Cluj | Halep takes on Graf and Agassi in special event in Romania

Steffi Graf and Andre Agassi travelled to Cluj in Romania to join Simona Halep and her former coach Andrei Pavel play in an exhibition match at SportsFestival in a memorable evening watched by Jannik Sinner’s coach Darren Cahill, who shared images of the event on social media.

I am not thinking about retirement; I don’t want this to sound like a retirement speech. I want to come back. I will certainly do everything I can to enjoy some matches and victories again. And to have you by my side. It’s the most beautiful feeling. I also want to thank my family, always here to support me. Thank you very much for all the support these two years. Let’s enjoy together! Simona Halep

The legendary couple, who recently participated in the Pickleball Slam in February, were supporting Halep’s return to the court in front of her home crowd.

Graf, a 22-time Grand Slam champion, and Agassi, an 8-time Grand Slam champion, showcased their skills in this special event.

Halep, who has 2 Grand Slam titles to her name, had been out of competition for 16 months due to a doping suspension, and although the Romanian has rejoined the WTA Tour, injuries and her low ranking have limited her time on the match court.

The former World No 1 was provisionally suspended in October 2022 when she failed a drugs test during the US Open earlier that year, testing positive for the banned substance roxadustat.

A few months later she received a second, separate charge relating to her athlete biological passport.

Last summer, an independent tribunal banned her for 4 years, but she appealed to the Court of Arbitration for Sport, who later reduced her ban to 9 months, meaning it retrospectively ended last July.

CAS accepted Halep’s argument that the roxadustat came from a contaminated substance and they threw out the ABP charge altogether.


The mixed doubles exhibition match was played in front of a capacity crowd at the BTarena in Cluj

SportsFestival/Instagram

SportsFestival is the biggest sports event in Romania that offers multiple sports, bringing together a growing number of athletes and their fans to enjoy the playing the sports, while the city of Cluj-Napoca in Romania knows how to put on a world-class tennis event, with the WTA Transylvania Open voted the best WTA 250 event for the past 2 years in a row.

Held at the BTarena, which can seat 10,000 fans, the event was sold out, thanks to the popularity of Halep, playing in front of her home fans for the first time in 2 years, and the rare chance to see Agassi and Graf play side-by-side.

The evening, with past Romanian Grand Slam winners Ilie Nastase, Ion Tiriac, and Virgina Rucizi in attendance, began with a choreographed sequence featuring 8 women, who looked like female colleagues of James Bond.

After a few words from the Romanian legends, the action settled on the main attraction – the mixed doubles set between Graf & Agassi-Graf and Halep & Pavel.

As in most exhibition matches, the 4 players kept the action down to just below full strength as they tried to engage in longer rallies, while still showcasing some of the brilliant aspects of their games, including the German’s famous Fraulein forehand and the Agassi double-fisted backhand.

There were also plenty of lighter moments, including Graf’s reaction to a fan’s marriage proposal.

With Halep & Pavel facing off against 2 former World No 1s, the Romanians eventually emerged victorious, winning the set 8-4 in front of the packed crowd.


It was a fun evening enjoyed by all

SportsFestival/Instagram

Halep opened the exhibition with a heartfelt speech to her Romanian fans, saying: “I want to thank you from the bottom of my heart. I have always received a special welcome in Cluj. Today, I am here, happy to be present on a tennis court again, here to feel the love I missed these two years.

“But now I want to talk only about positive things, about the joy of being on the court, of playing tennis.

“You gave me a lot of strength! I am not thinking about retirement; I don’t want this to sound like a retirement speech. I want to come back. I will certainly do everything I can to enjoy some matches and victories again.

“And to have you by my side. It’s the most beautiful feeling. I also want to thank my family, always here to support me. Thank you very much for all the support these two years. Let’s enjoy together!”

The event began earlier with a men’s doubles match in which Horia Tecău & Andrei Pavel, former team-mates in the Romanian Davis Cup team, played against Agassi & Justin Gimelstob, while Halep and Graf acted as ‘captains’ from the benches during the match, which ended in a 6-3 victory for the Romanian team.

Former Romanian player Rolaca Olaru was in the chair for the evening, and, at one stage, Halep and Graf stepped onto court as substitutes late in the set for a couple of games, before the 4 men resumed.

The main event followed, with Halep taking centre stage alongside her former coach Pavel, facing the legends, Graf & Agassi, to deliver an impeccable performance.

Cahill, Halep’s former coach, was a special guest at the exhibition, and the Australian shared images of the emotional day on social media, highlighting the significance of the event for the Romanian star.


The pre-event media call

SportsFestival/Instagram

As a former Roland Garros champion, Halep did not receive a wild-card for the French Open because organisers previously set a precedent not to give invitations to those who have served doping-related suspensions when they had not given one to two-time champion Maria Sharapova on her return from her own ban in 2017.

It is not clear whether the Romanian has applied for a wild-card to Wimbledon, where she is also a former champion, having won the title in 2019, but the All England Lawn Tennis Club has said that, unlike the French Open, they assess wild-cards on a case-by-case basis.

“Obviously that’s a hypothetical question,” the Club’s Chief Executive Sally Bolton said when asked about Halep applying for one. “Our wild-card committee meet, and make those decisions. They haven’t met.

“They will be making an announcement about the wild-card decisions on the 19th of June, so I wouldn’t want to pre-judge a consideration of the wild-card committee.”

Asked if there is a policy in place regarding players who have returned from bans, AELTC Chair Deborah Jevans added: “Once a player has served any drugs ban, they’re then free to compete in the circuit and, as such, the wild-card committee would consider that, and their performance when considering that wild-card.

“As Sally said, the wild-card committee will meet and make that determination.”



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