Tennis prides itself on individual dominance, but one of the sport’s biggest sagas over the past year centers around one woman, a federation and an entire nation. The cycle seemed endless, trapped in a stalemate, with no resolution on the horizon. Until now, anyway.
Spain — a five-time Davis Cup champion in tennis’ premier team competition — saw its aura dim behind depleted teams last season. After falling to Germany in its opening match of the World Group, Brazil upset Spain on its home court in September to send Spain into the Euro/Africa Group I for the first time since 1996.
Carlos Moya’s captaincy — which began when he was named to the post in 2013 — was not without challenges. When he announced he was resigning the post after just a year, he spoke candidly about the difficulty of getting top players to play. Little did the rest of the RFET know, that challenge was only going to get harder courtesy of its own hand. Just a week after Spain’s relegation, Gala León Garcia — a lefty who played on the WTA Tour for 14 years from 1990 to 2004 — became the team’s new captain.
Just who was this woman who reached a career-high ranking of No. 27 in 2000 — after reaching the second week of Roland Garros twice and winning the Madrid Open long before Ion Tiriac turned it into the sport’s biggest spectacle?
She was met with skepticism, and had her credentials scrutinized. Rafael Nadal told Spanish-language outlet Marca that the appointment was “odd,” while players including Feliciano Lopez and David Ferrer too were critical of her selection.
While it might have been easy to suggest that the furor surrounding León’s appointment was sexist, players — Nadal, Ferrer, Marc Lopez included — were all quick to deny that assertion that her gender played a role in the dissension. It seemed, that the reaction to León’s appointment seemed to be the breaking point — a manifestation of mounting frustrations between players and the RFET. An open letter to the federation — signed by a total of 45 players, coaches and figureheads of Spanish tennis and drafted ahead of the Wimbledon Championships — aired a list of grievances against the RFET. This letter, translated in full by BATennisWorld, bemoans the lack of communication between the federation and players, as well as Escañuela’s poor leadership.
The day before Wimbledon began, Marca reported that León submitted her resignation after that meeting with players at Wimbledon, but that it was refused by both Escañuela and vice-president/acting president, Olvido Aguilera. The situation got messier on Wednesday when Escañuela and Aguilera were suspended by the Consejo Superior Deportivo due to questionable financial dealings with federation funds. On Friday, as play at Wimbledon was winding down, the RFET announced that new president Fernando Fernandez-Ladreda Aguirre had fired León, just a day after taking over the reins of the spiraling federation. With just two players left in the men’s singles ahead of the tournament’s second week and a less than a month to go until Spain travels to the end of the world — literally — to take on Russia in Vladivostok, it remains to be seen who will play.
It’s clear that the rift between the Spanish tennis federation and its players is bigger than just the naming of León as captain. Painted as the villain and put on the defensive from day one, León was the personification of all that was “wrong” with the RFET’s leadership and administration, and she was set up to fail from all angles. It would’ve been a shame to see a history making moment in the sport tarnished by bureaucracy — but this story is more than one of a federation’s ineptitude and a sacrificial lamb, and there are questions still to be answered.
On middle Sunday at Wimbledon, reports surfaced that Conchita Martinez — 1994 Wimbledon champion and current Spanish Fed Cup captain — would be taking over the captaincy. León, but now Martinez, would be the fifth known female captain in the history of Davis Cup (joining Tamara Semikina (Moldova, 1995-2001), Francesca Guardigli (San Marino, 2002-2004), Farah Dayoub (Syria, 2009) and Maria-Elena Gittens (Panama, 2011)) — but by far the highest-profile.
If León’s appointment was met with such fervor due to all she represented — a corrupt institution which held little regard for its players and their wishes — then Martinez’s selection should be met with open arms.
Her selection should put Spain on the right side of tennis history — a little later than expected — and should represent progress, a move away from the federation’s previous administration and a new chapter in Spanish tennis.
But Martinez is still a woman.
No one was perhaps more vocal in his opposition to León’s appointment than Toni Nadal — who took repeated jabs at León in the press. Toni Nadal’s criticism of León came from multiple angles, but his comments about her gender — comments his nephew never endorsed nor condemned publicly — were particularly pointed.
He, a man who became a successful coach without any tennis experience himself, repeatedly said that a captain should have a background in men’s tennis and as a woman she does not, and that a female captain would cause issues in the locker room. He later back-tracked ahead of Wimbledon and emphasized Leon’s alleged refusal to meet with players as a sticking point. In joining Toni Nadal’s comments, Fernando Verdasco told El Pais: “Whenever possible, the captain must be a man.”
In short, saying that there was no opposition based on León’s sex is misguided, although her appointment was clouded in other controversies. But, if the healing process between the players and their federation began when the house was cleaned, then Martinez — with the pedigree of a champion — should be championed herself.
It remains to be seen if she will be, and that puts Spain back on the wrong side of history.