The International Tennis Federation, Wimbledon and the French Open sent a clear message that his disgraced lifelong friend Ilie Nastase is persona non grata in tennis right now.
But Ion Tiriac was having none of it.
That’s the thing about being a multi-gazillionaire. You don’t have to let anyone tell you what to do, even when the right thing to do is a no-brainer.
The tone-deaf Mutua Madrid Open tournament owner decided his friend Nastase would be part of the trophy ceremony when their fellow Romanian, Simona Halep, defended her women’s singles title Saturday night.
At least, we have to assume it came from Tiriac. It’s unlikely anyone else in the organization would make that kind of call.
Optics couldn’t be worse for the WTA
And so there Nastase was, big as life, despite the WTA-run international television feed’s best efforts not to show him.
That the 70-year-old would put himself in a place where he didn’t belong, and wasn’t supposed to be, just speaks to the obliviousness that comes with being revered your entire life merely for playing a sport very well. That, and being 70 years old and not really giving a darn.
Tiriac made this call even though WTA Tour apparently revoked Nastase’s credential privileges while the now-infamous events during the Fed Cup tie in Constanta, Romania against Great Britain were being investigated.
Did you know the WTA had revoked his credential privileges?
Neither did we.
To make that common knowledge earlier in the game would have been a strong, necessary statement in support of the women that make up its organization, given how execrable Nastase’s treatment was of several its members last month during Fed Cup.
As well, it would have been a strong statement of support for its biggest star, Serena Williams, who received a personal dose of Nastase “love”.
Somehow, though, that credential revocation memo didn’t get much play, if there was a memo at all. The first most heard of it came with this statement, issued after it was all over on Saturday.
Nastase had been around the tournament all week as a guest of Tiriac, his friend of long standing and former partner in crime on the tennis court. Perhaps the WTA wasn’t watching. That’s always possible, given the tour’s matches still aren’t streamed online.
Or perhaps they did, and protested. And Tiriac replied, ‘My tournament, my guest. Whatcha gonna do about it?”
For the women’s final, Nastase sat with Tiriac in his loge. With them was Nadia Comaneci, another Romanian sporting icon. That she was there sitting next to him wasn’t a shock. As the premier sportswoman in her country, her denouncement of Nastase’s behaviour in Constanta was, well, tepid.
Sitting courtside for the final wasn’t enough, though. Nastase had to be front and centre during the trophy ceremony.
Clearly that must have been the gist of the extended conversation between Tiriac and Halep before the ceremony.
Perhaps he asked her if she was okay with it – perhaps. But what could she possibly say to the man who first gave her a wild card into this major tournament, who has been hugely supportive during her career, about a situation involving an icon in their country?
Uncomfortable spot for Halep
Maybe she was just fine with having him there. Who knows? But it put Halep in an awkward position – once again. Because her defense of Nastase after he did some pretty indefensible things during Fed Cup – in her hometown, no less – was awkward enough.
The tournament is a joint ATP-WTA event. So Tiriac easily could have his great friend around all week without technically running afoul of the WTA’s directive. Assuming that directive would have cut any ice with him at all.
Whether or not Halep wanted Nastase there is fairly moot. When your own organization refuses to credential someone – even your friend – the way take a stand against that directive is not to do something like this on such a public stage.
Great tennis overshadowed
One thing is certain: the presence of her embattled countryman, and her public embrace of him, completely overshadowed Halep’s shining moment.
Having Comaneci up there would have been Romanian representation enough, no? Assuming there needed to be any. The tournament took place in Spain.
Tiriac in the catbird’s seat
You wonder if Nastase would have been up there had Halep lost the final.
Probably not. Imagine if she had played Great Britain’s Johanna Konta in the final instead of France’s Kristina Mladenovic. Actually, that’s unimaginable.
The aftermath took the focus off what was an outstanding, hard-fought, high-quality women’s match at a tournament where crowds for the women’s matches are typically sparse. That included even this Saturday night finale; the Caja Majica was far from full.
Despite the more than $5.4 million in prize money on offer in Madrid, the women are often an afterthought – as is sadly the case at many of the joint ATP-WTA events.
Halep escapes potential sanction
There was one moment that could have proven very tricky. An annoyed Halep kicked her racquet away – and it glanced off one of the “ball men” running along the back of the court doing his job.
It was, potentially, a default-worthy offense. But Halep had a feckless umpire in Mariana Alves, who merely issued an unsportsmanlike conduct warning. Well, let’s call Alves practical; imagine how Tiriac and Nastase would have reacted had she defaulted their countrywoman.
One thing you know: it’s a lot less likely Tiriac would have defied the ATP Tour in a similar situation. And that’s a statement in itself. He can easily say to the WTA, “So, you don’t want my $5.4 million in prize money and this great platform to show off your product? Fine, go find it somewhere else – if you can.”
In the end, Tiriac is the one who had all the leverage here. And he used it.
What are they going to do to punish him for this “transgression”? Issue him a big fine? He could probably pull enough change from between the seat cushions in his Caja Majica office to cover it.
All in all, it was not one of the better days for the WTA in recent months. And that’s saying something.