The former Romanian gymnast Nadia Comaneci has leapt to the defence of her disgraced compatriot Ilie Nastase, who’s sexist and racist comments made during Great Britain’s Fed Cup defeat in Constanta have been condemned worldwide.
Romanian team captain Nastase embroiled himself in a number of controversy’s during the Fed Cup tie and was expelled half-way through the World Group II play-off match for swearing at officials, as well as GB captain Anne Keothavong and world number seven Johanna Konta.
Konta was left in tears by the outburst, with Nastase calling her and Keothavong “f****** bitches” because the British team had complained to the chair umpire about noise from the crowd during points. After being expelled from the court, he launched a foul-mouthed rant at Eleanor Crooks, a British Press Association journalist.
My second run-in with Ilie Nastase. He then called me ugly off camera, just for good measure pic.twitter.com/pt2begOpTx
— Eleanor Crooks (@EleanorcrooksPA) April 22, 2017
Nastase had earlier landed himself in trouble by making racial slurs about Serena Williams’s unborn child, while also repeatedly asking Keothavong for her room number during the pre-match press conference.
However, speaking at the European Gymnastics Championships, Comaneci defended Nastase’s actions as those of a “very patriotic man”, and told reporters that everybody in Romania still loves the former US Open and Roland-Garros champion.
“Ilie is very patriotic and sometimes he says things that he doesn't really mean - it's just Ilie, and he will always be my friend,” Comaneci, the five-time Olympic gold medallist told the Press Association.
“Of course Ilie is responsible for what comes out of his mouth, and I think it is important in sport that you keep the respect and good behaviour.
“He will have to deal with it (the consequences), but he can survive whatever happens to him. People make mistakes. Everybody in Romania loves Ilie because he is Ilie.”
Nastase has also defended his behaviour over the weekend and said that Konta should be blamed for provoking the incident by first walking off the court. The Romanian faces a lengthy ban from tennis but has insisted he does not care what punishment he is given by the International Tennis Federation.
“I don't regret it and they can send me to prison if they want - I don't care,” Nastase told the Daily Mirror.
“I was just trying to promote the interest of my girl. The English player just stormed off without even asking permission to leave the court and I admit that's when I called her a bitch.
“She kept trying to keep the crowd quiet - but it's not an opera, it's a game.
“I don't need this bulls***. I'm 70 years old. I don't even get paid for being team captain. I don't give a s*** if they fine me or don't let me sit in the captain's chair.”
The ITF has released this statement regarding the provisional suspension of Ilie Nastase pic.twitter.com/Xf9R0PSi4D
— ITF (@ITF_Tennis) April 23, 2017
While Nastase’s behaviour over the course of the tie has been widely condemned in both the British and American press, reaction to his expulsion from the court and likely ban from tennis has been mixed in his home country.
The Romanian newspaper Gazeta Sporturilor ran a story which quoted Steaua Bucharest sporting director Mihai Stoica as saying: “Ilie Nastase is perhaps the most talented sportsman in the history of Romanian sports and it hurts me when a man of such value - because he did nothing - can be attacked.”
Meanwhile other news outlets suggested that British journalists should be blamed for Nastase’s outbursts. “Journalists from (Great Britain) were screaming for a scandal on Friday,” a story on the Romanian sports website Prosport said.
“They have reached their goal, and two uninspired jokes made my Mr Nastase have been taken over as racist and sexist remarks.”
But the Romanian press were not united in their defence for Nastase, with the Bucharest daily newspaper Adevarul attacking the 70-year-old for behaving like an “uneducated kid”.
“The Romanian Tennis Federation has led the Fed Cup team with an individual who at the age of 70 behaves like an uneducated kid,” one of their stories read.
Nastase – nicknamed the ‘Bucharest Buffoon’ – was ranked as the World No 1 in 1973-74 and delighted tennis fans with his high-risk blend of serve-and-volley and baseline play. But there was a darker side to his game and his volatile temperament led to a number of on-court controversies.
In 1994 he was banned for a Davis Cup match against Great Britain for 'audible obscenities and constant abuse and intimidation of officials', while during his playing days he infamously attacked British player David Lloyd with his racket.
“He got very annoyed as he does when an opponent fails to rise to his bait,” Lloyd later recounted. “He then made a most obscene remark to me and angrily hit me on the head with his racket. Three times. I almost walked out of the match in disgust.”
Keothavong loving her flowers from Nastase pic.twitter.com/t4RXVxgJW4
— Eleanor Crooks (@EleanorcrooksPA) April 23, 2017
Keothavong has since questioned whether Nastase should ever have been appointed as Fed Cup captain given his track record, describing his behaviour as “inappropriate” in an interview with Sky Sports after the tie.
“Clearly his behaviour on court over the weekend and leading up to this tie was inappropriate and in hindsight maybe he shouldn't have been put in the position that he was.
“You walk out onto court as a tennis player expecting to be in a safe environment and expecting to be playing against a partisan crowd - that's understandable - but you don't expect to be verbally abused when you're out there just trying to do your job.”