03/30/2021 | Press release | Distributed by Public on 03/30/2021 11:34
It's not just the fans that are delighted with Romania's choice of a new Billie Jean King Cup captain: Monica Niculescu has the enthusiastic backing of arguably the country's most famous athlete too.
While Simona Halep had suggested she wouldn't participate in the Billie Jean King Cup in 2021 to prioritise her chances of success at the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Tennis Event, an about-turn followed earlier this month and she pledged her commitment to the team for their upcoming Play-off clash with Italy in Cluj-Napoca.
So was it Niculescu's appointment that changed her mind?
'I knew she wasn't going to play but I spoke with her and I said, 'listen, I'm going to be the new captain' and she loved the idea,' said Niculescu.
'If she's healthy, she's going to come and help and win some points for Romania. Simona is one of the players that's writing her name into tennis history. To be the captain of this player… well, these players have high standards, so I need to bring my best. If she's coming, it's going to be fine, but I want to thank her... and I hope on 17 April we're going to laugh and be a happy team.'
Niculescu promises plenty of fun when she takes the reins from former captain Florin Segarceanu, who enjoyed a strong bond with the side during his three-year tenure but, by his own admission, felt the time was right to pass on the baton to the 'younger generation'.
At 33, energy and enthusiasm won't be in short supply with former world No. 28 Niculescu in the captain's hotseat.
'I can bring a lot of fun because I like to laugh a lot, I like to make jokes, but professionally I can help because I can see the game very good,' said Niculescu. 'I know all the players and all the girls and we're good friends. I'm always on the tour with them and I watch them play.
'You remember in 2017 in Constanta when I had to be on the bench (as a stand-in during Romania's controversial tie with Great Britain) and change things a little bit. It was a big experience. I think I learned a lot then and I think I can help the girls.'
The current world No. 152 in singles and No. 52 in doubles, Niculescu admitted it was a 'privilege' to be asked to take on the role at a time when she is still active on tour, but starting to think about life away from the court.
'It means a lot because I always come with heart playing [Billie Jean King Cup], which I've played for so many years,' said Niculescu, who holds almost all of Romania's playing records having achieved more match-wins (31 overall and 16 in doubles) and contested more ties (37) than any other player in 12 years representing her country.
'Now to be the captain is a big responsibility but it's a big privilege and a big honour just to be there. Thanks to the Romanian Federation for selecting me and thinking about me.'
One of 12 female captains across the 28 teams involved in the Billie Jean King Cup at play-off level and above, Niculescu is proud to become the latest woman to lead her nation - taking particular inspiration from her former on-court rival Anne Keothavong, who has captained the British team since 2016.
'When they called me and asked me about the job, I liked the idea,' she said. 'I saw Anne Keothavong for Great Britain, and we used to play against each other - so many times - and I thought she did a great job with their team.
'I want to try [to do the same]. I was always thinking about this, what should I do after I finish tennis? I'm not going to finish tennis [right now]… I'm actually going to play in [Billie Jean King] Cup - I'm captain, but I'm going to play too.'
Niculescu's thirst for competing remains then, as does her desire to lead her country all the way to the Billie Jean King Cup title. The Romanians came agonisingly close to reaching the final in 2019, when Niculescu and Halep fell to Kristina Mladenovic and Caroline Garcia in a nail-biting deciding doubles before the French went on to win the title in Perth. Their new captain is keen to banish memories of what might have been.
'I really want to make that next step,' she said. 'We did a great job reaching that semi-final and with a bit of luck we could even [have made] the final. Who knows what would have happened in the final against Australia?
'We have a great team with great players still active at a high level. I really want to do it, but even if I wasn't captain I really wanted to come and join all the girls and put a big effort and try to win it. I think we can do it.
And of course, those title aspirations will have to wait a while yet. First Niculescu's side must successfully negotiate the Play-offs - and Tathiana Garbin's Italy - for a place in the 2022 Qualifiers.