Elena Baltacha loses battle against liver cancer - Sunday 4th May 2014

04.05.2014 - On behalf of Nino Severino and the family of Elena Baltacha

It is with deepest sadness that we bring you the following news:

Elena Baltacha died in the early hours of Sunday 4th May of liver cancer. She was 30 years old. 

Elena, who always went by her nickname Bally, was diagnosed with liver cancer in mid-January 2014, two months after retiring from professional tennis and just a few weeks after marrying Nino Severino, her long-time coach and partner. Despite a determined battle against the disease, she passed away peacefully at home with her husband Nino by her side and surrounded by friends and family. 

Statement from Nino Severino, Elena’s husband:
“We are heartbroken beyond words at the loss of our beautiful, talented and determined Bally. She was an amazing person and she touched so many people with her inspirational spirit, her warmth and her kindness.” 

Before being struck down with illness, Elena put her heart and soul into the Elena Baltacha Academy of Tennis, which helps children from all backgrounds to learn and play tennis. All  those involved in running the Academy have pledged to carry on the work that she started.

The Rally Against Cancer - Rally For Bally will now be held in her memory on 15th June to raise funds jointly for Royal Marsden national cancer charity and Elena Baltacha Foundation, the charity attached to the Elena Baltacha Academy of Tennis. Andy Murray, Ross Hutchins, Martina Navratilova, Tim Henman, Greg Rusedski Jamie Murray, Jonny Marray, Anne Keothavong and Heather Watson are some of the names who will play in mixed doubles exhibition matches at the Aegon Championships at Queen’s Club, the Aegon Classic in Birmingham and the Aegon International in Eastbourne. 


On a personal note, it was a pleasure and a privilege to work with Bally and be her friend. We will miss her more than words can express.

Eleanor and Faye

If you have any questions, please email us via info@theemiliagroup.com or call Eleanor Preston (07967562040) or Faye Andrews (07788921066)

  • Elena Baltacha was born 14 August 1983 and died Sunday 4th May 2014
  • She represented Great Britain for 11 years in the international team competition Fed Cup
  • She was a proud member of Team GB at the London 2012 Olympic Games, playing singles and doubles
  • She spent 132 weeks as British No.1 in singles between Dec 2009 - June 2012
  • Her highest singles ranking was 49, achieved in September 2010
  • She won 11 ITF Pro Circuit singles titles
  • In Grand Slams, she reached the 3rd round of Wimbledon in 2002 and competed as recently as the 2013 Championships
  • She reached the 3rd round of the Australian Open in 2005 and 2010
  • Her last competitive tournament was the 2013 US Open
  • She is survived by her husband Nino (married 8th December 2013)
Bally with the girls from the Elena Baltacha Academy of Tennis

Elena Baltacha

The training ground of champions

We have been lucky enough to work across many different areas of tennis but none is quite as close to our hearts as our involvement with junior tennis. 

My first experience of junior tennis was watching the boys’ and girls’ matches at the 2001 Wimbledon Championships as part of what was then a new writing gig for the International Tennis Federation (ITF). From the start I found it fascinating to see these talented young players serve their apprenticeship and learn not just about how to prepare for and win matches but also how to function in the unique atmosphere of a major tennis tournament. 

Faye Andrews, my co-director at The Emilia Group, spent eight years immersed in junior tennis as part of a long-term, full-time role at the ITF so her bond with this aspect of the sport is arguably even stronger than mine. That’s why we were both delighted when we began working with Tennis Europe at the start of this year, an organisation of member nations across the continent which runs, among other things, the Tennis Europe Junior Tour.

The TEJT has a roster of events for players aged 12-under, 14-under and 16-under, including a season-ending Masters tournament for the top eight players in each category. It boast players from more than 100 countries across Europe, players with a range of personalities and backgrounds with one thing in common - the desire and potential to end up being the best tennis players on the planet. Rafael Nadal, Justine Henin, Caroline Wozniacki, Andy Murray, Victoria Azarenka, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and Maria Sharapova (to name just a few) were all in their shoes once; finding their way and growing up while playing Tennis Europe Junior Tour events. 

Rafel Nadal at a Tennis Europe junior tournament

That impressive list of former TEJT players is not limited to Europeans either; Guillermo Coria, Andy Roddick, Juan Martín Del Potro and Sania Mirza all got their first taste of European competition on the tour. If you go back further you get a sense of the role that Tennis Europe has played in nurturing some of the greatest players of all time, from Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic to Steffi Graf, Ivan Lendl, Boris Becker and Mats Wilander. 

Clockwise from top left: Novak Djokovic, Andy Murray,
Roger Federer, Boris Becker, Ivan Lendl, Stefan Edberg
As part of our role as media consultants to Tennis Europe, we have twice been lucky enough to attend the Tennis Europe Junior Masters, which is held in Reggio Calabria each October. On both occasions we have loved watching how the players bond and learn from each other, as well as from the educational sessions held during the tournament in which we deliver interactive media training. The ethos of the Tennis Europe Junior Tour is very much like that of the global ITF Junior Circuit (which includes the 18-under Junior Grand Slam events) in that it combines the highest levels of competition and professional-standard tournaments with a commitment to support players’ off-court development too. 

These junior tours are designed to mirror the ITF Pro Circuit, ATP and WTA Tours in every way, even down to having a cumulative ranking system and anti-doping programme. In every sense it is where champions learn their trade.  

Competition to commentary - making the transition

Former British No.1 Anne Keothavong recently swapped her tennis racket for a microphone as she announced her retirement and immediately joined BT Sport’s burgeoning team of expert TV commentators. 

I have known and worked with Anne for many years. She defied two horrible knee injuries (five years apart) to put together a career any athlete would be proud of. It included becoming - in 2009 - the first British woman in 16 years to break into the top 50; seven WTA Tour semi-finals and 12 straight years of representing Great Britain at Fed Cup. Along with Elena Baltacha, Anne set a successful precedent which paved the way for younger British players like Heather Watson and Laura Robson to flourish

As satisfying as it must be for a retiring professional athlete to have an impressive competitive CV and strong legacy, retiring at just 30 years old comes with challenges. The question of ‘what comes next?’ can hang over the last few years of an athletic career like a building thundercloud, bringing with it inherent pressures to perform before time runs out. That’s why it is important to prepare for the transition well ahead of time.

The options are there for most athletes, including coaching, sports management and public speaking, but the move into media is the most common. Those who enjoy the smoothest transition into a broadcasting career are the ones who have begun to build up their experience and contacts while they are still competing. 

We advise athletes to begin doing more media in the latter stages of their career for two reasons. Firstly, it builds their profile, engages their fans and gets them noticed. Secondly, it allows them to develop their media skills as they go along and use every interview they do as an opportunity to focus on putting some of the tips we’ve given them into practice. 

Broadcasting on TV and radio isn’t easy, however simple some of its more established commentators make it look, and there is no guarantee that an excellent sportsperson will instantly be a natural on the airwaves. I know from my own broadcasting experience that, like any other skill, it takes time to develop and build your confidence. Sue Barker, Andrew Castle, Mary Carillo, Gary Lineker are just some of the ex-athletes who have made hugely successful transitions from the field of play to studio or commentary box. I’m sure all of them of them would admit that it took time and plenty of hard work to find their voice - both literally and figuratively.

One of the keys to success is to become comfortable talking about other athletes and their performances, which is a huge part of sports media. We proactively seek out opportunities for our players to comment on events, news stories and generally establish themselves as a voice of reasoned opinion. This can also be done by tailoring the content of Twitter and Facebook to include more focus on the sport as a whole or emerging stories. 

As an athletes skills and confidence develop, we can then drive opportunities for them to be studio guests, take on guest commentary stints and do pieces to-camera. This nurturing process has to be managed around training and competition so that performance isn’t compromised. 

With the right advice and support, an athlete can then make a smooth transition from their first career to their second. 

If tennis's big four are boring, what's the solution?

Ernests Gulbis might not have lasted very long at this year’s Roland Garros but his declaration to L’Equipe that Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, Andy Murray and Novak Djokovic are ‘boring’ ignited a debate that looks set to rumble on all summer.

In the aftermath, Murray and Federer both admitted that they try to avoid controversy if they can, because the resulting brouhaha can prove to be a distraction. Media revels in conflict. Frankly, speaking as an ex-journalist, it makes the job a lot easier if there is a good row going on. You can simply cover the initial outburst and then spend the days that follow chasing up reactions and counter-claims - which is exactly what happened with the Gulbis story.

It’s hard to conceive just how all-consuming the business of trying to win tennis matches is until you spend time around athletes in competition and, personally, it took me leaving the press room to really appreciate it. While working with athletes, we’ve seen first hand how much a negative story or a controversy surrounding a player can weigh on a player’s mind and distract them, their coach and those around them. Not only does it cause anxiety in the camp and the sort of hassle which can effect performance, but it makes the player wary of doing interviews for fear of making things worse. A gun-shy player is, in turn, far more likely to give ‘boring’ answers and long-term that helps no-one.

The solution is for players to find a way of being themselves without being censored in a way which robs them of any charisma or sense of edgy competitiveness. Getting the right advice helps and that should be a good deal more detailed and nuanced than the oft-repeated: “Don’t say anything which might get you into trouble.” It should include guidance on getting your point across without being disrespectful to opponents or making yourself look bitter or like a moaner. And yes, players do have accept that if they express an opinion then some people will disagree with it. That means those advising them need to help them maintain a sense of perspective about what people write, say, think and tweet about them.

Federer put his finger on one of the biggest issues at play here, namely an overly formal and exhaustive cycle of press conferences, which leads to a saturation of quotes from the same small group of players. Press conference exchanges, involving large groups of journalists addressing a player usually sat behind an imposing desk and in the glare of TV lights, do not allow for much creative questioning or quirky answers.

"I understand it, our interviews are not always the most exciting. But that's not just our fault, that's the machine. After each match, we have to give press conferences,” Federer told Swiss reporters at Roland Garros. "But also you cannot say anything you do not like about something to someone without being totally criticised by many people. Therefore, everyone is very careful."

Of course some press conferences are necessary but tennis needs to explore other types of media interaction which allow players’ personalities to come across more. Murray in particular has suffered from the majority of his media, particularly early in his career, being conducted in the press conference format. He has grown more comfortable with them over the years but it is still clear from Murray’s body language and general demeanor that he does not particularly enjoy press conferences. With the TV camera focused on him alone, the Murray the public sees often appears grumpy and awkward. This is a shame given that, in small group interviews, Murray can be funny, eloquent, humble and engaging.

The ATP, which runs the men’s Tour, has recently been experimenting with the kind of mixed zones common at the Olympics. This could present a way forward, at least in the early rounds of tournaments, with press conferences brought in as additional access from, say, the quarter-finals onwards. Since players enter a mixed zone immediately post-match, it would free up players’ time and mean that media would not have to wait half an hour or longer to speak to a player.
With fewer press conferences to do, players could then be asked to do more individual or small group interviews which would encourage creative questions and allow players to express themselves more freely and help us all learn a little bit more about them.

Armstrong underestimates the opposition

Sportspeople as experienced as Lance Armstrong should never underestimate the opposition, yet the disgraced American cyclist and his advisors did just that ahead of last week’s sensational interview with Oprah Winfrey.

Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised, for Armstrong has made something of a habit of it. Even after being exposed, Armstrong showed scant respect for those who doggedly pursued him and refused to accept his repeated denials of doping. Instead he attempted to destroy them, allegedly labeling the whistle-blowing wife of a team-mate a “whore” and issuing threats and lawsuits as he went. 

The Sunday Times’ sportswriter David Walsh was Armstrong’s most ardent and relentless accuser, and deserves to be celebrated by every journalist on the planet for the way he stood up for his story, all the while standing up to one of the biggest names in world sport. Armstrong presented himself as a hero to cancer sufferers as well as an athlete beyond reproach, yet his defensiveness in interviews, aggressive answers to awkward questions and name-calling (“troll” was his favoured word for Walsh, usually accompanied by profanity) were not the responses of an innocent man. 

One of The Emilia Group’s areas of expertise is crisis communications and although it’s an area that corporations tend to focus more on than athletes and sports organisations, those with sponsorships, funding and reputations to lose in sport would do well to look at Armstrong as a reminder that preparing for the worst is always sensible - especially if you have something very big to hide.

It’s not clear what Armstrong thought he was going to gain from the Oprah interview, given that the damage to his reputation became largely irrepairable the moment USANA’s mind-blowing report on his (and his team’s) doping landed on newsdesks around the world. Having committed to the questionable PR tactic of talking to Oprah -  presumably in the hope that he win the public over or gain some sympathy for his plight - Armstrong then prepared poorly and showed little obvious sign of remorse or contrition.

An example of this was when Winfrey asked him if he felt he ought to apologise to Walsh, whom he had villified both professionally and personally (according to Walsh, Armstrong stooped as low as to openly criticise Walsh’s reaction to losing his 12-year-old son). “Do you owe David Walsh an apology, who for 13 years has pursued this story, who wrote for The Sunday Times, who has now written books about your story and about this entire process?” asked Winfrey. There was a long pause before Armstrong said, somewhat unconvincingly, “I’d apologise to David.” Not “Yes of course”; not even the word “sorry”, just a hypothetical and therefore non-committal “I would...”

It’s not clear what Armstrong was expecting from Winfrey - perhaps a teary cuddle and some soft-balled questions - but what he got was a world class grilling that often left him looking flustered and bounced into evasive answers. In Winfrey’s words, she prepared “like I was studying for a test” and, like Walsh before her, undid Armstrong through persistence and attention to detail.

Harry J Enten recently cited some interesting research in his Guardian blog which bears out the suspicion that Armstrong has only managed to hurt his own standing even more by opting to do the interview. In October 2012, at the height of the revelations about Armstrong, 48% of Americans told pollsters that he should not get credit for any of his career accomplishments - including a bronze Olympic medal and seven Tour de France winner’s medals. By early January 2012, pre-Oprah that figure had fallen to 37% showing that the public were easing up slightly.  However the first post-Oprah polls showed that only 21% of Americans polled thought Armstrong could restore his reputation. 

In a further poll, again unearthed by Enten, only 17% of those polled thought that Armstrong was being truthful in his answers to Oprah. That cynicism will only increase as the news cycle rumbles on and more and more people around the world become familiar with both his crimes against sport and the way Armstrong behaved to those who defied him while he denied.

For a man who loved winning so much that he was willing to set aside morality, fairness, honesty and decency, Armstrong sure looks like a loser now.