US Open 2011: Elena Baltacha makes drama-filled progress

British No1 into round two after Jamie Hampton retired in dramatic fashion at 5-1 down in the final set

elena baltacha
Baltacha next faces No15 seed Svetlana Kuznetsova of Russia Photo: Marianne Bevis

elena baltacha

Day One brought contrasting results for the pair of teenagers in the quartet of women who carry the British flag in the USA.

Day Two was the turn of the old guard of women’s tennis to offer their own drama.

On Flushing Meadows’ opening day, Heather Watson enjoyed the glitz and glamour of Arthur Ashe and Maria Sharapova but ultimately lost.

Meanwhile, Laura Robson plied her trade on an outside court and quietly moved to the second round when Ayumi Morita’s shoulder gave way after losing the hour-long opening set.

Elena Baltacha and Anne Keothavong were scheduled for outside courts on a burnishing Tuesday afternoon, but it was Baltacha, the top-ranked woman of the four, who appeared first.

Now in her 13th year on the pro tour, Baltacha continues to improve her world ranking and now stands at No58. This is her eighth consecutive Slam appearance and she has made the second round on every occasion since doing so here last year.

Her task this time was to take on the 21-year-old American Jamie Hampton and the signs were promising: Baltacha beat her in the first round of this year’s Australian Open in three sets.

This match unfolded in a not dissimilar fashion but it ended in an altogether unexpected way.

To start at the beginning, Baltacha was broken early in the first set and lost it, 6-2, in less than half an hour.

But in the space it took Ireland’s Conor Niland to play two sets and retire ill against Novak Djokovic across on Arthur Ashe””precisely 44 minutes””Baltacha had done what she does best: dug deep and worked her way back to level her match.

With two breaks of serve, and the chance to break in the fifth game, too, she served out 6-2.

The match pounded onwards through a scorching afternoon that made it almost unbearable to watch let alone play almost two hours of big-hitting tennis.
And it became clear that, while Baltacha grew stronger, her opponent was rapidly losing the plot.

A doctor attended Hampton after Baltacha broke early in the third set, but the young American, who had now drawn a strong supporting crowd, continued. It proved to be a mistake.

With Baltacha serving for the match, Hampton collapsed as though her legs had buckled. Because it appeared that she was suffering from cramp, no-one immediately came to her aid””it is not allowed under the regulations.

But it became clear that she was in some distress as she tried and failed to get to her feet. Amid a call of “code violation” for delay from the umpire, doctors arrived, court attendants ran to her aid and Baltacha rushed for towels and ice. It was later confirmed that Hampton was suffering a full body cramp.

After what seemed an age””though was probably around 10 minutes””Hampton was helped from the court, swathed in ice, and Baltacha found herself in the second round in the most unfortunate style.

Baltacha explained just how tough a win it was: “It’s really difficult because over the clay season we got to know Jamie and her coach because they were at a lot of tournaments.

“We got pretty friendly. It was quite difficult because, you know, you want to beat her. Well, I wanted to beat her. I know she felt the same. It’s kind of like playing a friend.”

As a friend, Baltacha was quickly on the scene to help, and confirmed that Hampton was now doing fine and walking around with her coach.

Baltacha next faces Svetlana Kuznetsova, the No15 seed and another near-veteran of the tour. This is the Russian’s 10th consecutive US Open and she has reached the final twice, winning in 2004.

Whatever the outcome of that match, however, Baltacha can bathe in the glow of knowing that she has got further than two of this year’s Grand Slam champions. Both Li Na, winner in Paris, and Petra Kvitova, who took Wimbledon by storm, lost their opening matches.

The final British woman in the US quartet, Anne Keothavong, is due to meet South African, Chanelle Scheepers, in her first-round match, a woman she has twice beaten in 2008, both times in straight sets.

And finally, a footnote on Conor Niland.

It was always going to be a David-and-Goliath contest for the 29-year-old Irishman who came through qualifying and found himself, rather as Watson had done the afternoon before against Sharapova, against the biggest name in men’s tennis on tennis’s biggest stage.

Niland is ranked barely inside the top 200, has never won an ATP title and this was only his second Grand Slam appearance. He qualified for Wimbledon earlier this year, too.

Unfortunately, the biggest moment of his career coincided with a bout of food poisoning: “I’ve been feeling pretty rotten for a couple of days.”

So should he have played at all? “It was something I wanted to do. I thought maybe if there was a miracle I could do OK, but I wasn’t able to eat the last two days so I had nothing in my legs energy-wise.

“Obviously the timing seems pretty bad but it was great to qualify. I feel like I can play Grand Slam main draws ““ that’s my level. It won’t be my last chance.”

It may have been little consolation, but in winning his only game of the 6-0, 5-1 contest, the crowd roared as though he had just won the match. It was a moment to cherish.

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