Elena Baltacha was an incredible woman – and her lasting legacy lives on

Elena Baltacha, pictured at Ipswich Sports Club in September 2012

Elena Baltacha, pictured at Ipswich Sports Club in September 2012

Ipswich tennis star Elena Baltacha died of liver cancer aged just 30 in May 2014. Two years on, STUART WATSON spoke to her widower, coach and best friend Nino Severino about an incredible woman’s legacy.

Elena Baltacha in action at Wimbledon in 2012

Elena Baltacha in action at Wimbledon in 2012 - Credit: PA

Unfailingly polite, positive and selfless, infectiously fun and enthusiastic, with an undercurrent of steely determination and drive – Elena Baltacha was a force of nature who never ceased to sweep along all those she came across.

Every challenge ‘Bally’ faced – be it debilitating injuries and illness, beating the odds to become a top 50 world ranked tennis player or, ultimately, liver cancer – were stared down by those piercing brown eyes, just like any fearsome serve.

Hard-graft and a can-do attitude leads to things no-one thought was possible. That was her legacy after retirement from tennis in 2013 and that will remain her lasting legacy through the junior coaching projects she created before her sudden death at the age of 30 in 2014.

“She was just an unbelievable woman, an absolutely unbelievable woman,” said Nino Severino, her long-time coach, who fell in love with Elena when the duo toured the world, married her a month after she hung up her racket in 2013 only for the cancer diagnosis to arrive within weeks and the illness to tragically taking her life just four months later.

“It’s hard to even describe it to be honest, to put it into words, that Bal is gone. There’s been great pain, great pain, but you have to push on.

“How we’ve kept it all together I honestly don’t know, but then again that’s the reflection of the people that Bal surrounded herself with.

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“When you can’t get out of bed, they are the ones that hold things together.

“Bal has so many great friendships. The big people she knew, they haven’t turned their backs on me. People like Judy Murray, Andy’s father-in-law (Nigel Sears), Davis Cup coach Louis Cayer, Leon Smith, the captain, Michael Downey (LTA chief executive) - people like that have been unbelievable, really bloody unbelievable.

Elena Baltacha and Nino Severino give out instructions at a junior coaching session in 2011.

Elena Baltacha and Nino Severino give out instructions at a junior coaching session in 2011.

“But then Bal earnt that. She was never nasty to anyone, she was always polite to everyone.

“Normally the big people tend to float away, and you can understand that because they’ve got big lives and big focuses, but that hasn’t happened, which is quite warming.

“You talk about her tennis legacy, but I think her legacy goes beyond that.”

The Elena Baltacha Tennis Academy (EBAT) continues to go from strength-to-strength and last year introduced six thousand children to a sport she saw as too inaccessible.

And now the multi-faceted ‘Learn, Play, Grow’ project Elena dreamt up alongside Nino during the latter stages of her career (see right) could also be about to sweep the nation, tackling big issues like obesity and confidence in children as young as two.

“What I miss so much is having her energy next to you,” said Nino. “We would talk about something and then it would happen the next day, even if that meant getting up at three o’clock in the morning and driving to London or wherever. She would insist on us doing that.

“She would never, ever say no to anything. Whatever it took, she would do it. It was that way with her own tennis career and she brought that same attitude to everything else in life too.”

To break into the world top 50 rankings at the back end of her career took serious dedication given the constant injuries and illnesses, but amongst all of the long-haul flights, early morning training sessions and physiotherapy Elena still managed to find time to inspire others.

Elena Baltacha presents a campaign medal to Pte Jim Wallace in 2011, one of four soldiers commended

Elena Baltacha presents a campaign medal to Pte Jim Wallace in 2011, one of four soldiers commended after six months in Afghanistan. - Credit: Sgt Rupert Frere Army Phot

“She put all her selfishness as an athlete to one side and put a lot of her energy into other projects – that is a very, very rare thing,” said Nino.

“At an elite level of sport that has to have an impact on your career, it just has to, because when other people are resting and putting their feet up because their body needs recovery, she is getting off a plane, going to a school, getting equipment out of a van and giving something back.

“She could have left all that to others, but she understood that if she was there it would have a bigger impact on the people that we saw. She came to all the meetings, she would be involved in some of the administrational work and was always asking ‘what can I do to help?’

“Incredible. And it wasn’t fake in the slightest. It wasn’t like ‘Elena Baltacha is doing this’ when really she was just putting her name to it - it was absolutely real.

“The one thing that really hurts me, is that we never had the chance to play it out together.”

Nino continues: “We had big plans for after her retirement and we’d just started to go there, we’d come up with all these ideas together… It was bloody tough.

“It’s only now that I’m just starting to feel like I don’t have those memories, those hurtful memories, where I’m just seeing Bal sitting there and having her lunch and all stuff like that. That bit has gone, so now I can try and get on with doing the job. That’s a nice place to be in now.”

Elena would undoubtedly be immensely proud to see her husband growing in strength and keeping her legacy alive.

Ipswich Olympians Louise Jukes (handball) and Elena Baltacha pictured at a civic reception in 2012

Ipswich Olympians Louise Jukes (handball) and Elena Baltacha pictured at a civic reception in 2012

“I hope so, I really hope so,” says Nino. “We’re going to do everything we can to make sure that’s the case.

“Challenges were always a big part of Bal’s life. From the very first moment we got together and she was out of the game and ready to retire, through everything we subsequently experienced together - it was an amazing journey.

“She took on every challenge head first and these coaching projects would have just been another challenge. We’re determined to see them through.”

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ELENA AND NINO DREAMED BIG – AND NOW THOSE DREAMS COULD BECOME REALITY

Sarah Medlar teaches a Learn Play Grow class at St Margaret's Primary in Ipswich.

Sarah Medlar teaches a Learn Play Grow class at St Margaret's Primary in Ipswich. - Credit: Su Anderson

Elena Baltacha had very much become an Ipswich girl, but her vision was far from localised.

Making tennis accessible for all, tackling teenage drop-out rates, increasing the number of female coaches, giving youngsters a more diverse base set of skills and addressing child health and obesity issues were huge national topics on her mind as retirement loomed.

The liver cancer which took her life in 2013 may have robbed her of the chance to see through those grandiose plans, but the people she inspired along the way are determined to see various projects through to fruition.

The Ipswich-based tennis academy which bears her name already has a national reputation, while the multi-sport ‘Learn, Play, Grow’ programme she created alongside husband and renowned strength and conditioning coach Nino Severino is now ready to branch out following its pilot success in the town.

“As Bally and travelled around we discussed how it seems like young children are not doing the right level of PE anymore and how that can have a knock-on effect in terms of poor health, obesity and not being motivated to do sport,” explained Severino.

“We also saw that parents can channel their kids down a certain sport very early on. That child then experiences negativity on a physical level because they become unbalanced physically, while emotionally it can have an effect on them too because they fall out of love with something if they do it too much.

“We came up with ‘Learn, Play, Grow’, which is a very holistic health and fitness programme for pre-school and nursery children.

“It’s about providing young children with a broad variety of techniques and skills, such as balance and reaction, which then gives them a nice base for them to go off and pick which sport is best suited to them.

Sarah Medlar teaches a Learn Play Grow class at St Margaret's Primary in Ipswich.

Sarah Medlar teaches a Learn Play Grow class at St Margaret's Primary in Ipswich. - Credit: Su Anderson

“It seemed the perfect fit for us. I come from a multi-sport background, having worked in football, cricket and boxing, while Bally does too with her dad (Sergei) having been a footballer (once of Ipswich Town) and her mum (Olga) having been in the Olympics as a pentathlete.

“It’s also about developing confidence and life skills too. We’re both softies and so we felt we wanted to add a nice soft touch to the programme through stories and characters. The children learn about life situations, such as crossing the road for example, by Bella the Bunny taking them on a journey. All the while they are bending down and jumping up and stretching, but to them it’s just fun.”

Having proved a big success in Ipswich over the last four years, ‘Learn, Play, Grow’ is now branching out to pre-schools and nurseries in Bury St Edmunds and could quickly spread across the country.

“We’ve done all the franchising procedures and we’re now selling it out to coaches on a national level,” said Severino. “I think, to date, we have had 70 enquires from across, England, Wales, Northern Ireland and, understandably, with a really good response from Scotland (the country Elena grew up in).

“Branching out nationally is a mission, it’s not an easy thing at all, but we’re doing it. That’s amazing.

“We’ve got 11 schools that are currently using the programme in Ipswich and I think eight nurseries. If we can get another 70 areas working on this across the country then you’re talking thousands and thousands of children nationally who are going to benefit from her legacy.

“We’ve had a lot of enquires about the programme, but you have to pick these individuals carefully. They have to run it how we want it to be run.

“The lady that is going to manage the Bury area, Sarah, is unbelievable. She is the first ripple going out.

Elena Baltacha and Nino Severino dreamt big when it came to coaching projects

Elena Baltacha and Nino Severino dreamt big when it came to coaching projects

“Sarah has got a lot of fight, she doesn’t give up, she keeps going and going and going. That sounds familiar doesn’t it?

“If we can get a little army of LPG coaches like that then I know Bal would be really, really proud of it. I know she would.”

Severino added: “Do you know what? Bal would have had so much fun with this because she had a childish streak. I’ve got a video of her at a school messing about with the kids that brings such a smile to my face. I often think ‘my God, if she could see us now’.

“As I’ve been getting stronger I have gone out and got feedback from teachers and parents and they keep telling us they can’t believe the concentration and focus it brings out in the kids.

“Little kiddies of two will stand there in a really strong listening position. And when you’ve got a group of two-to-four year olds and you can actually control them all, that’s when you know you’re on to a good thing.

“I’ve worked at the highest level in sport, been to some of the biggest arenas in the world, but this gives me a lot of joy. It’s a programme that Bal and I produced together and it’s having an effect. That’s a really rewarding thing.”

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