How did Nadia Comaneci and Simona Halep, two generational Romanian sports icons, come to be so friendly that Comaneci flies from Oklahoma to Europe to attend her matches?
Simple, Comaneci says. Halep is part of the family.
Has been ever since Halep was welcomed into it by Comaneci and the nation’s other retired athletic legends, soccer player Gheorghe Hagi and tennis player Ilie Nastase at an ATP event in Bucharest in April 2014.
“I had never seen her before,” said Comaneci, who knew some about tennis given the success of Nastase, a seven-time major champion, and Virginia Ruzici, the 1978 French Open winner and only Romanian woman to win a major until Halep. “But I knew from Ilie that he said she’s going to be a big star. This is our next champion.”
A month later, Halep made her first Slam final at the French Open. It took four more years before Halep claimed her first major title, also at Roland Garros, then another at Wimbledon in July.
The most memorable interaction between Comaneci and Halep came immediately after that breakthrough 2018 French Open final. As Halep climbed toward her player box in victory, the first person she embraced was the gymnastics great.
“It was the easiest way to climb,” Comaneci joked while at the U.S. Open last week. “It was very nice and emotional — for me.”
She has attended a Broadway show with Halep, wearing matching coats they bought together, and watched her play live at three of the four Grand Slams, plus at Indian Wells, Calif., Madrid and Bucharest.
Comaneci followed the 2018 French Open semifinals on TV from Oklahoma, where she lives with husband and fellow Olympic champion gymnast Bart Conner and 13-year-old son Dylan.
“It was 5 in the morning, finished at 7, and by 11 o’clock I was on the phone with United Airlines,” said Comaneci, who attended the previous year’s French Open, where Halep was upset by 47th-ranked Latvian Jelena Ostapenko in the final.
Two days later, Comaneci’s flight was late landing in Paris. She deplaned around 11 a.m. and arrived on the grounds just as Halep and Sloane Stephens began the final.
Though Halep didn’t follow gymnastics as a kid, Comaneci was still an inspiration. A symbol that an athlete from Romania could become best in the world, although it came under far different circumstances in the 1970s.
“To have a great champion in your box, it gives you power, that she appreciates what I’m doing,” Halep said at the 2015 U.S. Open, which Comaneci also attended.
For Comaneci, to see Halep be feted in Bucharest for her 2018 French Open title reminded her of coming back from the 1976 Montreal Olympics with five medals, including three golds, and seven perfect 10s.
More than 20,000 Halep admirers filled Bucharest’s Arena Națională. She cried.
For Comaneci, her reaction as a 14-year-old returning to Romania in 1976 was a bit different. She cried, too. She lost a doll she had been carrying.
“I got out of the plane, and I heard there were 10,000 people,” she said. “I got back in because I didn’t understand why people came this time and never came before. I did the same routines. I didn’t understand the magnitude of what I had done.”
Communist leader Nicolae Ceaușescu ordered a celebration, the likes of which had never been seen in Romania.
“It was scary,” Comaneci wrote in her book. “All those years when nobody cared and now, suddenly, everyone was pushing, pulling, and trying to touch me.”
Thirteen years later, Comaneci defected. She and six others trudged overnight through the woods and into Hungary and, two nights later, Austria. She fell through a frozen-over lake and navigated knee-deep, bone-chilling water. She climbed seven barbed-wire fences. She feared of land mines and being shot in the back.
Halep hasn’t dealt with anything like that. But she was scrutinized for those four years between making her first Slam final and, after three runners-up, lifting that first major trophy. She is Romania’s biggest sports star at the moment, said Adrian Toca, a journalist for the website Treizecizero.
Romania’s main sports newspaper, Gazeta Sporturilor, has put her on the front page for several straight days during Grand Slams. Before the 2018 Australian Open final, it photoshopped Halep into a Wonder Woman outfit.
“It kind of is a lot of pressure,” Toca said. “The public and the media [in Romania] can be very demanding of athletes, sometimes beyond reasonable.
“Nadia helped Simona a lot just by being next to her in important, good or difficult moments. And she wasn’t there just at the big wins. She also supported Simona at tournaments other than Slams.”
Comaneci said she and Halep do not discuss tennis or even what it’s like to be in the spotlight.
“Just giggle about … girls stuff, let’s put it this way,” Comaneci said.
Something else they have in common is the Olympic Games.
Halep said after winning the 2018 French Open that her next goal was an Olympic medal, which is rare for a tennis player. It is one of the few Olympic sports where an Olympic medal is not the pinnacle of achievement. Many would rather take any Grand Slam title, even if they already have one.
When Halep arrived in Bucharest for another celebration after her Wimbledon title in July, a main story out of the press conference was a confirmation that she would be Romania’s flag bearer in Tokyo.
That honor is not decided for most countries until the weeks or days before the Games. Technically, Halep hasn’t even qualified for the Olympics yet (though she is all but mathematically assured).
“Simona loves her country very much, and she is not just saying it, but showing it,” Toca said, noting that Halep played one of her best matches while representing her country at the Fed Cup in April, but Romania still fell to France in the semifinals. “She was affected by that loss.
“For the Romanian fans, especially at this point in her career, I think they will be grateful for any medal. Especially considering that we’re not amongst favorites for too many medals, and the current state of Romanian sports, it’s not that awesome.”
True, the men’s soccer team hasn’t qualified for a World Cup in this millennium. Its lone match win at a European Championship came in 2000. The women’s gymnastics team failed to qualify for the Rio Olympics after earning a medal at every Games since Comaneci’s debut in Montreal.
Overall, Romania earned one gold in Rio and four total medals, its lowest output in either category since 1952. Consider that Romania finished second in gold medals to the U.S. at the 1984 Los Angeles Games boycotted by Soviet nations.
“The young generation knows who we are because of their parents and because of, thank goodness, YouTube,” Comaneci said, according to an as-told-to story for ESPN.com last year. “Her win is great for Romanian kids to understand they don’t have to be born somewhere else to be the best.”
Those children now have an athlete to emulate whose recognition rivals that of Comaneci. Perhaps surpasses it.
“If Nadia walks down a street in Bucharest, she would be greeted, congratulated or people would just smile at her,” Toca said. “As for Simona, I don’t think she can afford to walk down a street right now, as she would probably have a hard time actually walking. Everyone would probably want a selfie or an autograph or just congratulate her.”
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