Prodigious tennis talent will be Elena Baltacha’s lasting legacy to Suffolk
- Credit: Archant
“Take a look at this, it’s got four-and-a-half thousand views online...”
Nino Severino beams ear-to-ear as he turns his phone to show me footage of tiny tennis prodigy Haqim Kamal gliding across the court and effortlessly crushing balls over the net.
“He’s six and he’s world class,” says Nino. “He’s already winning Under-8 tournaments just like Andy Murray was at his age.
“I mean, just look at that. This was from a year ago and he’s improved a lot since then. You’re talking a Tiger Woods type prodigy there.
“He got picked for the Serena Williams Academy in France, but his parents decided this was the best place for him. We’ve just brokered him a place at Ipswich School.”
Haqim lives in Colchester, but has been attending the Elena Baltacha Academy of Tennis (EBAT) since the age of three after his parents read about the legacy work being done in Elena’s name. Talk about something good coming out of a tragic situation.
Man, it’s good to see Nino smiling again. Bally’s sudden passing from liver cancer in May 2014, just months after her retirement and weeks after her marriage to Nino, understandably hit him like a train.
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The pair were certainly dreaming big back in 2014. Their academy was going to bring tennis to every child in Ipswich. A holistic healthy living school programme called ‘Learn, Play, Grow’ was going to sweep the nation and help tackle childhood obesity. And they were going to find and produce a global tennis star in Suffolk.
“It’s been three years and for two of them I was a dead man walking,” says Nino, a strength and conditioning guru who has worked with hundreds of professional athletes.
“But you keep getting up and get through it. The easiest thing would have been to let it all slip, but life goes on. It has to.
“She’d be sitting here, she wouldn’t say much, but she’d just make me feel so strong. We were a formidable force, we really were. I always felt we could do anything together. I’d say ‘are we setting our sights too high here?’ and her attitude was always ‘we can do that, no problem’.”
It’s that dogged determination which now drives Nino.
‘Learn, Play, Grow’ already has 15 franchises across Great Britain and grabbed the attention of politicians in Westminster.
The Elena Baltacha Foundation, a charity set-up in her name, has organised tennis roadshows for schools who wouldn’t ordinarily have offered the sport to their pupils. Around 7,000 children have held a racket for the first time. Hundreds are subsequently playing regularly for fun. Dozens are on the elite pathway.
“A classic story is a girl called Jessica Terry,” says Nino. “Every year, the WTA invites the Elena Baltacha Foundation to select one girl to attend Richard Branson’s VIP pre-Wimbledon party and this year we picked Jessica to walk the red carpet with Jo Konta.
“There is no way she would have found tennis without that roadshow at her school in Kesgrave (Cedarwood Primary). She was a couch potato, didn’t do any sport, but loved the tennis session we put on, took an invitation back to her mum, then her mum brings her to the three-week taster at Rushmere Sports Centre.
“We then give them their choices, do it for fun or dream big. Jessy (9) is certainly one dreaming big. Her life now, and her family’s life, is tennis.
“They are ordinary working people, not the middle-class Land Rovers tennis stereotype. She’s now county number one and is heading towards being a national player and dreaming of being a GB international.
“Do you know what, I’ll stick my neck out and say she’ll make it because she trains like a beast and has a massive heart.”
The list of success stories goes on. Justice Hall is an Under-14 international on a tennis scholarship at Culford School who was originally discovered by Balatcha at a school in Nacton, while Sofia Khalyaeva (St Alban’s School, 15) is another GB international.
Isabelle Eaton (Woodbridge School, 14) has a GB badge, Tawana Senah (St Alban’s School, 13) is playing in the Road to Wimbledon tournament, while Yasmina Severino-Green (St Mary’s School, 8), Lewis Hind (St Mary’s School, 9) and Isaac Kingham (Dale Hall School, 9) are making waves on the county scene.
“We’ve never been a strong county, but we’ve got a five-year plan to try and change that,” said Severino. “We want to create a really strong stable of players out of which one can go on and create a really huge noise for us.”