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 â€“ 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 â€“ 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 â€“ 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 … ÂŁ10,000.00!!!

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 ÂŁ2.95.

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 ÂŁ10,000.

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 fiancĂ© 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 Sånchez (Missing: Garbiñe Muguruza, Carlå Suårez 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.