Elena Baltacha: I was close to quitting before my turnaround
Exclusive: British No1 Elena Baltacha talks Martin Caparrotta through her stunning rise up the rankings
Flushing Meadows, the home of the US Open in New York, has played host to the best and worst of British No1 Elena Baltacha’s career.
In the weeks leading up to 2008’s final Grand Slam she was on the verge of hanging up her racquet for good after finding herself questioning her future in the game.
But it was in the same city just 24 months later that she surpassed all of her expectations and broke into the top 50 for the first time in her career.
“It’s really strange that it all happened at the US Open,” she says. “In 2008 I got to a point where I couldn’t afford for my coach to be travelling with me. My ranking was not going in the right direction and I felt I had hit my head on a brick wall – I didn’t really know what direction I was going in.
“I was having all sorts of dramas in the tournaments leading up to the US Open and I wasn’t playing well. I was all over the shop mentally.”
Alan Jones, Elena’s coach at the time, flew out to New York as she prepared to try and find her feet in the qualifying rounds of what she had vowed would be her last tournament.
“My coach came out for that week and said: ‘Whatever happens, just try your hardest, and then if you want to stop that’s fine. When we go back after this week we can get you a coaching job.’ And I said: ‘OK, after this week, I want to retire’.”
That week, Elena put her struggles behind her and powered through to the final round of qualifying where she was defeated in three sets by France’s Julie Coin, who went on to reach the third round in New York, beating former world No1 Ana Ivanovic along the way.
“I remember getting home after that and my coach said: ‘You were nearly there, you nearly had it’. And I realised he was right. We stuck it out for the next couple of months and then that was it – it all just changed around for me.”
What followed was some turnaround. Despite ending 2008 ranked No136, she began a meteoric rise up the WTA ladder and reached the top 100 for the first time in her career the following season.
Then, after reaching the third round of the 2010 Australian Open and recording victories over Francesca Schiavone and Li Na – both then ranked in the top 10 – later that year, she capped a remarkable season by achieving a career-high ranking of No49 on her return to New York.
“It’s so strange to think that that’s where I nearly quit, and two years later, that’s when I got into the top 50.
“If someone at that time in 2008 said to me: ‘Don’t worry, you’re going to be fine. Keep believing and you’ll get into the top 50’, I would never have believed them. Never.”
If you don’t make it to the second week of Wimbledon everyone thinks you’re a failure, and it has been difficult to deal with. I don’t pick up a paper for the two weeks
Elena, who was born in the Ukraine and whose father, Sergei, is a former footballer who played for Ipswich Town amongst others, is now focused on building on last year’s achievements.
“My game has shaped up so much better because of my experiences from last year,” she continues. “Now I feel more confident, I feel like more of a complete player.
“Getting the wins against top 10 players was incredible. Not a lot of players can say that they’ve done that.”
Elena is yet to win a singles title on clay, and she openly admits it is her least favourite surface as she gears up for the Barcelona Ladies Open in Spain next week.
“Every year I say how much I hate the clay and how I just cannot wait to get off it,” she says. “But this year I’m more relaxed about it.
“I’ve accepted that clay isn’t my best surface and I’m not expecting myself to do anything huge, but why not give it a go and see what I can do? For once, I’m actually really looking forward to it.”
Like any Brit on the tour, Elena dreams of success at Wimbledon – where she has never been past the third round – but she admits the burden that comes with stepping out onto court at SW19 has affected her in the past.
“Of course you do have that pressure,” she says. “I don’t pick up a paper for the two weeks. If you don’t make it to the second week everyone thinks you’re a failure and it has been difficult to deal with.
“But this year is going to be my 10th Wimbledon and you get used to all that – I don’t take it personally at all now.
“Anyway, it’s not just all about Wimbledon. That’s just one tournament in a long season. Of course it’s always nice to do well there and I’d love to be in the second week, but if it’s not meant to be, it’s not meant to be.”
Currently ranked No87, what are her goals for the rest of the year? “I want to get myself back into the top 50 – I really believe I can do that. And I would love to make the second week of a Grand Slam. That would be something really special.”