Elena Baltacha, former British Number one last week was diagnosed with liver cancer. Yet with strong inner strength, she has become determined to go toe to toe with the medical condition, undergo treatment, and also elevate the cognizance of a rare condition using her sport. Baltacha is far from a stranger to personal dedication and prevailing in trying times, as the once ranked 49th best tennis player in the world knows a thing or two about perseverance. During the course of her treatment, she will draw from her work with the Children’s Liver Disease Foundation to spread awareness on liver medical conditions worldwide.
Baltacha comes from a sporting family. Her father Sergei was a professional footballer and played for Ipswich Town, and her mother Olga was once a pentathlete and heptathlete at the Olympic Games. Baltacha’s brother was a footballer also, playing for Milwall and St Mirren, growing up through the ranks in the Dynamo Kiev academy back in Ukraine, where Baltacha lived until 1989 when England beckoned. Most of her teenage years were in Perth in Scotland, the team that she went on to represent at the Commonwealth youth games, winning silver.
Pushing the body to the limit is coded into her genes, and turning professional aged 14 proved she was quite a unique individual.
Her first junior tournament was in February 1997 and her career continued through until retirement in November 2013.
Back in 2002, however, Elena would be presented with a challenge. The test was maintaining a career whilst negotiating with the detection of primary sclerosing cholangitis – inflammation of the bile ducts that impedes the flow of bile to the gut – which was possibly the prognosis of her subsequent diagnosis. In 2003 surgery was needed, and kept her out until 2004 with her ranking slipping from world number 157 to world number 373. Yet she responded rising up the rankings until eventually reaching the pinnacle of her career of world top 50 status in September 2010.
She has the attitude of a warrior, similar to boxer Carl Froch. Those that have been uninformed of Baltacha’s off the court dealings will look at her career and be under the supposition that she was a steady pro who perhaps failed to live up to her potential and expectations. Those that have closely followed the Brit’s career, however, will say otherwise. Her recent announcement on Friday last week of her condition has confirmed the latter, with the messages of support since from fellow Brits Laura Robson and Anne Keothavong.
Laura Robson’s message really captured the belief she has in Elena, stating: “You’ve got this xx.”
Alongside Robson, Keothavong added, “She’s one of the people I most admire for her courage and determination.”
Baltacha, patron of the Children’s Liver Disease foundation already, can draw motivation from the way Ross Hutchins in the men’s game responded to his condition, Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. After the 2013 Queen’s Club final, Ross was joined by stars including AEGON Championship winner Andy Murray, Major Boris Johnson, as well as other personalities such as comedian Michael McIntyre, in an event that made a total of £275,000, which was donated to the Royal Marsden Hospital.
It is known that liver cancer is a sparse condition, and alongside charity work this could be the beginning of Elena using her knowledge and challenges to raise understanding throughout the world.
Whichever approach Elena Baltacha exactly chooses is unknown, yet her daily public face-offs with her liver condition, taking medication before going onto court, in her days prior to retirement, have already helped increase awareness.
The recently married 30 year old could help others by continuing to inform young people and those within all kinds of professions of ways she has dealt with her own condition on a day to day basis, and support young tennis players who also contend with juggling their time on court with off court instances.
With the announcement last week comes a certain sense of perspective, and perhaps Elena’s future moves can help see awareness such as with events like the Rally Against Cancer campaign, ameliorate the lives of those encountering liver cancer, to maybe a return to the sport in some degree as Ross Hutchins has, following his successful treatment.
Like the climb up the rankings after surgery in 2003, Baltacha has abseiled again, and just like her previous rise, in the words of Laura Robson, ‘You’ve got this,’ Bally.
How can Elena Baltacha use tennis to help liver cancer? What can tennis do to support cancer as a whole?