Video & Gallery: Baltacha preparing to fulfil her destiny

FOOD poisoning, missing connecting flights, dashing around the M25 to sort out a Japanese visa - the life of a top class tennis player can be far from glamorous.

Mark Armstrong

FOOD poisoning, missing connecting flights, dashing around the M25 to sort out a Japanese visa - the life of a top class tennis player can be far from glamorous.

But you won't find British number one Elena Baltacha complaining.

Especially since the 26-year-old has just consolidated her British number one spot after getting to the third round of the Australian Open last week.

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It was the third time Baltacha has made the last 32 Down Under but there is a feeling within her camp that this is only the start.

After being on the verge of quitting tennis in 2007 following a catalogue of injuries and health issues, which included a liver scare and back problems, Baltacha has gradually fought her way back to the top level of women's tennis.

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Under the tutelage of coach Nino Severino, Ukrainian-born Baltacha appears to have turned the corner and, after playing much of the last few years of her career on the periphery of the world game, she is determined not to let her standards slip.

What many people didn't realise after her run in Australia was brought to an end by Dinara Safina was that Baltacha had to make the third round or face being cast into the tennis wilderness once more.

But Baltacha, who trains at Ipswich Sports Club when she is in the UK, has learned to relish that kind of pressure.

“It was really difficult because, even though I had qualified for the two tournaments before the Open, I only actually gained 16 points in the rankings so it didn't really do anything for my ranking.

“Going into the Open I knew that if I didn't get to the third round then I would go out to 110 or something. That would have really hurt because I had such a good end to last year.

“In a way it's good because it really motivates you. You know there are people out there capable of taking your spot.”

Katie O'Brien would have taken over as British number one if Baltacha hadn't enjoyed success in Australia and she would have faced the possibility of having to qualify for major tournaments once again if she slipped out of the top 100.

But Severino wasn't surprised to see her over come these psychological hurdles and breeze through in Melbourne.

“Bal went on to the court against Kateryna Bondarenko (in the second round) knowing that if she lost she would be in trouble in terms of her ranking.

“There was so much pressure in the fact that what she did in that match would have a massive bearing on how the first part of the year would go.

“I have to take my hat off to Bal for dealing with that. When we send her out there to perform on the big stage we know she will perform.”

Baltacha has now got the taste of being in the main draw and has no intention of letting her ranking slip and go back to the days of qualifying for events.

A few years ago, Baltacha would have had to battle her way through three qualifying matches just to get into the main draw and she would often be on her way home from tournaments before the likes of Dinara Safina or Serena Williams had even unpacked their bags.

“When you get the taste for main draw, you don't want to leave it behind,” admitted Baltacha, who will be representing Great Britain next week when they take on Portugal in the Federations Cup. “You get treated so much better, the hotels for better, you have a better environment to prepare.

“You don't want to go back to qualifying and it can keep you quite sharp.

“You can't take your foot off the pedal because before you know it you'll be back in qualifying.

“It's dangerous as well as you play against girls that 15 or 16 on their way up. You've got players like Laura Robson and Heather Watson on their way up and in one or two years' time these girls are going to be after my number one spot.”

Baltacha is enjoying her tennis more than at any other stage in her career having rid herself of the injury demons that have blighted her career for so long.

But, like any profession, there are drawbacks to being an international tennis player.

Baltacha insists the image of globetrotting sportswoman could not be further from the truth at times with the only sights on offer being that of a tennis court in some of these far away countries.

The logistics of travelling can also be a nightmare while the food on offer can also be questionable with Baltacha actually having to pull out of a tournament in Greece last year due to a wrap she had eaten in the players' lounge.

“I'm very lucky to be doing what I do and I have grown to love the travelling despite still not enjoying flying.

“Like anything though there are downsides. Getting visas sorted is often a nightmare and I remember when we had to get the governments involved to sort out a visa for me to get to a tournament in Japan.

“Nino was rushing round the M25 trying to get it sorted and eventually the LTA had to step in and help.

“But I still feel very lucky to do what I do.”

Baltacha is certainly not complaining about her life at the moment and has set her sights on breaking into the top 50 this year.

She feels there is still a lot more potential to unleash before she even thinks about putting down her racket.

“I try not to talk about numbers too much in terms of rankings because you just never know what can happen,” she added. “I know that top 50 is realistic. I think there is so much more potential in me and I know that I haven't peaked yet.

“I just need to stay injury free and play tournaments regularly.”

Some of Baltacha's thoughts have inevitably turned to how she sees her life after tennis and she revealed that she is interested in a career in the media.

Could she be Ipswich's answer to Sue Barker?

“That would be a lot to live up - Sue is very good. I might do a bit of media work and I'd like to do some projects with Nino.

“We do days where we go into tennis academies and do a pro impact day so we will perhaps look to do that even more.”

But this kind of thinking will have to go on the backburner for the moment, a place in the world's top 50 is there to be taken.

There will be a few more visas to sort out yet.

PERHAPS Dinara Safina had more than one reason to dispose of Elena Baltacha's hopes of reaching the fourth round at The Australian Open.

Unbeknownst to Baltacha, the Russian was just about to go on court for her second round match when her mental preparations were interrupted by the British number one.

Baltacha takes up the story:

“Sometimes I can be such a blonde. I know Dinara pretty well and I remember her from the juniors and she is a really nice girl.

“You are very limited at tournaments for tickets at times and I thought I would ask a few players if they had any spare.

“I saw Dinara with her match gear on and it didn't really twig and I asked her if I could get some tickets from her to the extent that I was saying 'C'mon, could you do it now for me?'

“She said that she would do it later and I thought she was being a bit off with me at the time.

“Nino and I then turn around and saw her on the big screen being escorted to her court to play a match.

“I felt like such an idiot that I had just harassed her before one of her biggest matches but fortunately she didn't bear a grudge!”

BUYING a birthday present for the Williams sisters must be a nightmare.

What do you get the girls who have enough money to buy anything they desire?

Well, it might be worth dad Richard Williams having a word with Baltacha before he goes shopping for a gift next time.

“Serena keeps herself to herself for the most part but I remember recently she suddenly came up to me in the players' locker room and said 'oh what a nice make-up bag'.

“I was a little bit taken aback and told her she could have it if she wanted to!”

Williams declined, but the opportunity remains for Richard to earn a few brownie points with one of his daughters.

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