The first order of business here is to ask the obvious question.
In what alternate universe did the men of a certain age who tend to decide these things within tennis federations think an old fool like Ilie Năstase was a good choice to captain a Fed Cup team?
Năstase, now 70, was the president of the Romanian Tennis Federation from 1997 to 2008. But his career as the country’s Davis Cup captain – that’s the menfolk – was brief. According to the Independent, the first tie of Năstase’s captaincy followed a similar pattern – minus the misogyny and inexcusably offensive comments.
He’s never been Davis Cup captain since. There has been little in his public history to indicate that he has evolved or gained any wisdom with age. It makes him somewhat of a sad figure. Most pertinently, it makes him inappropriate Fed Cup captain material. He never again captained the men. Why would they think he’s good enough for the women?
(Above is an excerpt from a piece in the Independent on May, 30, 1994, chronicling his excesses during that one year of his Davis Cup captaincy)
Long ago, Năstase was the greatest player in Romanian history. He was vulgar, tempestuous and offensive even then. Since then, he’s had four wives and by his own “conservative” estimate, some 800-900 conquests.
Early warning signs
Năstase was named captain last October. He took over for Alina Cercel-Tecsor, who seemed to be doing just fine but who of course didn’t have the same national profile. Really, does it surprise anyone that it took him a nanosecond to get himself in deep trouble?
In his first tie as captain in February, Năstase’s Belgian counterpart got the full treatment. Dominique Monami told Le Soir that he had insulted her. “That, as well, was a sign of weakness. I didn’t react. Năstase was there for his name, not his captain qualities, and we won,” she said.
On her blog, Monami elaborated. “I had a good introduction thanks to Ilie Năstase. A few minutes before, he told me he would never get married with me because I was not half of his age, so I used this as my introduction to break the ice, she wrote. “But we, Ilie and me, got along very well until the matches started. We got divorced a few times during the matches but finally we did shake hands.”
Captain Năstase was still on board for this weekend’s relegation tie against Great Britain.
The expected came quickly.
First press conference, first faux pas
First came the remark about Serena Williams which came in the background, in Romanian, as his players were asked about her baby news in English at the opening press conference. He later reportedly said on Romanian television that the remark he was joking and that if people didn’t get it, they lacked humor.
It wasn’t the only offensive remark Năstase has fired Williams’ way in the last few weeks. Late last month Năstase was quoted by a Romanian media outlet as, well, basically accusing Williams of doping, pointing to her strong, powerful physique as “evidence”.
The International Tennis Federation, which doesn’t much like to work weekends, issued this statement Friday.
“We are aware of alleged comments made by Romanian Captain Ilie Năstase and have begun an immediate investigation so that we have the full facts of the situation before taking further and appropriate action.”
(Worth noting here that Năstase is hardly the first male Fed Cup captain of a certain age to go that route; Russia’s Shamil Tarpischev blazed that trail . Other than a monetary fine and a toothless WTA ban – Tarpischev doesn’t coach a player on Tour – Tarpischev suffered few consequences. Sense a pattern?).
More faux pas
That tone-deafness continued, and intensified.
Năstase made inappropriate remarks to his opposite number, Great Britain captain Anne Keothavong, during the official dinner and again at the draw ceremony. He touched her inappropriately; he probably made her skin crawl. But in such a public place, as a British representative and ambassador of sorts in a foreign country, there was little option but for Keothavong to be diplomatic
Once the tie began on Saturday, with British No. 1 Jo Konta facing Romanian No. 2 Sorana Cirstea, it disintegrated into public embarrassment.
Was he done? Hardly. Năstase then hurled insults at a female British reporter on site to cover the tie as they were removing him from the premises.
My second run-in with Ilie Nastase. He then called me ugly off camera, just for good measure pic.twitter.com/pt2begOpTx
— Eleanor Crooks (@EleanorcrooksPA) April 22, 2017
It wasn’t his first offense with her.
Seems Nastase's job could be on the line. He's just come into the press room and repeatedly called me stupid
— Eleanor Crooks (@EleanorcrooksPA) April 22, 2017
Here’s what captain Keothavong and Konta said afterwards.
Came another statement from the ITF which said, in part:
“The ITF has launched an investigation into this matter as well as previous comments made by Mr. Năstase during the week.”
British captain Keothavong alluded to the incidents involving the Belgians Saturday.
“Given previous history – I don’t want to point direct blame at anyone, but maybe it could have bene pre-empted, given what happened in the previous time when Romania took on Belgium and the issues they faced there, which I was aware of,” she said. “It would have been tough for anyone to control, and maybe he shouldn’t have been in the position that he was, but I guess it’s no longer now.”
Hey, buddy, want to be captain?
Curious as to how this could happen – indeed, how Fed Cup captains are predominantly male? It’s currently about a 2-1 ratio, with the top groups skewing the number and some recent progress having been made.
Take a look at this chart of the 100 Fed Cup countries for which captaincy data was available. Look at how many female national federation presidents there currently are.
Countries pick Fed Cup captains in various ways. Often it can be a “consolation prize” for a man who didn’t get the Davis Cup job. Sometimes, as with Năstase, it’s a famous male player from that country (Yannick Noah, in France, is another example). Sometimes it’s someone who is close to the federation president. The women who are chosen often have far superior resumés as players on their tour than many of the men have in their playing careers on the men’s tour. They basically have to.
There’s a skill set to coaching women, an expertise you don’t necessarily have just because you married one. Too rarely, it doesn’t matter. That doesn’t mean men aren’t perfectly capable of making decisions for women. They are. It just means that in tennis, they too often don’t.
Many national honors have been bestowed upon Năstase by male peers in his demographic who revere his sporting achievements. He was made a knight of France’s “Légion d’honneur”. Romania’s highest civil award, the Star of Romania, was awarded for his service to sport. He has been an elected member of the Romanian Senate since 2012. Năstase holds the rank of Major-General in the Romanian military. That speaks to his long-ago achievements and his close ties with the men of power in his country – not the least of which is billionaire Ion Tiriac, his lifelong friend and doubles partner.
Fine, let him look ridiculous wearing the uniform. Trot him out for ceremonial occasions. Have him show up to open your new hospital wing. Hang with him in the bar as he tells stories about Jimmy Connors and the good old days.
The fine athletes on Romania’s Davis Cup team deserved better from the men in charge of their national sporting destiny. His actions, most unfairly, will reflect both on them and on the country they love.
Those men in suits failed them. They failed women’s sport, too. Given the numbers cited above, it’s probably not the last time.
(Tennis update: the tie between Romania and great Britain is tied at 1-1 going into Sunday. By the way. Năstase won’t be there).