Scottish tennis ace Elena Baltacha’s life and the tragedy of her loss is being recalled in a new documentary, reports Sandra Dick

Nearly six years ago, Nino Severino lay down beside his dying wife, former British number one tennis star Elena Baltacha, and felt her incredible life slide away.

Just a few months earlier she had stood by his side, glowing in her wedding gown. Her strong, athletic frame toned by playing tennis on the world stage, her smile as broad as it had been as she slammed her to way to becoming Britain’s number one.

A new future together away from playing professionally stretched ahead. The possibility of motherhood, commentary jobs and the development of her tennis academy and foundation to pass on a slice of her talent and spirit to a new generation of tennis stars, all beckoned.

Instead, as she posed radiant in her wedding gown, a tumour the size of a grapefruit was lodged in her liver. There would be no happy ending.

Today on a bedside table in the room they once shared, Elena’s wristwatch lies permanently entwined with her husband’s. Her favourite perfume rests where she left it, and a Russian doll which she loved, sits alongside.

Elena – affectionately called ‘Bally’ by the tennis world – was just 30 years old when she died. Yet her remarkable presence and the tennis foundation built as her legacy – and which could soon be launched in Scotland where she called ‘home’ – are as much a part of Nino’s life now, as ever.

“My life still revolves around her,” he says. “Bally is the most important thing in my life. There’s no way I could remove her from my life, the feelings are too strong.

“I talk a lot about her,” he continues. “All day, every day I have a responsibility to protect Bally's legacy to make sure it gets stronger and stronger.”

Today, her life and tragically early loss will be remembered in a BBC Alba documentary featuring interviews with her husband along with her father, former St Johnstone and Inverness Caledonian Thistle footballer Sergei Baltacha and her brother, Sergei Jnr.

Deeply emotional, it follows her from her arrival as a child in the UK from the family’s native Ukraine in 1988, buzzing with big attitude and even bigger glasses, with her extraordinary physical strength and a natural-born instinct for sport embedded in her DNA.

Drawing on interviews from those closest to her, the film charts her progress to the top 50 world rankings and Team GB role in the 2012 Olympics.

While remarkable for a Scottish tennis player, she rose to the top despite living with a rare auto immune condition, Primary Sclerosing Cholangitis.

It leaves sufferers desperately fatigued and facing the likelihood of one day requiring a life-saving liver transplant.

Tragically, the condition, which saw the tennis star rely on a cocktail of medication and battling debilitating fatigue, also carries a high risk of liver cancer.

Included in the documentary are never before seen family photographs and reconstructions of her early life, touchingly played by the niece and nephew, Ana and Alex Baltacha, who she barely had time to get to know. And there is praise for her mental and physical strength from her former Fed Cup captain, Judy Murray, former world number 5 Jo Durie and fellow players Anne Keothavong and Naomi Cavaday.

Perhaps most touching, however, are deeply moving reminiscences of those closest to her, a tearful moment when her father reflects on her promise to beat cancer, and her husband’s pledge to keep her memory alive through The Elena Baltacha Foundation, set up to support young tennis players.

As well as celebrating her life and achievements, the documentary reveals details of her daily fight against her deteriorating health while playing top-level tennis, even performing in the US Open while in the grip of lethal liver cancer.

Elena, who considered herself Scottish after being raised in Perth from the age of six, was diagnosed with PSC, which leads to bile duct blockages, jaundice and sclerosis, when she just 19.

Yet she refused to reveal the seriousness of her condition, fearing it might deflect from her achievements.

“I remember saying ‘Bally, just tell people’ and she said if I did she would be really angry,” he recalls. “She was adamant, she did not want excuses made or anyone to know about it. She didn’t want pity.”

As a result, only he knew the terrible toll the condition had on her daily life and the relentless fight she had to pursue her tennis dreams.

“I would wake up in the morning and know by the sound of her footsteps across the bedroom whether she was going to have a good day or a bad day. When it was bad, it was very bad,” he adds.

So fatigued, she would regularly retire straight to bed after a match. Yet, he adds, the couple were largely unaware of the seriousness of PSC and its links with liver cancer.

Her cancer diagnosis a few months after her retirement announcement shocked the tennis world.

“We didn’t realise that PSC had a pretty high percentage of turning cancerous and that would mean they couldn’t then give her a transplant,” adds Nino.

“It’s hard to believe, but he was playing top level tennis while she had a tumour. She nearly took Maria Kirilenko to a win at Eastbourne and played in the US Open – all with a tumour.

“It’s clear now that when she said she couldn’t train twice a day any more and was going to retire, that it was because she had this massive 15cm by 11cm tumour.”

While her true potential had she never had to endure a chronic liver condition will never be known, her husband recalls her confronting the shock of her cancer diagnosis with the same strength and focus that drove her to top level tennis.

“I don’t know if she knew she was dying. It was not anything we were willing to talk about, either of us.

“It was fight, fight, fight. But even though she was one of the strongest of athletes, cancer destroyed her body. I watched her wear away.”

A desperate journey to America for treatment was in vain and despite comforting her father with a pledge to get better, Elena died in May 2014.

“Anyone who loses a partner will know what it feels like,” says Nino. “It’s an unbearable trauma and tragedy. You have to lean into it and try to do the best with every day.”

The simplest of things have brought comfort: “I don’t wear my watch any more. Instead it’s entwined with her watch. I see them together and it’s lovely,” he says.

“Last night I lay there looking at them, thinking ‘you’re at peace now, you’re not in pain’.”

He has thrown himself into promoting The Elena Baltacha Foundation which encourages young people to take up tennis. It’s hoped a new element, a business programme aimed at equipping young players with workplace skills, will be launched in her beloved Scotland to reaffirm her links with her adopted home.

“People come to this life and go out of it again and don’t make much noise,” adds Nino.

“With Elena, so many people loved her and were devoted to her.

“And so many people have benefited from her life.”

Elena Baltacha will be broadcast on BBC ALBA on Sunday, December 1, at 9pm. It will be repeated on Thursday, December 5 at 10.15pm and Friday, December 6 at 9pm.