- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 27, 2011

A cardboard box full of tennis balls sat upon a folding chair near the service line of a practice court. Moments before, Elena Baltacha had been sitting courtside on the chair, racket still in hand, looking despondent after a two-set loss to Virginie Razzano on Wednesday. Instead of dwelling on mistakes she made, however, she decided to immediately correct them.

“I felt like in the second set, my level of play just dropped,” she said. “I just wanted to get on the court and feel good again, just hit balls that I was missing, get that out of my head and just keep working on what I should have been doing out there.”

Baltacha came to the Citi Open after a second-round loss in Wimbledon to No. 20 Peng Shuai. Although she has played in the tournament for years, she said this was the first year she felt truly comfortable there, in spite of the media frenzy surrounding the event. As the No. 1 player in England, Baltacha feels an extra responsibility to represent her country on and off the court.

“I think the one thing that I’m always conscious of is that I always try to conduct myself in a very good manner,” she said. “One of the worst things for me would be for someone to turn around and go, ‘She’s a really horrible girl, and she doesn’t conduct herself very well.’”

Baltacha was born in Kiev, Ukraine, the daughter of two professional athletes. Her father was a soccer player, and her mother competed in the Olympics in the heptathlon and the pentathlon. At the age of 6, Baltacha moved to Ipswich, England.

While Russian culture still is important to Baltacha — she speaks the language fluently, though with an accent, and shouted “Davai,” loosely translated as “Come on,” several times after winning a point — she has fully adopted her new home country.

“When I speak to the Russian players, they always laugh at me because they’re like, ‘Oh, you’re a typical English person,’” she said. “I’m proud of where I was born, and every time I go up to Glasgow, we’ll always get the Russian food out. My mom enjoys cooking all the Russian food. I miss it a lot.

“I haven’t [been back to Ukraine]. One, I haven’t had the time. Two, from a young age, I’ve been brought up in the U.K. I’ve lived in Ipswich, then we moved to Scotland and spent 10 years there, and now I’m back in Ipswich again. I spent 10 years in London as well. I’m very much British.”

The Elena Baltacha Academy, started just last year, is another way in which the player gives back to English tennis. After Wimbledon in 2010, she scouted deprived areas of Ipswich and selected 32 girls, 10 of whom went to the academy. The rest were able to play for free at Christchurch Park, which had government funding for new courts.

Baltacha visited the girls after Wimbledon and was impressed to see the forehands and backhands they recently acquired. Their homework assignment, she said, is to learn to serve overhand before the next time she comes to see them.

As for personal goals, Baltacha is determined not to let past mistakes affect her. Ranked No. 57 in the world, she would like to be in the top 50 by the end of the year.

“And just to keep getting better, keep improving,” she said. “Regardless of whether you’re seeded or not, you know that every match is very difficult. You know that everyone can play. These girls can all play, and they’re all hungry for it. You just have to keep up and keep trying to get the wins when you can.”