5 May 2014

Tennis star Elena Baltacha dies of cancer aged 30

Tributes are paid to British tennis star and former women’s number one Elena Baltacha, who has died of liver cancer at the age of 30.

The sports star was hailed as a “great fighter” and a “shining light” after her death at home early yesterday morning was announced.

Baltacha died peacefully surrounded by friends and family and with her husband Nino Severino at her side.

She was diagnosed with the illness in January, just two months after retiring from tennis and only weeks after she married her long-term coach. Announcing her diagnosis in March, Baltacha vowed to fight the cancer “with everything I have”.

In a statement released by her family, Severino said: “We are heartbroken beyond words at the loss of our beautiful, talented and determined Bally.

“She was an amazing person and she touched so many people with her inspirational spirit, her warmth and her kindness.”

Wimbledon legends Billie Jean King and Martina Navratilova joined the tributes along with Great Britain Davis Cup player Ross Hutchins and the current British women’s number one Laura Robson.

‘We will miss her’

Billie Jean King, the former US world number one player who won 20 titles at Wimbledon, said on Twitter.

“Saddened to hear about Elena Baltacha’s passing. My fondest memory with Bally was sharing a wonderful chat when we met the Queen at Wimbledon.”

Navratilova, who also holds 20 Wimbledon titles, and has previously suffered cancer, said: “Elena Baltacha was a great fighter on the tennis court.

“We as tennis players always worry about our bodies, trying to keep injuries at bay.

“But cancer – you can’t prevent that and you can’t rehab it either and no matter how much of a fighter you are, sometimes cancer wins.

“Elena was taken from the world much too soon – fighting to the end and we will miss her.”

Robson, paying tribute to her “teammate” on Twitter, said: “Impossibly sad. Forever a teammate. Sweet dreams Bally.”

Hutchins, 29, who was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma in December 2012, but announced that he was in remission last July, told BBC Radio 5 Live that he sent his condolences to Baltacha’s family.

“They’re all fantastic people, and our thoughts and prayers go out to all of them. It’s incredibly sad news but we’ll remember her for a long time,” he said.

“I heard she was very ill and she was struggling for a while, but Elena was a fighter and we always knew that.

“Whether it comes down to Fed Cup matches, big matches, or with the disease – everyone knew she was a fighter and we always thought she could get through this battle.

“She’d got through many battles in the past, she’d been battling liver problems her whole life so we thought she’d get through this but I did hear that it wasn’t looking that positive at one point.”

‘A gaping hole’ in British tennis

The Lawn Tennis Association (LTA) described Baltacha as a role model and said a “gaping hole” has been left in British tennis.

Iain Bates, head of women’s tennis, said: “Today we have lost a shining light from the heart of British tennis – a true role model, a great competitor and a wonderful friend.

“We have so many special memories to cherish, but this leaves a gaping hole for everybody in both British and women’s tennis, and words simply cannot express how saddened we are by this news.

“All our thoughts are with Nino and the rest of Elena’s family. We will miss you Bal.”

Baltacha’s death comes after she was diagnosed at the age of 19 with primary sclerosing cholangitis, a chronic liver condition which affects the immune system.

She managed the condition throughout her career with medication and regular blood tests.

She went on to win 11 singles titles, reached the third round of Wimbledon in 2002 and the same stage of the Australian Open in 2005 and 2010.

Raised in the UK

The daughter of former Ipswich, St Mirren and Inverness footballer Sergei, Baltacha was born in Ukraine but raised in the UK.

She reached a career-high world ranking of 49 in 2010 and was British number one for 132 weeks between 2009 and 2012.

However, she struggled with injury and illness during her career, and ankle problems eventually forced her to retire.

In 2010 she launched the Elena Baltacha Academy of Tennis, which helps children from all backgrounds to learn and play tennis.

All those involved in running the Academy have pledged to carry on the work that she started, the family statement said.

The previously announced ‘Rally for Bally’ – a fundraiser due to be played in June – will now go ahead in her memory.

Celebrating her life

Her childhood friend Andy Murray had committed to play in the event along with Navratilova and Tim Henman, and the money raised will go to the Elena Baltacha Academy of Tennis and the Royal Marsden Cancer Charity.

Her agent and friend, Eleanor Preston, said the fundraiser next month will be an opportunity to celebrate everything the tennis star achieved.

She told Sky News: “It was part of Bally’s emotional make-up to be very stoic, she never once asked why me or why is this happening. She was incredibly strong and determined and that was who she was.

“She achieved an awful lot and in the context of having a serious liver condition that she struggled with since the age of 19. This is why she should be held up as a role model.

“She went through it all without the slightest bit of self pity or ego.”