Unseeded Ostapenko takes Roland Garros

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ROLAND GARROS – That sound you heard in Paris’s 16th arrondissement over the last fortnight was the sound of a whirling dervish mowing down a field of 128 women aspiring to win the French Open.

The 2017 women’s singles champion turned 20 two days ago, is unseeded, oblivious, insouciant – and the first Latvian ever to win a major title.

Jelena Ostapenko defeated No. 3 seed Simona Halep of Romania 4-6, 6-4, 6-3 in a final that had plenty of twists and turns, and a whole lot at stake for the runner-up.

“I’m really happy to win here. I think I’m still – I still cannot believe it, because it was my dream and now it came true. I think I’m going to only understand that in maybe couple of days or couple of weeks,” Ostapenko said.

Fighting all the way 

For the young champion, it looked on the outside like another day at the office. It’s an attitude she brought to every one of her seven matches over the last two weeks, especially the ones in which she was in trouble.

Down a set in the fourth round against 2010 runner-up Samantha Stosur, Ostapenko pulled it off. In the quarter-finals against former No. 1 Caroline Wozniacki – a match interrupted three times by rain, once overnight – she lost the first five games of the match. When she’d regained the momentum in the second set, she had all night to think about it. But when the returned the next day she picked right up where she left off.

Against 28-year-old Timea Bacsinszky in the semi-finals, Ostapenko had her typical ups and downs. But if there was a thread woven through her last few matches, it was the abject lack of winners by her opponents. As they constructed points and waited for the opportunity to hit those winners, she jumped the line and made it happen herself – or not. But mostly, she did.

In the crucial moments, she really did.

Fun with hardware and coach Anabel Medina Garrigues in the locker room after Jelena Ostapenko’s win (Corinne Dubreuil/FFT)

Ostapenko a breath of fresh air

It had been a decade since there was a teenager in the semi-finals here, which Ostapenko was until Thursday, when she turned 20. That was Ana Ivanovic, whose retirement ceremony came between the two women’s semi-finals on Thursday. Ivanovic won it as well.

Ostapenko
Simona Halep seemed to have it in the bag. But she couldn’t close the deal against Jelena Ostapenko in the French Open women’s final.

How refreshing it was, to see that youthful energy. In a game in which the major players no longer are teenaged prodigies – and even the young 20-somethings act as though the weight of the world is on their shoulders – it’s gone missing.

So often in recent years, winning has seemed like a relief rather than a thrill to the victors.

Ostapenko harkens back to the early days of Monica Seles and Jennifer Capriati, in a good way.

As it happens, the last player to come back from a set down and win in a French Open women’s final was … Capriati, in 2001.

Pressure building for Halep

At 25, Halep was the more experienced and by consensus the superior clay-court player.

Had she won the match she not only would have earned her first Grand Slam title, she also would have become the No. 1 player in the world.

Was it too much to handle? Maybe it was. Especially as Halep was the clear favourite. 

When the only thing standing in the way of your dreams is an inexperienced, unseeded opponent, you absolutely have to seize that day. There was no bigger pressure than the pressure she was putting on herself.

Halep had it. She was up a set and 3-0, with a couple of opportunities to make it 4-0 and perhaps run away with it. She couldn’t do it.

“I was losing 6-4, 3-0, and then in my mind I was just, I’m just going to enjoy the match, and I will try to fight until the last point. And then I stayed aggressive and the match turned my way,” Ostapenko said. “I think Simona, maybe she felt a little bit nervous because she had a lot of pressure. That also helped me. But also in the deciding moments, I think I played pretty well in those games. And was couple of deciding games and then the match turned the other way.”

Perhaps the turning point was a break point at 3-3 in the third set. A backhand Ostapenko was trying to shoot down the line appeared to be going way wide – until it hit the top of the net, bounced up, changed trajectory and landed so short inside the court, Halep had no chance to catch up to it. 

Met every challenge – until the last

The Romanian had done plenty of fighting of her own during the two weeks, especially after a nasty ankle injury in Rome put her participation in doubt before the tournament even began.

She was done and dusted against No. 5 seed Elina Svitolina in the quarter-finals, down a set and 5-1 before she turned it around and won the match 6-0 in the third.

Halep had been here once before; she lost to Maria Sharapova in the 2014 final. “This one hurts a lot maybe because I am more -– I realize more what is happening. Three years ago was something new, so now I know. Hurts a lot, and I need time just to – I don’t know. To go away.”

The Romanian made an astonishing admission on court during the trophy ceremony.

“I can say that I was sick in the stomach before playing this final. Maybe I wasn’t ready to win it. But I want to. It’s my dream,” she said.

To feel that uncertainty is one thing. To admit it so publicly is another. And in Halep’s doubt is mirrored similar doubt from so many of the other top women in the game right now.

There was no Serena Williams on court in Paris. No Maria Sharapova. A defending champion in Garbiñe Muguruza who appeared nowhere near emotionally ready to give her title defence a real shot. You had a No. 1, Angelique Kerber, who went out so meekly to Russia’s Ekaterina Makarova in the first round it was as though she had never even been here.

Ostapenko
(Corinne Dubreuil/FFT)

As much as there has been talk in recent years of major titles being up for grabs, that was literally true at this French Open. And it seemed no one was prepared to take that opportunity and wrestle it into submission.

It almost seemed, at times, that it was a matter of who wasn’t going to lose it, more than someone actually winning it.

There for the taking

The likes of Kerber, Halep, Muguruza, Wozniacki, Radwanska and many more have a lot of scar tissue built up already. With Williams’ sporadic presence, Azarenka’s maternity break and Sharapova’s absence over the last 18 months, it’s been right there for all of them.

Perhaps, in a sense, Serena’s sabbatical has hurt more than it helped. When she was around, there was always the sense of, well, Serena is the best player in the world. If I don’t win a Slam, it’s pretty understandable.

Once that barrier was removed, the true test began. So far, it’s been a tough test to pass.

So, in hindsight, it almost makes sense that Ostapenko, who appears impervious to pressure in this early blush of her career, was there in the end. She wasn’t afraid to lose it. So she went out and won it.

That aggressive attitude seems very much be part of her makeup. “I think nobody (taught) me. It’s just the way I play. And also I think my character is like that. So I want to really hit the ball (hard),” she said. 

This is her first tournament title of any kind at the top level – WTA Tour, or Grand Slam. Perhaps it was predestined; the last time this happened was in 1997, when Gustavo Kuerten of Brazil, ranked No. 66, did the very same thing.

The day he did it – June 8, 1997 – Ostapenko was born.

A loss that stings

For Halep, it has to be a bitter pill. Her tune-up season went about as well as it could; this French Open was hers to win.

Except, perhaps she didn’t believe it was her time. And if she didn’t believe it this week, you wonder when she will believe it again.

“She played really well, all the credit. She was hitting very strong. At some point I was like a spectator on court. She deserved to win. … It’s a tough moment for me, but it’s gonna go away, I hope, with the time,” Halep said.  “I don’t believe I did something wrong – too wrong – today. … At least I can say I was there, I was close, but again, I lost it.

“Cannot change anything, so I just have to look forward.”

Battle for WTA No. 1 is on

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ROLAND GARROS – It’s been a long time since a battle for No. 1 on the women’s circuit didn’t involve someone named Serena.

But at long last, in Williams’ absence, there are challengers to the spot that for a couple of years has belonged to the consistent Angelique Kerber.

It’s not that Kerber hasn’t fully deserved to be ranked No. 1. The computer doesn’t lie. But if Williams – inarguably the best female player on the planet – isn’t going to be there, there should at least be a knockdown, drag out battle to replace her.

So far, that hasn’t happened. It’s as though it took the pressure off for Williams to be around, because there was no downside to not being able to overtake her. But as Williams played very little in 2016, and even less in 2017, the opening has been there. 

Kerber has been the only one so far to step up and take it.

As of Thursday, though, the battle is on. If Karolina Pliskova defeats Simona Halep to reach her first French Open final, she will be the new No. 1 next Monday.

If Halep beats her, and goes on to win the title, she would become No. 1.

Kerber helped make all this possible by going down in the first round to Ekaterina Makarova in Paris. That, and other recent early exits, dropped her once unassailable points total to being within reach of the rest.

How will that No. 1 pressure affect this semi-final? We’ll soon find out.

The other women’s semifinal Thursday will see No. 30 seed Timea Bascinszky take on unseeded Jelena Ostapenko of Latvia. That’s the birthday matchup; Bacsinszky turns 28 on the day, while Ostapenko turns 20.

“Coming into this tournament, there were a few people who told me, you have to be in the final to be No. 1. I was, like, there is no chance I make final here,” Pliskova said after her quarterfinal win over Caroline Garcia of France Wednesday.

Pliskova was not unaware of the stakes, though. She also was aware that the same prize is also at stake for her opponent.

“Now it’s close, but it’s close and it’s far, as well, because I’m playing against somebody who I would say one of the best girls on clay,” she said. “It’s not like you’re going to get it for free, you know. She’s playing also for being world No. 1, what I know, I think.”

Simona Halep – will the ankle be ready?

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ROLAND GARROS – The women’s side in these days leading up to Sunday’s French Open start is all about the case of the sprained ankles.

The most crucial one, with all due respect to Genie Bouchard, is that of Simona Halep.

With her title in Madrid, and the finals appearance in Rome that was sabotaged by the ankle sprain, she’s clearly a favorite to take the title on form.

The big question is whether the ankle will allow Halep to win her first career Grand Slam title.

Halep was out on Court Suzanne Lenglen Thursday. If we had to rank them, we’d have to say Halep’s ankle is in better shape than that of Bouchard. That’s based on the extent to which the Romanian was moving, which was at a slightly more aggressive level.

She wasn’t pushing it hard, though. 

Here’s what she looked like out there.

Bouchard likely to make RG decision Saturday

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ROLAND GARROS – On the plus side, Genie Bouchard got out onto the practice court Wednesday.

She had been scheduled to hit in the small annexe courts, up near the Bois de Boulogne. But she ended up on Court Suzanne Lenglen in the middle of the qualifying zone. So some fans did get to see her hit.

A couple of the young boys waiting for Richard Gasquet to take the court after her weren’t too impressed. They had no clue who she was. They kept asking her, “Madame, une balle s’il vous plaît!” (Ma’am, give us a ball, please!)

Hitting was about all Bouchard did. There was no running, and Bouchard was careful not to land on or push off much with the injured right ankle.

As is the case with Simona Halep, who has an injury to the same right ankle, she lands on her left foot after the serve. So both were able to hit serves Wednesday, but neither moved a whole lot.

Here’s what it looked like:

The Canadian was in remarkably good spirits considering she’s in a race against the clock to be fit enough to play in the second Grand Slam tournament of the season.

It’s always better to laugh even when you might feel like crying – a good way to get through life’s trials.

Decision time looms

Bouchard is continuing with intensive treatment on the ankle. She’s likely to make the decision whether or not to give it a go on Saturday.

The singles draws will be made Friday. So that means she may be in the women’s singles draw whether or not she plays. Because she’s unseeded, even if she does pull out afterwards, it won’t mean the draw will have to be reshuffled.

Halep was one of the favourites to win the title before the ankle injury suffered during the singles final in Rome last week. She’ll be the No. 3 seed. Should she decide not to play, they would have to re-do the seeds and shuffle things around if she makes the call later than Friday morning.

These two are not the only players who have question marks around them as the tournament gets closer.

After losing in Lyon Wednesday, Juan Martin del Potro said back and shoulder pains have him pondering the possibility of missing the French Open – again.

With his series of wrist surgeries, and his decision to skip the clay-court swing a year ago as he was coming back to action, the 2009 US Open champion hasn’t played at Roland Garros since … 2012.

Hard to believe.

Everyone’s previews and predictions are going to have to wait until all these question marks become exclamation points. Otherwise, they might be out of date before the tournament even begins.

Ankle issue may keep Halep out of RG

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ROLAND GARROS – Genie Bouchard isn’t the only player whose presence at this year’s French Open is in doubt because of an ankle injury.

Simona Halep, the form player coming in after a title in Madrid and a final in Rome, also is a big question mark.

On her Instagram, the Romanian says the doctors tell her she is “50-50” after tearing a ligament in her ankle. Halep took a tumble during the final against Elina Svitolina. Although she kept playing, it was clear she had suffered an injury.

She arrived in Paris early for treatment, as did Bouchard, who turned her ankle during a practice session in Nürnberg. She had to withdraw from the tournament on Monday.

No details on the grade of Halep’s ankle sprain, or what the exact definition of “torn” is. But Halep said there was improvement since Sunday.

Halep

For Bouchard, there reportedly hasn’t been much improvement in the last few days.

Bouchard

Unless things take a turn for the worse, it’s likely both will wait until the last minute to make a final decision. 

Kvitova to announce Friday

Meanwhile, Petra Kvitova will hold a press conference Friday. She will announce whether she will participate in this year’s French Open.

Kvitova had all the ligaments in the fingers of her left hand (her hitting hand) damaged after a terrifying home invasion last December. She had surgery and was optimistic she would be back for Wimbledon. She was hopeful, perhaps on the wishful-thinking side, that she might be able to play in Paris.

The players who are seeded fairly high in the French Open qualifying, who manage to get through their second-round matches, certainly are going to be watching this attentively. There look to be several lucky-loser spots opening up in the main draw in the next few days.

Defiant Tiriac adds friend Nastase to Madrid ceremony

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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.

Tiriac

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?”

Romanian royalty

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.

Tiriac

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.

Dimitrov, Halep win Tie Break Tens in Madrid

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One thing’s for sure, it’s not difficult to get a bunch of tennis players together for an evening when winning a few 10-point tie breaks will earn you $250,000.

To kick off the Madrid Open, the Masters 1000 / Premier Mandatory joint event that begins Friday with the first round of women’s qualifying, the tournament hosted a Tie Breaks Tens event . 

A fine roster was assembled. Among the luminaries were Maria Sharapova, Stan Wawrinka, Simona Halep, Tomas Berdych, Madison Keys, Jack Sock, Grigor Dimitrov and more.

At the end of the night, Halep and Dimitrov had won their respective titles – and $250,000 apiece. It was announced that both would donate $50,000 of that to the tournament sponsor’s charity, which combats domestic violence. 

It’s an eight-player, knockout format, winner take all. One 10-point super tiebreak for the right to advance. Three wins gets you the money.

Big guns down early

Sharapova and Wawrinka didn’t last long.

The returning Russian was eliminated in the first round by Puerto Rico’s Monica Puig. Wawrinka flamed out to Spaniard Feliciano Lopez, 10-1. Keys, who is returning to action for the first time since losing to Shelby Rogers in the first round of Charleston a month ago, lost her first round 12-10 to Svetlana Kuznetsova.

“I was so nervous,” said Dimitrov, who defeated Lopez 10-7 in the final. “I think the format does that – I was sweating a lot in that first match. When it came to crunch time it was important to be strong and in the final I was.”

In an interview after the final, Lopez was pretty honest about the reality of the experience, before he caught himself and heaped it with praise. As he pointed out, you’re there for about four hours. You play 10 minutes or so, and then you have to sit around for an hour or more, cool down, warm up again, and then you get to play another 10 minutes. If you win, you do it again.

The ATP and WTA Tours need to adopt this graphic for their doubles match tie breaks – immediately.

It’s a completely different routine than these finely-tuned athletes are accustomed to, pretty tough on the body – especially with a big tournament coming up.

Players in relaxed atmosphere – talking!!

The fun part for those watching on TV (ESPN3 in the U.S. decided to carry it at the last minute) is seeing all those big names in one place, at one time. More than that, you actually see them … interacting with each other.

Of particularly prurient interest were Sharapova and Dimitrov, who had a very serious romance a few years ago. They appeared to be getting along like a house afire.

There clearly is some big money behind this concept, because they’re promoting it in a top-class way. And that’s a ton of prize money for one night.

tie break
Want the same plate Simona Halep got Thursday night? It can be yours for the very reasonable sum of … £10,000.00!!!

Two separate companies (one called “MTB Ventures”, the other “Lionyxeye”) have as managing director a 45-year-old Londoner from South Africa named David Millner, referred to in the prospectus as an “investor and tennis enthusiast”.  Also involved are former ATP CMO and Tour Finals chairman Phil Anderton, former WTA Tour marketing exec Sophie Goldschmidt, BBC tennis journalist David Law, and John McEnroe.

There is merchandise available for sale. We like the stress ball for £2.95.

And did you think the silver plates awarded to Dimitrov and Halep kind of looked like one of those long, skinny balloons twisted into the shape of a dog?

Well, that’s exactly what they were.

You can get the plate on the website, too. For a very reasonable £10,000.

Mommy Serena: your new No. 1

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It’s a temporary anomaly, the result of a 52-week ranking system that rewards big performances and lets them hang around awhile.

But today, April 24, 2017, Serena Williams is once again is the No. 1-ranked player on the WTA Tour.

The 35-year-old, who announced (sort of) that she is expecting her first child with fiancé Alexis Ohanian last week, hasn’t played since the Australian Open in January. Obviously, she won’t play any more this season.

Current No. 2 Angelique Kerber of Germany had the ranking points from her title a year ago in Stuttgart fall off the computer Monday. She will earn at least some of them back as the Stuttgart tournament is played this week.

After a first-round bye in the 28-player draw, the 29-year-old will re-take the top spot – if she wins two matches and reaches the semi-finals.

Don’t we all Google search “My name number one” from time to time? Serena knows what’s going down. (Snapchat)

If she doesn’t do it this week, Kerber is perfectly positioned to do it during the rest of the clay-court season. A year ago, she lost to Barbora Strycova in the first round of Madrid, Eugenie Bouchard in the first round in Rome, and Kiki Bertens in the first round at the French Open.

Anything she does will improve on that, and should give her a nice cushion before she has to defend her 2016 Wimbledon final.

Is anyone else even close?

The next player in line is Karolina Pliskova, but she’s nearly 1,000 points behind Kerber. The 25-year-old Czech has room to move during the clay-court season, but she is defending more than 650 points during the grass-court swing.

After that? Dominika Cibulkova (no. 4) and Simona Halep (No. 5) are another 1,000 points behind. Halep posted big results last spring and summer, including victories at both Madrid and Montreal. That’s nearly 2,000 points right there, in two events, that she must defend just to stay where she is. Because of that, the Romanian is an unlikely candidate to make a move.

Cibulkova, who withdrew from Stuttgart with an injury sustained in practice, also has significant results from 2016 to match: a final in Madrid, a win at Eastbourne on grass, a quarter-final at Wimbledon.

One horse race, for now

What we’re saying is that, for the foreseeable future, Kerber will have a lock on the top spot.

With the best female player in the world now officially on the “inactive list”, the best thing that could happen in the women’s game would be a dogged battle for the No. 1 spot she is vacating. That won’t happen.

No doubt the WTA Tour will try its best to promote its next generation of players. Good luck in that quest. In practical terms, the narrative queue is ready and waiting for the returns of two former champions with motivation to burn: Maria Sharapova and Victoria Azarenka.

There’s no way either will challenge for No. 1. But they will supply the most compelling storylines over the next few months – unless someone really steps up.

Romania wins, but tennis loses

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In the aftermath of the Ilie Năstase Fed Cup fiasco Saturday in Constanta, Romania, his now-former charges won their tie against Great Britain on Sunday.

Tennis, especially women’s tennis, didn’t win.

Năstase’s players didn’t need him. With veteran Monica Niculescu subbing in as captain, Simona Halep easily disposed of Johanna Konta 6-1, 6-3. Irina-Camela Begu substituted for Sorana Cirstea for the fourth rubber and clinched it against Heather Watson.

Romania remains in World Group II for the 2018 edition of Fed Cup. Despite the presence of a top-10 player in Konta, the Brits again must go down to the European zonal competition and try to get back for another crack at a playoff tie.

The top-ranked singles player on the Romanian squad in the absence of Halep, Begu wasn’t in the lineup for the first day of the Năstase-led tie in Belgium in February. Romania lost both matches. When Begu came in on the Sunday, she lost a tough one and Romania was defeated.

This time, she got a shot and made the most of it.

Năstase defiant

Năstase was unrepentant in what the British tabloid the Mirror called an exclusive interview. “Remember I was world number one. If you throw someone out who was a world number one – it’s not good for tennis,” he said.

It’s the Mirror, so take it for what it’s worth.

British captain Anne Keothavong’s reaction to some flowers she received said it all.

Meanwhile …

Apparently if you’re a legend, you don’t need a fake ID to get in. It doesn’t appear Năstase was able to get into the arena, though. After that, the ITF issued a statement.

The “ITF International Adjudication Panel” issued the 70-year-old a provisional suspension for breaching the “Fed Cup Welfare Policy.” Normally, per the rules in the case of such a breach, the “covered person” has 10 days to submit any material relevant to their case before it goes to the Adjudication panel. That clearly was fast-tracked in this case.

Per the statement, “Năstase may not participate in the Fed Cup in any capacity with immediate effect, and shall be denied access to, and accreditation for, any ITF event including Fed Cup. The investigation by the Internal Adjudication Panel is ongoing. No further comment will be made during the investigation.”

The suspension may well mean Năstase won’t be able to go to the French Open or Wimbledon, to wear one of his various military uniforms. From the rules, it seems the worst thing that can happen to him is to make that access denial permanent.

Players pay the price

His players, especially Cirstea and Halep, got their share of criticism over the weekend even though the circumstances were hardly of their own creation.

Cirstea was candid in the wake of her victory Saturday, which included a long break after Năstase reportedly reduced opponent Konta to tears.

She was off-base in some aspects, something Konta later ascribed to her opponent not having all the facts. The officials seemed unable to tell her what she needed to know to be able to keep her focus on her job – to try to win a tennis match for her country.

Nastase
Năstase sat with Halep for a brief time after he was told to leave the court. It didn’t last long.

Her point about understanding if Romania were defaulted at 2-1 in the set was counterbalanced by her suspicions of why Konta’s tears began only a game later. Her statements on some of the nasty insults from hostile Fed Cup crowds were eye-opening.

The Guardian reported Konta had received some unsettling news just before the tie, which might have contributed to her emotional state.

Halep front and center

Halep was in the eye of the storm more than any other because of her position as Romania’s top player. The tie was being played in her hometown, as well.

She sat with Năstase when he was first asked to leave the captain’s chair. After he was kicked out of the stadium altogether, she took the microphone and addressed the crowd.

And she was criticized for that.

Further complicating Halep’s position is that Năstase claims she had some input into his selection as captain last October.

Năstase said that longtime friend and countryman Ion Tiriac, the billionaire who owns this week’s joint WTA-ATP event in Madrid, was the connection. “He asked me to do this. I think he talked with Simona,” Năstase told the Romanian media at the time. Tiriac and Romanian federation president George Cosac are close allies. It seems like quite the cabal, doesn’t it?

Tiriac has been a major supporter of Halep’s tennis. At times, he has been a regular presence although Halep said in an interview with Forbes Magazine that he never assisted her financially. She won her first big title at his Madrid event.

To expect the Romanian players to do anything but defend their country, and defend a legendary sportsman in their country, is to expect too much.

There was only one bad guy in this scenario. And apparently he couldn’t care less.

Fed Cup weekend – Preview

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There are a lot of big names missing this weekend (why should the women be any different than the men, when it comes down to it). But the Fed Cup weekend still will have good tennis on offer.

No. 2 France, No. 3 Germany and No. 4 Netherlands all were eliminated in the first round. So the top-ranked Czechs (without any of the players who earned their country that top rank) are the only seeded squad left among the four.

Unfortunately, the ITF’s Davis Cup/Fed Cup live stream service went dark at the end of 2016, just as the WTA Tour’s service did. The contract with Perform expired, an ITF spokesperson told Tennis.Life, and they haven’t managed to get a replacement up yet. The one-time $60 (US) annual payment entitled viewers to all the Davis Cup World Group and playoff ties, and nearly all of the Fed Cup World Group I and II. It was a great service. Unfortunately now, to see these matches, it’s a scramble. In Canada, for example, the Canada-Kazakhstan tie isn’t even being shown on Sportsnet, the network that owns the Davis Cup/Fed Cup broadcast rights. They are airing it on their streaming service.

The live scoring page is here.

World Group I semifinals

Belarus (1) vs. Switzerland (1)
Venue: Chizhovka Arena, Minsk, Belarus
Surface: Hard, Indoor
Start times: 6 a.m. EDT (Saturday); 5 a.m. EDT (Sunday)

Here are the nominations. Click on them to access the Fed Cup page with all the information you’ll need.

Missing for Belarus, not unexpectedly given she hasn’t yet returned from maternity leave, is Victoria Azarenka. But Azarenka is on hand to cheer on her teammates this weekend in Minsk.

Olga Govortsova, a veteran, has to be riding a wave of confidence after winning the $80,000 ITF event in Florida last week. She didn’t get the call, though. Aryna Sabalenka, 18, will play No. 2 singles on Saturday.

USA (1) vs. [1] CZE (1)
Venue: Saddlebrook Resort, Florida, USA
Surface: Clay, Outdoor
Start times: Noon EDT (Saturday); 11 a.m. EDT (Sunday)

Here are the nominations. Click on them to access the Fed Cup page with all the information you’ll need.

Missing for the U.S.: Venus and Serena Williams, Madison Keys
Missing for the Czechs: Petra Kvitova, Karolina Pliskova, Barbora Strycova and Lucie Hradecka – the entire squad that defeated the French to win the Fed Cup last fall.

Marketa Vondrousova, the 17-year-old who won her first WTA Tour title in Biel, Switzerland last week, was tapped to play No. 2 singles – at least on Saturday. She’s making her Fed Cup debut.

The Americans, even without the big guns, appear to be a close-knit team – all the fun they’re having, chronicled by the USTA on its social media channels, makes them look like a model of togetherness in the context of modern women’s tennis.

World Group I Playoffs

[1] France (2) vs. Spain (0)
Halle André Vacheresse
Roanne, France
Indoor clay

France: Kristina Mladenovic, Alizé Cornet, Pauline Parmentier, Amandine Hesse (Missing: Caroline Garcia, Océane Dodin. Read this for more)

Spain: Sara Sorribes Tormo, Silvia Soler Espinosa, Olga Saez Larra, Maria José Martínez Sánchez (Missing: Garbiñe Muguruza, Carlá Suárez Navaro, Lara Arruabarrena)

[2] Russia (1) vs. Belgium (1) 
Small Sports Arena “Luzhniki”
Moscow, Russia
Indoor clay

Russia: Elena Vesnina, Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, Daria Kasatkina, Anna Blinkova

Belgium: Elise Mertens, Maryna Zanevska (A Polish player, newly Belgian), Alison Van Uytvanck, An-Sophie Mestach (Missing: Kirsten Flipkens)

[3] Germany (2) vs. Ukraine (0)
Porsche Arena
Stuttgart, Germany
Indoor clay

The tie will be played at the Porsche Arena, where in theory the qualifying for next week’s WTA Tour Premier event should be going on. At least the players involved in both will get used to the stadium court. The first round of Stuttgart qualifying will take place on the two supplementary courts next door in the Hanns-Martin Schleyer-Halle. Eight matches per court, per day. The same thing occurred when Germany played Serbia in a Fed Cup playoff tie in 2013.

Fed Cup

Germany: Angelique Kerber, Laura Siegemund, Julia Goerges, Karina Witthoeft (Missing: Andrea Petkovic, Annika Beck)

Ukraine: Elina Svitolina, Lesia Tsurenko, Olga Savchuk, Nadiia Kichenok

[4] Netherlands (1) vs. Slovakia (1)
AEGON Arena
Bratislava, Slovakia
Indoor clay

Netherlands: Kiki Bertens, Richel Hogenkamp, Cindy Burger, Arantxa Rus (Missing: Michaella Krajicek)

Slovakia: Kristina Kucova, Jana Cepelova, Rebecca Sramkova, Daniela Hantuchova (Missing: Dominika Cibulkova)

World Group II Playoffs

[1] Italy (2) vs. Chinese Taipei (0)
Circolo Tennis Barletta
Barletta, Italy
Outdoor clay

Italy: Sara Errani, Jasmine Paolini, Martina Trevisan, Camilla Rosatello (Missing: Roberta Vinci, Camila Giorgi, Francesca Schiavone)

Chinese Taipei: Ya-Hsuan Lee, Chieh-Yu Hsu, Chia-Jung Chuang , Ching-Wen Hsu (Missing: Yung-Jan Chan, Hao-Ching Chan, Hsieh Su-Wei)

[2] Romania (1) vs. Great Britain (1)
Tenis Club IDU
Constanta, Romania
Outdoor clay

Constanta, on the Black Sea, is Simona Halep’s hometown. The start time for Saturday’s matches was pushed back an hour, announced Friday, because of tough weather in the area. (At 5 a.m. Saturday there, the temperature was 2C (minus-3 with the wind chill. Brrr.)

Romania: Simona Halep, Irina-Camelia Begu, Sorana Cirstea, Monica Niculescu

Great Britain: Johanna Konta, Heather Watson, Laura Robson, Jocelyn Rae (Missing: Naomi Broady)

[3] Australia (2) vs. Serbia (0)
Kristalna Dvorana Sports Hall
Zrenjanin, Serbia
Indoor hard

Australia: Daria Gavrilova, Ashleigh Barty, Destanee Aiava, Casey Dellacqua (Missing: Samantha Stosur)

Serbia: Aleksandra Krunic, Nina Stojanovic, Ivana Jorovic, Dejana Radanaovic (Missing: Jelena Jankovic)

[4] Canada (1) vs. Kazakhstan (1)
Uniprix Stadium
Montreal, Quebec
Indoor hard

Canada: Françoise Abanda, Bianca Andreescu, Katherine Sebov, Gabriela Dabrowski (Missing: Genie Bouchard, Aleksandra Wozniak)

Kazakhstan: Yulia Putintseva, Yaroslava Shvedova, Galina Voskoboeva, Kamila Kerimbayeva.

 

Also going on this week are the Group II Europe/Africa playoffs, in Siauliai, Lithuania.