Elena Baltacha, who was the number 1 British player for 132 weeks, died today of liver cancer at the age of 30. Diagnosed with primary sclerosing cholangitis when she was 19, Baltacha spent her years on the tour taking medication to combat the fatigue brought on by her condition. Sclerosing cholangitis is rarely a precursor to liver cancer, though it is known to lead to liver failure. Baltacha received a diagnosis of cancer in January of this year.
Liver cancer is a rare diagnosis in someone as young as Baltacha. The woman known as "Bally" by her friends and by peers and fans, also had to deal with a number of serious injuries during her career. She retired from the tour last year. Only two months after retiring, and two weeks before receiving her diagnosis, Baltacha had married her former coach, Nino Severino.
Elena Baltacha reached a career-high ranking of 49 in 2010. She established a tennis academy and was already training young players at the time of her diagnosis. The Elena Baltacha Academy was established so that children from disadvantaged backgrounds could learn to play tennis.
Here is a tribute to Elena on the LTA website. A very well-liked player, Baltacha had a game that was quite enjoyable to watch. Considering the serious of her illness, her fatigue, her compromised immune system, and the injuries she sustained, it is a statement of her extraordinary mental toughness that she was able to play at a top-50 level.
Baltacha was a member of the British Fed Cup team for eight years, and was also on Great Britain's 2012 Olympic team.
"We are heartbroken beyond words at the loss of our beautiful, talented and determined Bally," Baltacha's husband said today. "She was an amazing person and she touched so many people with her inspirational spirit, her warmth and her kindness."
It's hard to believe that Elena Baltacha is gone. Her death is a loss not only to those who were close to her, but to the tennis world in general, and to sport. Part of her legacy will be the children at her academy who--though confronted with obstacles--will nevertheless be able to learn the value of physical fitness and playing a sport. There is no better role model for them than Baltacha herself.