When Elena Baltacha walked off the grass of the All England Club last summer after being knocked out of the Olympics, she could not help but cast a lingering look at the place.
Faced with surgery on her right foot, Baltacha had just about had enough. The 29-year-old revealed at a news conference that she was to take a break from tennis for the surgery and that she may not return. The journalists in attendance sensed that this was indeed the end for a player who throughout her career had fought numerous injury battles.
Almost 11 months on, Baltacha will walk back onto the Wimbledon grass with a new lease of life when she takes on Italy’s Flavia Pennetta on Monday. It is quite a turnaround for a player who had just about thrown in the towel last year.
“Obviously after the Olympics I knew I had to have surgery on my right ankle,” said Baltacha. “To be honest I hit a wall where I wasn’t really enjoying it, the motivation wasn’t really there and I was in a bit where you just go from week to week. You don’t take anything in, you just plod on.
“I didn’t want to have the surgery done but I knew I had to. I felt I just can’t go through it again, not another one. And I was really enjoying the coaching with my girls at EBAT (Elena Baltacha Academy of Tennis) and I just thought I was going to go on a break. But I pretty much did retire after the Olympics.”
Baltacha made the most of her life away from the tour. She did not watch much of the US Open, instead spending time at her academy, walking her dog Oscar, visiting family in Scotland and buying a Christmas tree for the first time in 10 years, as well as indulging in the tasty treats that the festive period brings.
But for all the normal things that she could at last enjoy, there was a void in her life which she slowly began to realise she was struggling to fill. “What I have found is that off the court I am not as competitive in other things,” said Baltacha. “Because I had that hunger, there was nothing to replace that feeling I get when I am on court and that’s when I knew that I wasn’t ready to pack it in yet.”
Baltacha spent some time travelling with a 16-year-old British girl from her academy which also fuelled the feeling that she might want to give it another go. When the Australian Open came along and she wasn’t in Melbourne, that was when her mind was made up.
“That really hurt me,” said Baltacha. “That really upset me. I was flicking the channels and thinking that everyone else [is there] and I’m not. I’ve got memories of being in the locker room and I’m just watching it. All the public will be watching it and I haven’t got anything to do with it anymore.
“I said to Nino [Severino, her coach] that I’m getting the feeling that I’ve got that hunger again. And it just grew and grew. I was watching everything, all the highlights, everything that I could get a hold of, interviews, the whole lot. I was just more hungry than I have been before.”
As well as working with Severino, Baltacha was also assisted by Louis Cayer as she worked hard on the practice court ahead of her comeback, particularly on her movement and serve. She returned in April at an ITF event in America and at the start of this month won the AEGON Challenge grass-court event in Nottingham to give her the perfect confidence boost ahead of her twelfth Wimbledon championship.
Baltacha may only be ranked No.185 at the moment but that will undoubtedly rise as she plays more tournaments. In fact, more motivated than ever before, she has set herself quite a goal, one that is quite possibly attainable considering that she took world No.10 Maria Kirilenko to three sets in Eastbourne.
“The target now is that I want to be No.1 in Britain, definitely,” said Baltacha, who reached a career-high ranking of No.49 in 2010. “To be No.1, I’ve got to be top 40, top 30, obviously with Laura [Robson] and Heather [Watson] now, so that’s my goal.
“Realistically I don’t know. The chances are probably slim with my age or whatever but I think within two or three years, a year and a half, once I get my ranking back up, I think it’s a good challenge. It’s a nice challenge to put in front of me.”