Young Elena has a special quality

TENNIS: ONE year ago, Elena Baltacha competed at Felixstowe Lawn Tennis Club as a relative unknown, with only her father's connection with Ipswich Town to pick her out from the crowd of women's hopefuls and possible stars of the future.

ONE year ago, Elena Baltacha competed at Felixstowe Lawn Tennis Club as a relative unknown, with only her father's connection with Ipswich Town to pick her out from the crowd of women's hopefuls and possible stars of the future.

This year, however, things are rather different.

This year, while in Felixstowe for the $25,000 LTA Ladies Tournament, Elena has been virtually hounded by the media, and everywhere she goes there are whispers among the crowd, from fellow players and audience alike.

"That's the girl who played at Wimbledon," I heard one man say.

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"That girl is supposed to be the next big thing for British tennis," said another.

And one young ballgirl looked over at Elena with admiration as she was warming up for a match and whispered to her friend, "That's the one who got to play on Centre Court."

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But even without her Wimbledon appearance – Elena was a wild card entry this year and played on the famous court in the first round when her match was switched from an outside court – there is certainly something a bit special about the 17-year-old from Scotland.

Originally born in the Ukraine, Elena came over with her family at the age of five when her father signed for Ipswich Town FC. After several years in Suffolk they eventually moved to Scotland when Sergei signed for St Johnstone, but East Anglia still holds many fond memories for her.

"It's so nice to be back here," she said. "I love this area and I still keep in touch with lots of people down here."

In Felixstowe this week as I watched her practice for her first round match with wild card Julia Smith, Elena appeared focused and determined and managed to keep her cool despite the wind disrupting her normally punchy serve.

Her low passing shots and athleticism across the court certainly marked her out from many of the competitors who have gathered in Suffolk for this competition and it is clear that her appearance at the world's most prestigious tennis competition has not distracted her one bit.

"Playing at Wimbledon was unbelievable," she told me when I met up with her after her practice session.

"But coming back here, this is reality. This shows where I am really and how good my game is at the moment. I have a lot of work to do on my game."

Realistic she may be, but Elena's rise to fame in Britain has certainly been fast and furious. This year she has reached the semi-finals of the Powder Byrne Trophy, beating the sixth and third seeds before losing to the top seed Kristina Brandi.

Then in the International Championships at Eastbourne, Elena won through qualifying to reach the main draw, losing to eighth seed Conchita Martinez.

Her senior debut at Wimbledon saw her beaten in two sets by Natalie Dechy from France 6-1, 7-5, but she put up a brave fight. She was also the sixth seed in the Junior draw, reaching the semi-finals of the girls' competition, and to top it all, Elena served up the joint third fastest serve by a woman, with a serve of 118 miles per hour. Not bad for a 17-year-old.

In her first match at Felixstowe the elements were not kind and the frustration was tangible for both Elena and opponent Smith when the ball simply refused to bounce on the wet surface.

After winning the first set 6-3, however, it was the fact that Elena fought back from 4-0 down in the second to take it 7-5 that really made the crowd sit up and take notice. Her usually powerful serve was being hampered by the weather, but clearly she was taking this match as seriously as any other.

Yesterday she beat Australian qualifier Nicole Sewell in the second round 7-6 6-0 to reach the last eight.

But regardless of the final result at this week's tournament, one thing is for certain. We will be seeing much more of Elena in the next few years. And she will be dealing with a lot more attention from the media.

"It really started at Eastbourne," she said. "I have never done so many press conferences and I was totally worn out by the end of it all!

"It's all part of the package, though. I am never keen to be the centre of attention, but if it comes to that then I will just have to deal with it."

Spoken like a true professional.

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