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Celebrating Women’s History Month • From The Vault • Elena “Bally” Baltacha a Short But Meaningful Time on This Earth



Editors Note: ‘Rally For Bally’ We pulled this story out of the vault. It was written to honor a great champion. 10sBalls.com awarded the Gussy Moran Humanitarian award to Bally’s dear husband Nino Severino in her honor. Without doubt, she was one of the finest competitors and sportswomen tennis has ever known. She was only 25 when she established her Ipswitch academy for future tennis stars. She passed way too soon at 30 years old. She was an Olympian and a number one in the United Kingdom.



By Alix Ramsay on 8th June 2015



“RALLY FOR BALLY”. PLEASE CONTRIBUTE.

The coverage of Elena Baltacha’s death was remarkable. The British papers were full of the terrible news; the sports pages devoted acres of space to her career and achievements, the news pages ran tributes and pictures and the obituary writers cleared their desks and rang every sportswriter they could think of for information and anecdotes. This was the sort of coverage normally reserved great politicians, film stars and celebrities; Bally was none of the above.

Bally’s story, though, touched everyone. As a player, she had worked and fought to make the most of every ounce of talent she had. As a person, she was cheerful, happy, open and always positive no matter what the situation. Just last autumn, she had called an end to her career; in December she married her long-time partner and coach Nino Severino – she was embarking on a new phase in her life, she looked happier than ever before and everyone wished her well. And then in January, she was diagnosed with liver cancer.

Photo by Christine Walsh.

She only revealed the news in March when the tennis world was gathering in Indian Wells for the start of the Masters 1000 season. The word spread like wildfire and while she vowed to fight the disease “with all I have”, her former colleagues, peers and rivals vowed to do whatever they could to help. She was 30, she was as fit as any professional athlete could be: she must have a decent chance. And then, on May 4, Nino broke the news that Bally had passed away. He was “beyond heartbroken”.

This, then, was not a sports story, this was a human story and it affected everyone.

In Madrid, the tournament held a minute’s silence before the start of the Monday evening’s matches. Fifty players, coaches and tournament officials stood on the centre court, led by Andy and Jamie Murray who had known Bally since they were little boys growing up in Scotland, and remembered the irrepressible spirit of their Bally.

That was the thing about Bally: nothing ever stopped her. At 19, she was diagnosed with primary sclerosing cholangitis, a chronic liver condition that would have ended the career of many. Not Bally. She never complained, never made excuses; she just did what the doctors told her, worked her socks off and got on with it. It was the same with the back problems, ankle injuries, foot injuries – the whole host of setbacks and obstacles she had to overcome in order to chase her dreams on the tennis court. Never once did she sink into self-pity, never once did she blame her health problems for a poor run of form. And never once did she show a sign of ego: Bally was as down to earth and normal as anyone you could hope to meet.

But while the sadness still hangs over the Madrid tournament like a pall, that is not the way to remember Bally. Bally didn’t do sad. She absolutely loved her job and she radiated enthusiasm for every part of her life. She tried to retire once before but within a few weeks she was back on the road travelling with a promising young talent and helping her in her first steps on the circuit. In no time at all, Bally was back on the players’ beat – she could not give this up. She loved to work and the adored competing. And she loved to talk about it all. Oh, how she loved to talk.

For more than a decade, the British press corps had chatted to her about anything and everything, from forehands and backhands to training and practise, from matches won and lost to the characters in the locker room and every time we met, she was passionate about every aspect of her job. Every other sentence began with “Do you know what?” and off she would go on another tangent, explaining how she would deal with playing Maria Sharapova or Li Na, what the driver had told her about another player’s personal habits that morning or what the player gift was at the French Open (the Roland Garros bra and knicker set had her in fits of giggles one year – the designer clearly thought that she and Serena Williams were twin sisters. Either that or that she would use the undies as a parachute). Bally was blissfully indiscreet at times, but never with a hint of side or animosity, and all of it delivered at 1000 words a minute in her Heinz 57 Varieties of an accent.

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Born in Kiev, she came to Britain when her footballer father transferred from Dynamo Kiev to Ipswich Town. From there the family moved to Scotland – Sergei had been transferred to St. Johnstone – and that is where Bally spent her childhood. She moved back down to England for training in the early part of her career and finally settled back in Ipswich. As a result, her accent had hints of Glasgow, twangs of London and a bit of Suffolk thrown in for good measure while her vocabulary was peppered with colloquialisms from all over the country. But if her method of expression was unique in English, her Russian was a hoot, apparently. After so long away from her native Ukraine, her Russian accent had deteriorated alarmingly and all the Russian-speaking players would tease her mercilessly whenever they sat down for a chat. But chat they did because you could not help but sit down for a gossip and a giggle with Bally.

Bally and girls from the Elena Baltacha Academy of Tennis.

The enthusiasm and energy she poured into her playing career was only matched by the drive she had to set up EBAT, the Elena Baltacha Academy of Tennis. Opened in 2010, she and Nino wanted to give young girls in and around Ipswich, those from less well-off backgrounds, the chance to play tennis. By the end of last year, there were 70 kids training at the academy, including some boys who had begged to be a part of it, and she was, as ever, totally committed to the project. She simply loved working with the kids.

Perhaps her proudest moment was taking part at the London Olympics and that will be my enduring memory of Bally. When the entry lists for the tournament closed, she was struggling with an injury. Her ranking had dropped and on that very day, she lost her position as Britain’s No.1 to Anne Keothavong. Suddenly the door to Team GB had slammed shut. But with the support and badgering of Judy Murray, Britain’s Fed Cup captain, and the LTA, the ITF finally gave her a wild card and Bally could go to the Olympics. Given she had played 48 Fed Cup rubbers in 43 ties by that stage in her career, they could hardly refuse.

Bally’s father, Sergei, had been an Olympian and won a bronze medal with the Soviet football team at the Moscow Olympics in 1980. Her mother, Olga, had also earned selection in the modern pentathlon for those games but with Sergei away and no one at home to look after Bally’s elder brother, Sergei junior (he was only months old at the time), Olga had to give up her place. As a result, Bally was desperate to play in the London games and bring her mother along to watch. When the news came through that she had a wild card, Bally was in floods of tears, Judy Murray was in floods and Olga, on the other end of the telephone, was sobbing with joy.

On the night she learned that she had lost out on the chance to play mixed doubles with Andy – Laura Robson was chosen over her – I bumped into Bally and her mum as they headed out of the All England Club to the transport pick up. She would have loved to have played with Andy but it was all right; nothing was going to spoil her Olympics. As she stuffed me in the back of the car (highly illegal as the plebs of the press are not allowed any perks from the IOC. Bally, though, was determined to give me a lift), she burbled away about the Olympic Park and competitors’ village, about how Wimbledon can run a tournament much better than the IOC and how fantastic the support had been at every match. It was typical Bally: enthusiastic, happy, optimistic, funny and ever-so-slightly indiscreet. And all the while, Olga beamed from ear to ear. Thanks to her talented daughter, she now had her own Olympic memory to cherish.

Sam Stosur grew up with Bally on the tour. They first played as youngsters in the less-than-glamorous $25k event in Surbiton (Bally won that one) but played their last match at Roland Garros two years ago. They had both come a long way in the intervening years but, at the age of 30, both thought they had so much further to travel.

“I think she will always be remembered as a nice girl,” Stosur said simply. “She would always say hello, one of those players that you respected but, more importantly, was just a nice person. Somebody who shouldn’t be gone.”