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Volume 22 No. 27
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Tiriac hires famed litigator Kessler to take over defense in WTA case

Jeffrey Kessler, the famed athletes attorney and litigator, has sat opposite sports legal powerhouse Proskauer, which typically represents management, many times. Whether it’s Kessler for the NFLPA or NBPA and Proskauer aligned with the NFL or NBA, Kessler advocates for players and Proskauer for the owners. 

Once again the two parties find themselves opposite each other, but this time their roles are reversed: Kessler is advocating for an owner, Proskauer for the players.

The case in question is the WTA’s lawsuit against Madrid tournament owner Ion Tiriac, who recently hired Kessler and his firm, Winston & Strawn, to replace his previous counsel.

The WTA, which is a 50-50 partnership between tournaments and players (meaning Proskauer is also representing the other WTA tournaments in this case), filed the lawsuit in New York federal court last June to force Tiriac into arbitration.

The roots of the legal battle date to April 2017, when Romania Fed Cup captain Ilie Nastase was suspended by the International Tennis Federation for allegedly making racist and sexist comments during that year’s event. The WTA banned Nastase from its tournaments, but Tiriac ignored that prohibition, even allowing him on court for the WTA trophy presentation in May 2017, after which the WTA fined and criticized Tiriac for his embrace of Nastase. Within a year Tiriac had sued the WTA for defamation in Spain, Romania and Cyprus. He also argued against the WTA’s requirement that he pay equal prize money at Madrid, which stages concurrent ATP and WTA events.

The federal case had actually closed in January, with Tiriac agreeing to withdraw the Spanish lawsuit. But on March 1 Tiriac refiled the Spanish lawsuit, and on March 22 the WTA reopened the case in New York federal court. Three days later Winston & Strawn filed to notify the court that it represented Tiriac.

Kessler did not reply for comment, and his colleague, David Feher, declined to comment, as did Proskauer attorney Brad Ruskin.

A source close to the case said that until the next court filing it is difficult to say what Kessler’s strategy will be, but it is hard not to connect Tiriac’s move to refile the Spanish case with the hiring of Kessler.

The WTA’s main argument is that Tiriac is bound by his membership agreement with the WTA, which requires arbitration in disputes, not lawsuits.

Tiriac’s previous counsel was Quinn Emanuel Urquhart & Sullivan, which unsuccessfully argued before the court in December to have the WTA’s case dismissed.