gaiane Mikaelian of Switzerland - the same opponent who had knocked her out of Junior Wimbledon a year earlier - I was impressed. Sure, some of the girls were more mobile, but this was a ferocious ball striker and a pugnacious fighter. I suggested a bright future lay ahead for her.

The following week in the office a few wiser, perhaps more cynical, heads prevailed. Lovely girl, I was told, but unlike a raw, 14-year-old kid coming out of Scotland from Dunblane called Andy Murray the flaws in her game meant that for all her promise she would never reach the top level in the sport. As it turned out, they were right. Baltacha never won any Grand Slams, never made the millions befitting one of the top handful of tennis players on the planet. But that wasn't the point. The point was she made the most of what she had.

Over the course of the next decade and a bit I would interview Baltacha a handful of times most years, either in person or over the telephone, usually in the lead-up or during the major tennis tournaments. Her dad Sergei, the Soviet Union footballer who became manager of St Johnstone, was another member of the family happy to have a chat.

Is this enough to fully know the person whose time on this planet was so brutally cut short at the age of 30 following her death from liver cancer? No, of course not, particularly given the uneasy professional and social interface between interviewer and interviewee. But it was sufficient to glimpse a snapshot of the person beneath the surface, of the struggles she had to endure to be successful in tennis. This is merely an attempt to get across a flavour of that and offer an appreciation of a life which was far too short.

Recalling her that day at Craiglockhart, one minute glowering at anyone brave enough to be in her line of sight when she was drawn into an unforced error, then instantly gathering herself to send down a thunderous winner, Baltacha always seemed a curious mix of the feisty and fragile. Perhaps that is why her matches always drew a crowd. People knew they were assured of drama.

Like Murray, the product of sporting parents - her mother Olga was a pentathlete - and estranged ones, Baltacha would soon realise there is no hiding place in such an individualised, lonely sport like tennis, where the glare of the modern media can be unremitting. For her, this manifested itself most years in her, the perennial British No 1, being the final British woman standing at Wimbledon, stoically defending her peers amid an ongoing inquisition into the continued failure of home-based wild cards at Wimbledon. In fact, Baltacha won 16 matches at Grand Slams, approximately a 40% success rate.

What usually went unmentioned were the ailments against which she was constantly battling. It wasn't too long after that day at Craiglockhart, after all, that she was first diagnosed with the liver condition primary sclerosing cholangitis, the first hint of the ailment that would ultimately take her life, while her career would also be dogged by serious knee and back problems.

Following Baltacha's death to liver cancer, there may be some comfort taken in the fact her last years seemed to be her happiest. Surrounded by an effective entourage that included her coach and eventual husband Nino Severino, there was a sense of fulfilment when she finally cracked the world's top 50, recording a high watermark of No 49 in September 2012. At Wimbledon that year, she was playing some of the best tennis of her life, fuelled by a particular Adele song and regular visits by her young nephew Alexander, son of her brother Sergei, the former St Mirren player.

Next up was the honour of becoming the alpha female of Judy Murray's successful Fed Cup team, embracing the work of encouraging the emerging younger generation of Laura Robson and Heather Watson, and throwing herself into more missionary work in the form of the Elena Baltacha Academy of Tennis near Bury St Edmunds.

Despite being born in Kiev, and spending most of her adult life in the South East of England, Scotland and Baltacha never let each other go. Ultimately, the sages were right: she never did reach the sporting heights attained by that kid from Dunblane. But Elena Baltacha left quite a footprint on those who knew her. I am proud to have been one of them.

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