Ilie Nastase's racist Serena Williams comment casts cloud over Britain's Fed Cup D-day

Simon Briggs
Ilie Nastase provided an awkward moment when he asked Anne Keothavong for her room number - Getty Images Europe

Draw ceremonies at team tennis events are normally low-key affairs. A bunch of dignitaries give tedious speeches, a name is pulled out of a bowl to decide the order of play, and everyone poses for photos.

But Ilie Nastase, the old rogue who once made the front pages by playing under an umbrella at Wimbledon, has a way of adding a ­chaotic twist to every occasion. At Friday's draw for Great Britain’s Fed Cup play-off against Romania, he popped up with a couple of offensive comments to put everyone on edge.

First Nastase delivered an inexplicable but definitely off-key wisecrack on the subject of Serena Williams’s forthcoming baby. The question was actually addressed to Simona Halep, the Romanian No 1 who was sitting next to him, but Nastase interjected, sotto voce, “Let’s see what colour it has. Chocolate with milk?”

Then, as the teams came ­together for the cameras, Nastase put his arm around Anne Keothavong, the British captain, and asked for her room number – an uncomfortable moment given their 37-year age difference, as well as her status as a married mother with a second child on the way.

Local hero or not, Nastase is likely to face action from the International Tennis Federation. “The ITF does not tolerate discriminatory and offensive language and behaviour of any kind,” said the ITF in a statement. “We are aware of ­alleged comments made by Romanian captain Ille Nastase and have begun an immediate investigation so that we have the full facts of the situation ­before taking further and appropriate action.”

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Unscheduled interventions are something of a stock in trade for Nastase, a former world No 1, who was notorious during his career for turning line disputes into all-out warfare. Keothavong has previously spoken about the way he carried on during a Fed Cup match in the early 2000s, “when he came onto the court at one point and started screaming about line judges and umpires”. But even she probably did not expect the fireworks to start so soon.

For Watson, Johanna Konta and the rest of the British team, the ­focus will have to be on their opponents, and not the saturnine figure at the side of the court. This is a hugely challenging appointment – the toughest of the eight possible combinations that could have been thrown up by the ITF’s computer – because the Romanian women have all grown up on clay courts and love to defend.

Anne Keothavong (third from left) is hoping to lead her team to victory Credit: getty images

So far this week, the conditions have been horrendous in this largely deserted holiday resort. Most of Constanta’s hotels and restaurants have yet to open, and you can see why: a ferocious wind has whipped in off the Black Sea, carrying a mixture of sleet and heavy rain, and making a mockery of the idea of hosting an outdoor tie here in late April. However, the forecast is better for Saturday, with the sun ­expected to break through and a likely temperature of 13 degrees. Hardly balmy, but still playable, whereas the last few days have seen both teams restricted to indoor practice.

“It hasn’t been ideal,” said ­Keothavong, “but it’s the same for both teams. It’s cold, it’s wet, the conditions will be heavy, but we’re ready.

Keothavong added: “We’re playing away with what I understand is a sell-out Romanian crowd, but it’s something we’re all going to ­embrace. I think the Romanians will feel the pressure and it’s up to the players and all of us to take ­advantage of that.”

Legendary former player Ilie Nastase is the Romanian Fed Cup captain

If Great Britain are going to come through this weekend, and earn a place in the World Group for the first time since 1993, they will rely heavily on Konta, who opens against Irina-Camelia Begu n Saturday ­afternoon. 

Konta – who now stands at a ­remarkable No 7 in the world rankings – has beaten Halep in both their meetings, but that was on the smooth concrete that she prefers. This is Halep’s home town – her picture pops up everywhere, like Constanta’s answer to David Beckham – and this tie will be played on the same court where she practised as a teenager.

Asked if she expected an intimidating atmosphere for the visitors, Halep replied “I hope so. I hope they will be very loud.” And if the crowd do not make themselves heard, her captain surely will.

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