“It kind of snowballed.” So said a badly shaken Johanna Konta, the world’s No. 7 tennis player, as she came into the interview room after the sort of afternoon no sporting competitor should be forced to endure.
Konta had been dictating play with her usual single-mindedness against Sorana Cirstea, moving through a dominant first set, when the Romanian captain Ilie Nastase decided to make his presence felt at the side of the court. The situation escalated quickly until Nastase was forced to leave the stadium, throwing a parting shot of “----ing bitches” at Konta and her captain Anne Keothavong as he went.
That was not the end of the abuse for Konta, however, as jeers and catcalls rained down from the stands. It may not have helped that she has a Hungarian background, as there are deep resentments between the two countries. But whatever the explanation, it was entirely understandable that she broke down in tears at the end of the next game, and had to be allowed a short break – of 20 minutes or so – to regather herself in the locker-room.
“It was just unfortunate that I think the crowd took initiative from the Romanian captain’s behaviour,” said Konta after completing her 6-2, 6-3 victory over Sorana Cirstea. “The abusive language of everybody there who was there, it kind of snowballed. Once you promote something like that, it gives courage to a lot of people to think it’s okay. It quite frankly got out of hand.
“I think for tomorrow, most importantly we’re 1-1 in the tie,” Konta added. “Both for our team and the Romanian team, I am sure I speak for them when I say we just want to go out there and compete. It’s incredible for the Romanian crowd to be supportive of their players. There’s nothing wrong with support. It’s just as long as it’s kept fair and it’s not insulting.”
Konta was clearly trying to keep relations on a civil basis with her opposite numbers. And she might have succeeded, for at that stage Nastase had provided an unscheduled diversion to a passionate but hardly poisonous tie. But her olive branch was soon thrown back in her face by Cirstea, who accused her of both softness and gamesmanship.
“I've played all over this world, they called me from gypsy to bitch to ---hole to idiot,” said Cirstea. “They were doing like this [she mimed slitting her own throat] to me. I never cried and left the court. I stay there and I play.
“Okay, I understand you take Ilie out. But if you want to stop the match, stop it at 2-1, not at 3-1 when Johanna starts crying. And then when she comes back on court she says, ‘I'm sorry,’ so she knew she exaggerated. And Anne the same, she said ‘I'm sorry.’
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
“You don't do this, you stay and play. And the public was okay. They didn't do anything. It was a bit too much. And now they say they feel threatened. We are in Romania, we treated you guys so nice. I don't feel it's right that you put all this on us because we're a lower country than England.
“You were from the beginning expecting to jump. Next time in trouble I will cry - maybe I can go off the court. As Romanians we get double insulted because of our nation but it's okay, we are tough. Tougher than English people apparently.”
Konta will return to the court for the first match today against Halep, and it is anyone’s guess how all those involved – including the fans - will react to this potentially volatile situation. Nastase, we can be confident, will not be present, after the ITF’s strong stance. But the Romanian Tennis Federation, who made him Fed Cup captain in October, showed few signs of contrition on Saturday.
After Nastase’s ejection from the court, the RTF president George Cosac declined to talk about the incident, saying he didn’t yet have the facts at his disposal. But on the subject of Nastase’s offensive comments at Friday’s draw ceremony – which included his suggestion that Serena Williams’s unborn baby would come out coloured like “chocolate with milk” - Cosac was entirely supportive.
“He didn't make any mistakes. It was not racist - you just have to ask him. He is a very good friend with Yannick Noah and he played many tournaments together with Arthur Ashe - I'm sure he didn't say something wrong.
“It was just a joke - that's Nastase. Everybody knows him in the world. He was all the time with a lot of jokes. That's why everybody likes him.”
Cosac was also asked about Nastase’s creepy approach to Keothavong on Friday, whom he asked for her room number while the official photographs were being taken. “You cannot take it seriously,” Cosac replied. “There were more than 50 persons here. I'm sure it was just a joke.”