By Alix Ramsay
“It sucks,” was Andy Murray’s succinct response to the news. Elena Baltacha, a woman he has known since he was just a slip of a boy, who has just retired from the tour after 16 years of hard graft, who made the most of her talents and reached No.49 in the world rankings, who has struggled through career-threatening injuries and chronic illness and who was now devoting her life to helping kids follow in her footsteps through her academy in Ipswich, had just announced that she has liver cancer.
And Murray was absolutely right. Baltacha, or Bally as she is known, was always one of the tour’s good guys. A fiery and feisty competitor on the court, she is warm, open and down-to-earth away from it, the sort of person you cannot help but like as soon as you meet her.
In the WTA’s world of preening divas, Bally has always been different. No matter what the obstacle in front of her – and when she started out, being British was about the biggest handicap any player could have – she fought her way through it, past it or round it. She worked hard, she was ambitious and until the day she hung up her racquet, she never stopped believing she could become better. And then just when she had earned her retirement, had got married and was ready to embark on a new and exciting phase of her life, the doctors give her the bad news. And it sucked.
“It does put things into perspective,” Murray said. “People are asking me ‘oh, you’ve dropped down one place in the rankings’ and it’s like, well, it doesn’t really matter that much at the end of the day. It’s obviously your health that is the most important thing and it’s in situations like this when you start to realise that and respect that because life is very, very unfair. You wouldn’t expect that to happen to someone who is so young and healthy. She’s worked hard her whole life: she’s an athlete, she’s done all the right things… it sucks.
“I heard about Bally from my mum a couple of weeks ago – she’d gone in to see her in the hospital. You’re obviously shocked to hear that. I’ve known Bally for a long time; I don’t know her as well as I know Ross, but it’s still shocking . She’s so young, she’s just retired, you’re expecting her to enjoy just a nice happy life. She’s just got married as well so you just feel bad. And life is unfair. It’s a shame.”
Ross is Ross Hutchins, Murray’s best friend, and Ross survived Hodgkin Lymphoma last year. Diagnosed at the end of 2012 when he and Colin Fleming were within touching distance of qualifying for the ATP World Tour finals, Hutchins endured six months of chemotherapy until, finally, in June last summer, he was given the all-clear by the doctors.
Last year he organised the Rally Against Cancer, a charity tennis match to raise funds for the hospital that was treating him and this year the event will go ahead again – but now Murray wants Bally to be a part of it. Having a full-time job while he was dealing with chemotherapy helped Ross stay sane and positive and Murray hopes that, should she wish to get involved, it might do the same for Bally now.
“If there’s anything I could do, I’m sure any of the guys on the tour, the girls, if there’s anything we could do that could help, we would do it,” Murray said. “I’m sure this year when we do the Rally Against Cancer at Queen’s, that’s something that would definitely be great to get Elena involved in at an early stage. I believe that helped Ross a little bit as well so may be that would be a nice thing to do.
“I think Bally has the right attitude. My mum told me that she was unbelievably positive very soon after finding out. I think that’s probably not easy when you initially hear the diagnosis but she does has have that attitude. She always had that attitude when she was playing. She worked very hard – everyone says that. And hopefully she can get through.”
Ross is now back at work – on Sunday he and Colin Fleming reached the second round of the BNP Paribas Open with a 5-7, 7-6, 10-8 win over Horia Tecau and Jean-Julien Rojer – and he has recently been appointed as the tournament director of the Aegon Championships. He only heard of Bally’s illness a couple of days ago and immediately wanted to get in touch to offer whatever help, advice and support he could.
“I think all of us in the tennis world wish the best for Elena and all our thoughts and prayers go towards her,” he said. “For me, it was setting goals each week, whether it was to have a certain number of meetings each week or – we were buying a property – to try to get to a certain deadline date on the property and try and take my mind off the actual treatment and try and give myself goals in different aspects of life. And when I speak to Elena, I will give her that advice. But it’s not that it works for everyone; that’s what I did and it definitely helped me: having that sense of desperation to achieve things other than the chemotherapy, other than just getting healthy. And it helped me in a big way and hopefully it will help her come out stronger.”