Dead at 30: liver cancer claims Elena Baltacha

British tennis star and former women's number one Elena Baltacha has died of liver cancer at the age of 30, her family has said.

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Baltacha died peacefully at her home early yesterday morning surrounded by friends and family and with her husband Nino Severino at her side.

The sports star was diagnosed with the illness in January, just two months after retiring from tennis and only weeks after she married her long-term coach.

In a statement released by her family, Mr Severino said: "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."

Announcing her diagnosis in March, Baltacha vowed to fight the cancer "with everything I have".

The Lawn Tennis Association described her as a role model and said a "gaping hole" has been left in British tennis.

Iain Bates, head of women's tennis, said: "Today we have lost a shining light from the heart of British tennis - a true role model, a great competitor and a wonderful friend.

"We have so many special memories to cherish, but this leaves a gaping hole for everybody in both British and women's tennis, and words simply cannot express how saddened we are by this news.

"All our thoughts are with Nino and the rest of Elena's family. We will miss you Bal."

At the age of 19 she was diagnosed with primary sclerosing cholangitis, a chronic liver condition which affects the immune system.

She managed the condition throughout her career with medication and regular blood tests.

She went on to win 11 singles titles, reached the third round of Wimbledon in 2002 and the same stage of the Australian Open in 2005 and 2010.

The daughter of former Ipswich, St Mirren and Inverness footballer Sergei, she reached a career-high world ranking of 49 in 2010 and was British number one for 132 weeks between 2009 and 2012.

However, she struggled with injury and illness during her career, and ankle problems eventually forced her to retire.

In 2010 she launched 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 family statement said.

The previously announced 'Rally for Bally' - a fundraiser due to be played in June - will now go ahead in her memory.

Her childhood friend Andy Murray had committed to play in the event along with the likes of Martina Navratilova, and Tim Henman, and the money raised will go to the Elena Baltacha Academy of Tennis and the Royal Marsden Cancer Charity.

Her agent and friend Eleanor Preston said the fundraiser next month will be an opportunity to celebrate everything the tennis star achieved.

She told Sky News: "It was part of Bally's emotional make-up to be very stoic, she never once asked why me or why is this happening. She was incredibly strong and determined and that was who she was.

"She achieved an awful lot and in the context of having a serious liver condition that she struggled with since the age of 19. This is why she should be held up as a role model.

"She went through it all without the slightest bit of self pity or ego."

The current women's British number one Laura Robson paid tribute to her "teammate" on Twitter.

She said: "Impossibly sad. Forever a teammate. Sweet dreams Bally."

The US former world number one tennis player Billie Jean King, who won 20 titles at Wimbledon, also paid tribute to Baltacha on Twitter. "Saddened to hear about Elena Baltacha's passing. My fondest memory with Bally was sharing a wonderful chat when we met the Queen at Wimbledon," she said.

Paul Annacone, former men's head coach at the Lawn Tennis Association (LTA), tweeted: "Absolutely heartbreaking news to hear about Elena Baltacha. Bally, you will be sorely missed."

Martina Navratilova also paid tribute. She said: "Elena Baltacha was a great fighter on the tennis court.

"We as tennis players always worry about our bodies, trying to keep injuries at bay.

"But cancer - you can't prevent that and you can't rehab it either and no matter how much of a fighter you are, sometimes cancer wins.

"Elena was taken from the world much too soon - fighting to the end and we will miss her."

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