Ana Konjuh, a US Open quarterfinalist at 19 and a former junior No. 1 who won the Eddie Herr/Orange Bowl combo and singles and doubles at the Australian Open within two months, is back and playing Fed Cup.
Currently No. 547, Konjuh played her first match since Wimbledon in St. Petersburg last week. She had played just four tournaments since the 2017 US Open, after having elbow surgery for the second time.
Her career high was No. 20, a month before her second surgery.
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?
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.
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.
“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).
The U.S. won’t have Serena, Venus, or Keys. The Czechs won’t have Pliskova, Strycova, Kvitova or Safarova. But the Americans have a strong – and, crucially, a cohesive group of supporting players who want to be there including Coco Vandeweghe and Bethanie Mattek-Sands. The Fed Cup semi-final tie in Tampa, Fla. this weekend, to be played on Har-Tru, will be the first time the U.S. has been in the final four since 2010; the U.S. last won the Fed Cup in 2000. Keys is practicing this week in Orlando, on the red clay.
You want drama? The French Tennis Federation usually will oblige.
Unlike in North America, tennis is a huge sport in France. This is the federation that live-streamed a formal debate between the three main candidates for its presidency last February. The most entrenched old-guard candidate, Bernard Giudicelli, won the job.
The latest drama is the Fed Cup team, a dysfunctional mess at the moment. And it feels as though three team mainstays are ganging up on their quiet, introverted teammate.
It all began back in February when France’s then-top player, Caroline Garcia, skipped a first-round Fed Cup tie against Switzerland (France lost 3-2). She had already stated after the loss in the final last fall that she wouldn’t play in 2017, choosing to focus on producing better results at the Grand Slam tournaments.
After the loss, the outspoken Kristina Mladenovic (with whom Garcia won the French Open women’s doubles title last year) had her say.
“The adventure is more beautiful with real people, people who have values, people who are ready to die on the court and to not be selfish,” Mladenovic said.
Later, she claimed she wasn’t referring to Garcia but to a younger player who expressed an abject lack of interest in playing for France (at least while the team was a tight-knit family under former captain Amélie Mauresmo): 20-year-old Océane Dodin. Uh-huh …
That successful doubles partnership quickly was history.
After defeat, comes bureaucracy
It gets complicated and rather bureaucratic after that. The men of French tennis are bouncing la balle to each other, deciding what the women should do.
We harken back to a time not so long ago when former No. 1 Mauresmo was the captain, and her players were eager to give her their all. They knew that whatever went on, she’d have their backs.
On March 14, Guidicelli said, the registered letter to Garcia was returned unclaimed.
Let the boys handle it
The new president played middleman to open lines of communication between Garcia’s ubiquitous father/coach Louis-Paul and captain Noah. They spoke by telephone March 14 then a week or so later met in person at the Miami Open. After all the menfolk chatted and patted each other’s backs and got it all straightened out (men are good at this, they tell us), things got soap opera-esque in a hurry.
April 5: Louis-Paul Garcia thanked Giudicelli for creating a “climate of confidence and respect”, and helpfully supplied information about how other Fed Cup teams in other countries operated.
April 8: After France’s Davis Cup squad defeated Great Britain in Rouen, captain Noah told Giudicelli he wanted to select Garcia for the upcoming relegation tie against Spain (which, it should be noted, will be without both Garbiñe Muguruza and Carla Suárez Navarro). Among the reasons stated by Noah were Garcia’s solid performance at a tournament in Monterrey the previous week, the fact that she had entered tournaments following the Fed Cup (namely, Stuttgart the following week), and the fact that they needed her and because the other players wanted her on the team.
At the end of that day, Giudicelli left a voicemail for Louis-Paul Garcia informing him of the decision.
April 9: A voicemail message was left from Louis-Paul Garcia, telling Giudicelli the issue wasn’t whether his daughter wanted to play Fed Cup or not; that was never in question (this came as a surprise to Giudicelli, he said, given Garcia’s statement late in 2016).
The father/coach provided some medical information about Garcia’s back issues and concluded, armed with all the relevant data, that it was up to Giudicelli to decide if it would be useful to select her.
April 10: Giudicelli informed the players he was submitting the list of four nominations to the FFT’s executive committee: Garcia, Mladenovic, Alizé Cornet and Pauline Parmentier.
He added the message was read at 8:39 a.m. by Louis-Paul Garcia, and at 11:27 a.m. by Caroline Garcia.
At 10:11 p.m. that night, Garcia issued a release stating a “painful inflammation of the sciatic nerve” she had been dealing with since last summer’s US Open was forcing her to withdraw from Stuttgart and that she wouldn’t return to action until May. No mention was made of the Fed Cup selection.
Reaction from her teammates was swift, and coordinated.
Despite that release, the federation announced nominations the next morning and still included Garcia. The Fed Cup website still lists her. But she won’t play.
Giudicelli is now playing hardball with Garcia, saying that refusing the nomination will have the federation’s disputes committee ruling on sanctions.
The highhandedness in this case would be amusing if it weren’t so sad. Legislating patriotism is highly overrated. A caveat in this case is that French players receive major financial support from the federation as they make their way up the ranks. It’s fair enough there be some obligations in return.
L’Équipe’s Sophie Dorgan met with Garcia at home in Lyon earlier this week. The story in the newspaper’s Saturday edition reveals a young woman who said the last few months have been the worst of her career. “I’m learning the painful way; that’s not the way I would have wanted it. It’s a hurtful and disappointing period,” she said.
Garcia said she got the impression her teammates think she’s faking the injury, even though the federation physician went to Lyon Wednesday to confirm the sciatic nerve problem.
She’s an easy target. Very much dominated by her father/coach, Garcia’s top-10 talent has always been held back by her emotions and her struggle to handle them.
After the tie against Switzerland, she said what she had to say; the federation knew her intention was not to play this year.
“After that, I read and listened to what’s being said, but I don’t want to get into any controversies. I do my thing,” she said. “They said they understood my decision, that I’d done a lot for the French team, that they respected the fact that I wanted to take some time. They knew I had a back problem.
“Then I read in the press that Noah says ‘there’s no point in forcing a player if she doesn’t want to play.’ There are misunderstandings, obviously. Plenty of them,” she added.
“Others really like to be there and cheer. Me, that’s not really my thing. It’s not that I prefer being the centre of attention but if I don’t play … Team spirit, the group, that can be important but for me, not so much. … It’s more important for me to concentrate on my singles career rather than on Fed Cup, because I don’t play. I’m not the French No. 1 or No. 2, I’m No. 4.”
She has a point, sort of. But we’re getting the sense she won’t lead the next generation of French women’s tennis. Amandine Hesse, who was on the team against Switzerland in February, will fill that spot.
(Information for this piece was gathered from l’Équipe newspaper, Agence-France Presse, Tennis-Actu and other French-language sources. Translation of quotes are my own; if you want to know more, run the hyperlinks through Google Translate to get the gist; search for more stories. Or drop a comment on this piece via Twitter, Facebook or Instagram and I’ll do my best to answer!)