Britain’s Baltacha looks a likely winner in Soweto

2010-04-14 00:00

THE opening round of the Soweto Open men’s and women’s tennis tournament has not been kind to fancied players over the past two days, but in ladies’ top seed Elena Baltacha of Great Britain the spectators saw the likely winner of that event.

With a collective $200 000 in prize-money on offer, the losers have missed out on what could have been a rewarding trip to South Africa.

That’s unless they have arranged a safari or two or at least a visit to the awe-inspiring, calabash-shaped Soccer City Stadium, just eight kilometres away from Arthur Ashe Tennis Centre and the venue for the kickoff of the Fifa 2010 World Cup in 60 days’ time.

On Monday, Sweden’s Filip Prpic ousted number two Karol Beck of Slovakia, SA wild card Chanel Simmonds eliminated women’s third seed Klara Zakopalova of the Czech Republic, and fellow wild card and compatriot Nikala Scholtz did the same to number eight Igor Sijsling of the Netherlands.

It was the turn of men’s seeds numbers one and three yesterday to say goodbye to a sunny Soweto, as well as the ladies’ fourth seed.

By far the biggest upset was the toppling of men’s number one Lukas Lacko of Slovakia to the tune of 3-6 6-2 6-3 by world 211 Ruben Bemelmans of Belgium.

Third-seeded Yen-Hsun Lu of Taipei went out 3-6 7-6 (5) 6-4 to France’s Nicolas Mahut, while, among the women’s action, there was a noted casualty in Great Britain’s Katie O’Brien following her 6-4 5-7 7-6 (5) demise at the hands of yet another member of Russia’s neverending tennis production line, Nina Bratchikova.

SA’s most fancied player, Rik de Voest, gave fourth seed Harel Levy a great fight in the afternoon before succumbing 7-6 (4) 6-4.

That leaves SA Davis Cup singles player Izak van der Merwe and 19-year-old rising star Scholtz with the task of delivering a quarter-final berth to the host country.

Sadly for SA fans, the two boom-boom servers are meeting each other in the round of 16, which begins with their match today.

All that out the way, the person who charmed her way into the hearts of hardened tennis hacks yesterday was Baltacha, whose story is a fascinating one.

The eloquent 27-year-old number 59 (and rising) was born in Kiev, Ukraine, to a World Cup soccer player and Olympic pentathlete back in the days of the “good ol’ USSR” (Union of Soviet Socialist Republics).

Baltacha moved to Ipswich in England at the age of six and then to Perth in Scotland for a decade shortly thereafter.

The Scottish accent attests to that country’s influence and possibly the hardiness that saw “Bally” persevere, despite a series of debilitating back injuries and operations that almost caused her to give up the game in despair a couple of years ago.

A karate coach, who still travels with her, turned tears into triumph. Through his expertise, Baltacha is finally free of pain.

Don’t be surprised if we hear a lot more about this older sister of a Scotland youth international soccer player in the years to come.

RESULTS

Men’s singles first round: Ruben Bemelmans (Bel) bt 1-Lucas Lacko (Svk) 2-6 7-6 (2) 6-3; Chris Eaton (Gbr) bt Adrian Menendez-Maceiras (Esp) 6-7 (5) 7-6 (5) 6-2; Nicolas Mahut (Fra) bt 3-Yen-Hsun Lu (Tpe) 3-6 7-6 (5) 6-4; Gilles Muller (Lux) bt Matthias Bachinger (Ger) 6-3 7-6 (4); 4-Harel Levy (Isr) bt Rik De Voest (Rsa) 7-6 (4) 6-4; 6-Stephane Bohli (Sui) bt Simon Stadler (Ger) 6-3 6-3; 5-Dustin Brown (Jam) bt Jan Minar (Cze) 6-2 6-1.

Women’s singles first round: 1-Elena Baltacha (Gbr) bt Vitalia Diatchenko (Rus) 6-2 6-2; 2-Tamarine Tanasugarn (Tha) bt Welma Luus (Rsa) 6-2 6-1; Bojana Jovanovski (Srb) bt Elena Bovina (Rus) 6-1 6-1; Mandy Manella (Lux) bt Neuza Silva (Por) 7-5 6-3; Kathrin Woerle (Ger) bt Maret Ani (Est) 6-1 7-5; 5-Mariya Koryttseva (Ukr) bt Naomi Broady (Gbr) 6-3 6-7 7-6; Eirini Georgatou (Gre) bt Scarlett Werner (Ger) 6-3 6-1; 8-Patricia Mayr (Aut) bt Kristina Antoniychuk (Ukr) 7-5 7-5; 7-Stephanie Dubois (Can) bt Rebecca Marino (Can) 6-2 6-0; Nina Bratchikova (RUS) beat 4-Katie O’Brien (Gbr) 6-4 5-7 7-6 (5); 6-Jarmila Groth (Aus) bt Natasha Fourouclas (Rsa) 6-3 6-0; Ester Goldfield (USA) bt Nikola Hofmanova (Aut) 6-3 7-5.

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