It is a basic matter of record that bad has always been better than good. Bad has more substance, more technique, more style, more noise, color and taste, more imagination, more passion, more variety and more of whatever there remains to sink one's teeth into. It seems only appropriate that commentators from Walt Whitman to Longfellow to John the Apostle have spoken of the condition as inherent in our species. "All men are bad and in their badness reign," is what Shakespeare wrote in a sonnet. It comes as no particular surprise, then, that bad currently seems to be in a lot more demand than good. And reigning, too.
Among recent fun people who have ingrained themselves in American pop culture just by hanging around being bad are Clifford Irving, Jane Fonda, Mick Jagger, Ben the movie-star rat and a whole flock of sports boys who talk a lot, don't talk at all, fight in bars, refuse to fight in wars, kiss girls, pop pills, smoke weed, drink alcohol, change their name, demand money, jump teams, flay the citizenry and boogaloo to Francis Scott Key. Now we're really talking bad.
All the same, men such as Muhammad Ali, Joe Namath, Dick Allen, Duane Thomas, Bobby Fischer and Derek Sanderson make the world of sport seem somewhat more logical and realistic when they descend from their false pedestals and are shown, as they have been, to share the discipline lacks, hangups and crazies that burden us all in one way or another.
The game of tennis has always been a haven of gentility in this world, a place where customs die slowly and manners are as important as physical skill. Bad takes different configurations in tennis. Bad is a momentary glance, an offhand remark, a kick of the foot, a wave of the arm, a delay, a stance, a stare. As a result, most of tennis' historical bad boys never would have been able to cut the mustard as evil characters in our other vicious, insensitive games. Bad in tennis was always only semibad. Which is why the game's newest, baddest star is such a refreshing personality.
October 15, 1972
Ilie Nastase, a 26-year-old, 6', 175-pound Rumanian, is a man for tennis' time. He is just the person needed to crush old molds, outsmart hoary conventions and even break the austere rules that have held the game back from that one crucial, giant step to total public acceptance and the big time.
He is a nonpareil showman, an utterly exasperating gamesman, a pouting, crying genius with a racket in his hand and a curse on his lips. He is a magnificent enfant terrible any self-respecting sport would be glad to call its own. At a given moment Nastase will out-charisma Ali, out-sex Namath, out-temperament Fischer and out-bad anybody you care to suit up. He is the first Iron Curtain athlete ever to make this kind of an impact on world sport, and his potential is unmatched anywhere. He is the Wimbledon runner-up, the U.S. Open champion, the Grand Prix point leader and the winner of over $100,000 for the season. This weekend in his hometown of Bucharest only a minor miracle can stop him from leading his team and a worshipful country to victory over the U.S. in the Davis Cup. At the top of the tennis world, bad looks to be reigning once again. This fall Ilie has it all.
In Rumania, the name Ilie (rhymes with Billy) is a common one, derived from St. Ilie, who sits on the right hand of God and causes things to happen. St. Ilie paints it dark or light, makes it rain or pour and rolls back the thunder ("He figures it to go boom," says Nastase). The surname (pronounced Nas-taz-ee) is more of a rarity in Bucharest, more Italian than Rumanian. It has no special meaning the way most Rumanian names do except to convey possible explanations about Ilie, his personality and his Roman ways. On the birth and government papers of Ilie's father the name is spelled with an i instead of an e—Nastasi. On his own papers Ilie's name has the e. He does not know the reason for the difference.
Ilie's mother says that on the day her son was born the sky was not blue. It was yellow as it had never been before. She says that Ilie was a child without luck for whom it would be very hard to succeed. She says he was sickly and continued to be for several years. She says he was moody early, covered with the shadows of the yellow sky, and would be forever. Though one can hardly imagine a man of such light-hearted manner and obvious relish for the play of life being anything other than a child of azure, perhaps his mother was somewhat prophetic.
When her son is on the court the skies do become yellow and his acute feel for mischief controls the mood. This feel, this constant reach for trickery, guile and the other fine weapons of gamesmanship, infuriates opponents and, more often than not, provokes crowds. At the same time it has propelled Nastase into countless disputes and altercations from which he always manages to emerge unscathed and joyous.
If Nastase were Br'er Rabbit, controversy would be his briar patch. If you're looking for trouble, you've come to the right place, he seems to be saying. In reality, trouble is a piece of the game for him; it is a vital part of life. "Why they talk me all the time, babee?" he asks in happy, lilting English, a speech pattern that is broken into the pleasant Latinate sounds of his Rumanian accent. His use of the English language is devoid of almost all prepositions and articles as well as many forms of the verb "to be." His slang—"babee," "shudup"—is impeccable. "Why they listen me and nobody else and ask me behave? What is behave? Every player like this, not only me, babee. We all nervous, all temperament, all crazy."
Much of the time, of course, Nastase is putting on even when he is explaining about putting on. In the three years that he has been playing in the U.S. he has learned to handle the language well and knows "what is behave." When subjects of a sensitive nature—for instance, his court deportment, Rumanian politics or the amount of money he makes—threaten to rear their ugly heads his English suddenly becomes halting, his face takes on a bewildered expression and it is time to move on to other things: girls, music, the art of tennis. Despite his declarations to the contrary, Nastase knows what is misbehave.
Generally speaking, this slump-shouldered, sloe-eyed, handsome man has dominated the international circuit for-the past few years mainly through outrageous histrionics rather than by his natural racket flair or any degree of consistent winning. He has filled tournaments on four continents with bizarre, funny and sometimes unfortunate moments better suited to something out of opéra bouffe than to tennis competition. Here is Nastase disputing line calls. There, arguing with umpires and spectators. Here, engaging in sit-down delays. Nastase glares and makes notorious gestures. He mimics opponents' styles and mistakes. He imitates all manner of jungle noises and animal habits in explanation of how and what the man across the net is doing. At the same time that he is taunting and infuriating everyone, Nastase is joking and laughing it up much like the cute and horrid little boy who spoils the birthday party even as he blows out the candles.
In Monte Carlo, Nastase and his massive, hirsute countryman, Ion Tiriac (from whom he learned practically his entire act—the act originated with Tiriac, the obnoxiousness is Nastase's own contribution), were defaulted once in a doubles match because of their continued whining and bad attitude. They calmly walked off the court but then refused to play their quarterfinals singles matches the next day. "No doubles, no singles," they chorused. Quickly, they were reinstated in the doubles by tournament officials. It was a nice power play but hardly one approved by advocates of fair treatment.
In Richmond, angered by line calls and lost momentum, Nastase sat down and refused to continue his match against Charlie Pasarell. Fifteen minutes later he was finally coaxed back onto the court, about the time Pasarell's back muscles had stiffened up from the delay. Pasarell not only lost the match but was unable to play for four days afterward. "It was the only time I've ever wanted to punch a guy who beat me," he says.
In Paris, Nastase persuaded the umpire to address him as "Mr. Nastase" in a match with Cliff Richey. He proceeded to grunt barnyard sounds in an impersonation of Richey's efforts. He called Richey "an-ee-mal, an-ee-mal" and then said to him, "Richey, you wonder why they not call you mister like me? Because you not gentleman, Richey. You an-ee-mal." The two have barely spoken since.
At the Royal Albert Hall in London, Nastase's mimicry angered Clark Graebner to such an extent that the American climbed across the net, grabbed Nastase by the shirtfront and threatened to crack open his head with the racket. Nastase later defaulted, claiming he was "physically terrified." Graebner was silently acclaimed as a savior by touring pros everywhere.
In Nice during a mixed doubles match Nastase blasted two volleys that knifed into the back of Gail Chanfreau, who was trying to escape on the other side. The first one was a mistake, he said. So was the second one. Trembling and in tears, Chanfreau hurled her racket at Nastase's head, but it missed, just flashing by his modishly clipped bangs. "I want her defaulted," he screamed. "I want him defaulted," she screamed. Neither was. Later, Jean Baptiste Chanfreau, Gail's husband, confronted Nastase. "You do these avair again," warned the Frenchman, "I keel you."
At Wimbledon in his final, losing effort to Stan Smith, Nastase regarded his racket strings as too tight and bellowed to his Italian mentor, Michele Brunetti, sitting in the stands, for a new one. His noisy exhibition continued for two sets—transfixing the shocked British populace—before he settled down to play brilliantly.
At Forest Hills, while defeating Arthur Ashe for the championship, Nastase threw a towel at a service-line judge, slammed a ball at him and then whipped an unmistakable finger move on the crowd. He was booed with venom.
Despite all of the commotion he has caused, Nastase has added so much color and excitement to tournament tennis that vast majorities of spectators forgive his emotional displays and prefer to sit back and enjoy his athletic work. Most players, too, admit that off the court he is a joyous social companion and that it is impossible to remain angry with him for very long. There is evidence, moreover, that Nastase's presence has opened up the game for a broad audience to whom his style is especially appealing. Within the past few weeks as he has performed in America's population meccas of New York and Los Angeles, many denizens of the inner city core have watched him on television and in person and come to the conclusion that for the first time tennis has a player with soul.
"This cat is so funky I don't even believe it," says Mike Warren, a former UCLA basketball star and now a Hollywood actor and rabid tennis fan. "These guys who moan and complain about his routines are going after him all wrong. They're trying to give him their gentleman role and stay polite and the cat is beating their brains out with ghetto tennis. You think he's got some blood in him? I go crazy over the cat. He must be a blood."
Ilie Nastase says he would do anything to make it to the top. "I was always rather nasty," he says. "I willing to be friends with devil just to cross the bridge."
From the beginning, he says, he was a bad child. He didn't use slingshots to hit kittens but he did play soccer in the streets from morning to night and he did make his mother cry for "several years in row," He had three sisters and one brother, all older, and the family lived on the grounds of Bucharest's Progresul Sports Club where the Rumanian Davis Cup team was to play all of its home matches in the years to come.
Nastase's father was a bank cashier and brother Costel a promising national tennis player when Ilie was a little boy. He is positively lyrical in his remembrances of those days. "I was thin and raggedy, nobody bother with me much, a restless soul," says Nastase. "I had chest like chicken and legs like matchsticks in the cartoons. The tennis racket was always too heavy for me. And I always think more about soccer than tennis anyway."
Home was a flea market for tennis. Dead balls, old rackets, sneakers stained with sweat, socks with holes, towels. "My brother was always restringing and my sister Cornelia was hitting balls against the wall when I came out of house," he says. "Hundreds of players were on courts of Progresul. I don't care much for game. All I care was for glasses of lemonade close to nets.
"One day, I think eight years old, my brother saw my shots, next morning he slap me around, tell me play with him. I hate to play, but I want him have to work hard. I made him play heart out to beat me. An uncle kept me at game by giving me candy and jelly beans to stay on court hitting balls. You see, I was professional way back then. I know I lucky to grow up with sound of balls hitting rackets, smell of freshly sprinkled courts at four in morning, I learn everything by looking."
In 1959, in the handsome university town of Cluj, Nastase won the National Boys Title, concluding the match with a stop volley that twisted away from his opponent and nearly landed on Nastase's own side of the net. The crowd laughed. "I so happy to entertain them," he said. The next day he served as ball boy in the Rumanian men's final, which Tiriac won for the first of a record eight consecutive years. Or until Nastase finally took it from him in 1967.
Up to 1966 there were flashes of talent. Then Nastase beat Marty Riessen in Cairo, Jan Kodes in Paris and, in his first appearance at Wimbledon, lost to Thomas Koch of Brazil when he committed 32 foot faults and dropped the last two sets at love. Tiriac had long since taken the volatile youngster under his wing. The two combined to make a formidable doubles team ("If I accept having to play with a fanatic of your caliber," Tiriac told Nastase, "I have nobody to blame but myself").
Fortunately for Nastase, Tiriac has been with him all along, guiding the way over the rough spots of new lands, different languages, puzzling experiences, emotional traumas and shifty financial vultures. A storybook character in his own right, the popular Tiriac came out of the same mountain neighborhood of Brasov where Count Dracula was originally presented to the world; he never lets anybody forget it. "Yes, I am brother of Dracula," he will intone in a marvelous Carpathian growl. Normally this is followed by the astonishing spectacle of Tiriac ferociously butting his head into the head of whomever he is greeting ("Old Rumanian welcome," he says) and eating sumptuously from a feast of broken glass. "I not really crazy," he says. "Maybe just little bit."
Tiriac has been all over the world representing his country both in tennis and, before that, as an ice hockey defenseman. He played against the U.S. in the 1964 Olympics. Once, in Moscow meeting the Russians, he was jeered and set upon, as he explains it, by one entire section of the stadium. "I break my stick in two piece," says Tiriac. "I face the crowd. I scream out, 'O.K., who is first?' A pause. More pause. Nobody move. Is good thing. Is old Rumanian proverb. 'Better your mother to weep than my mother to weep.' "
Last year, following their second failure in the Davis Cup, a 280-page book about the lives of Nastase and Tiriac was published in Rumania to capitalize on the interest in the sport that the two men have aroused. Entitled Ar Fi Fast Prea Frumos...(It Would Have Been Beautiful...), presumably if they had won the cup, the book sells for 8.5 lei—51 cents—and the first edition remained in the bookstores for only a day and a half. It has sold more than 100,000 copies and the author, Ion Chirila, has made enough in royalties to buy a new car, a considerable luxury in Rumania.
In several excerpts from the book, Nastase explains his feeling for the game. "For me, tennis is the art of doing something your opponent never expects," he says. "How wonderful it is to look over after smashing the ball he cannot see and watch as he cannot move and seems split in half.
"My main weapon," he goes on, "is the element of surprise. I want to play the game inside out and upside down if possible. I want to attack the rules of tennis and protect myself against rules at the same time. This may be a childish plan but this is it.
"Sometimes I feel like tap-dancing, screeching, unscrewing light bulbs, pulling curtains, combing hair, doing knee-bends, handstands and turning somersaults out there. I have no patience. I want the contest to be one yard from the net. To not have the time to pass the racket from one side to the other. To play until my opponent and I fall down with exhaustion. To beat him and then embrace."
Probably the closest Nastase has ever come to being embraced by an opponent was when Graebner came to the brink of maiming him at the Royal Albert Hall last January. Nastase always has had trouble beating Graebner and the two had clashed before. This particular act started after Nastase hit a net cord winner that Graebner just failed to reach. The umpire, however, ruled that the ball girl had mysteriously run into the doubles lane and had caught the shot before Graebner had a fair chance; a let was called. Nastase reacted with fury. "No play two, my point," he shouted. The decision stood.
Graebner went on to win the game and, as the two changed sides, Nastase began his routine. He had some neat words for Graebner, some hand signs for the umpire and other things for the crowd. As he was preparing to serve, Nastase looked up and saw Graebner at the net motioning him to come forward. The Rumanian went ahead and served into the empty court, then mimicked his opponent by motioning Graebner to come to him.
Graebner jumped the net, grabbed Nastase by the shirt and said, in the words of the Rumanian, "You not doing me what you did Richey in Paris, bastard. You cut this——out or I crash your head."
They played out the set, during which Nastase did not win another game; Graebner rifled a couple of forehands into the audience; the ball girls cowered in terror; and the umpire lost all track of scoring. Luckily, the tension did not last much longer, for Nastase abruptly quit, saying he felt "threatened."
Graebner will not discuss the incident publicly, claiming that it is "water under the bridge" and that now the two are friends who will play doubles together this winter. But Nastase still insists he was wronged.
"Everyone say I hassle, hassle, hassle," he says. "What is hassle? This not hassle. This preparation. I learn such preparation from Tiriac. Most players humorous fellows. They take joke. I call South African players 'racists.' All time, 'racists.' They laugh. I call Godzilla Smith. Negroni Ashe. Cheese Omelet Okker. The Dutch, all they have is cheese. They all laugh. I say to little Jimmy Connors at Wimbledon, 'Hey, ba-bee, you bring your mommy with you today? You hold her hand?" Connors laugh. This all preparation. Australians used to do it me. But Graebner and an-ee-mal Richey, they no take joke. No sense humor."
Through the years tennis has had more than its share of bad actors and zany incidents. Frank Kovacs, a tall eccentric who played in the 1930s and '40s, had a backhand to match the great Don Budge but he wasted his talent. Airplanes flying overhead were enough to make him quit in the middle of a match. Too heavy nap on the balls caused him to protest by inserting them one at a time between his teeth and gnawing away. Wayne Sa-bin used to throw his racket high into the seats so he could rest during the interval it took the ball boys to fetch it. Once Sabin accidentally, or maybe not, upset a pitcher of water all over his opponent's favorite racket. And Bobby Riggs was renowned as a stall artist who could con linesmen and quick-serve with the best of the cuties.
More recently, there have been Art Larsen, Dennis Ralston, Bob Hewitt and the fearsome Pancho Gonzales. Gonzales says facing the antics of Nastase would not bother him. "The quality players don't get upset by his stuff," Pancho says. "After all, he acts up on only a few points during a match and that isn't the difference between winning and losing. They only bitch because he's winning. Let 'em scream. This guy is top dog now; he's beautiful. The only pity is he hasn't done enough with the talent he has. If he bears down and makes the normal progress, he could be unbeatable for the next five years."
For a long time Nastase was regarded only in the tradition of emotionally vulnerable Europeans who permitted bad calls, bounces, weather and every other element of fate to upset their rhythm and destroy their game. "It is a European syndrome we look for," says Ashe. "Europeans are just that way. One bad call early in a match and it completely sways their concentration. They think the whole world is against them and they're easy because then they've got excuses. They have found a way out."
Nastase squandered his remarkable talents along these lines even while he was making a name for himself. Temperament always was his natural foe, and his game, based on electric speed and wristy spin, was considered too mechanically unsound to get him very far in the big grass tournaments. His second serve was weak, his volley not piercing and his passing shots inconsistent. He was, as Jack Kramer says, "a fly swatter—flailing at the ball all the time."
Probably it was just about a year ago that Nastase came to that crucial point in a career when a man has to decide how much it is worth and whether he wants to pay. He had had a wondrous spring and summer with victories in Omaha, Hampton, Nice, Monte Carlo, Istanbul and the Swedish Open as well as runner-up finishes in Madrid, Brussels and the French Open. He had gone unbeaten in 12 singles matches in Davis Cup competition, and had again reached the final round with Tiriac, this time to face Smith in the opening singles match at Charlotte, N.C. Nastase lost the first five games and it looked like a rout until the Rumanian rallied to win the next five and corner Smith at 0-40 in the 11th game. Then suddenly Smith won the next five points, the set 7-5 and the match 7-5, 6-3, 6-1.
Frank Froehling's courageous comeback against Tiriac in the next singles match was the key to the ultimate 3-2 victory of the U.S., but it was Nastase whose performance caused commotion in Europe; once again he had shunned tough combat in an important match. The Rumanian contingent was furious. Prior to Charlotte, Nastase had disdained much practice time to visit a girl across the ocean. And then came the ultimate collapse.
Though it wasn't noticeable at the time, Nastase's performances since Charlotte indicate that some sort of turning point had been reached deep inside. Later in the year he went on to finish second to Smith in Grand Prix points. He beat Smith to win a special Grand Prix round robin in Paris. And he recorded a stirring upset at Wembley when he ran through Roy Emerson and John Newcombe and, in the final, came from behind to destroy Rod Laver.
"I think it was right then he realized he could be a great player," says Kramer, "and a lot of people changed their own minds about him. He settled down at Wembley, did some hard concentrating, played tactical, intelligent tennis. And he didn't clown or do all the complaining. When you beat Laver you deserve to start thinking good things about yourself. Nastase has enough talent to go as far as he wants to go in this game."
It is Kramer's judgment, confirmed by others, that in the important competitions against honored sportsmen such as Laver, Newcombe and Smith, Nastase finally gets down to the solid, no-nonsense tennis he leaves out of his other matches. When he respects the man on the opposite side who is imperturbable, it rubs off. No less important is Nastase's awe of such competitors even now, in the glow of his newfound confidence. Nastase's admiration for the Australian name players touches on reverence; at Wimbledon one day he was observed tugging at a friend's sleeve and pointing excitedly as Newcombe strolled by. After the tournament had concluded, he flew to Sweden where he would play doubles with Neale Fraser, the former Wimbledon champion. "At Heathrow airport Ilie ordered pastry for me, pushed my baggage cart and wanted to do everything but shine my shoes," says Fraser. "Here was a guy who had just gone through a fantastic Wimbledon and was waiting on me like a servant and thanking me for agreeing to play doubles when I was the one who should have been apologizing for wanting to set foot on the same court with him. I really believe it was all out of respect for my name. He knew I had won at Wimbledon and he had just discovered how hard that is. He was like a little kid. It was amazing."
There is a streak of something like modesty in Nastase's makeup. He spurned a $115,000 contract offer from Lamar Hunt's World Championship Tennis group last winter for several reasons, not the least of which was his firm, if mistaken, belief that he is not in the same class with the top pros. Also he would not have received permission from the government-controlled Rumanian Tennis Federation even if he had wanted it.
Nastase's American agent, Bill Riordan, promoter of an independent U.S. indoor circuit and a staunch enemy of Hunt, had advised his star not to join WCT. Furthermore, after Riordan's urging (widely criticized by those interested in seeing him play against the best), Nastase recently again turned down a chance to play the WCT circuit this coming season. On the weaker tour he will, of course, make good money, win his share of tournaments and not have to extend himself day in and day out. But is Nastase copping out?
"With the peace settlement and all the contracts drying up, Ilie would be a fool to go WCT now," says Ashe. "Except he'll have to live with himself knowing he's doing it the easy way and not proving anything."
But Nastase has his own reasons and—for the moment—some patience. "I just know it not very nice put pressure on me all time to join WCT," he says. "It's just winter I am not playing against best players. I play them in big ones still—Italy, Paris, Forest Hills, Wimbledon. Is enough. I don't want play so many good men right in row. Is tough. Winning big tournaments only way to prove something anyway. What means I win WCT in Oslo? Nobody ever hear of that.
"This is another class of players we talking about, babee. Laver, whew. Rosewall, whew. Even if I beat them, still there is something more special they have over me and other guys. I not have enough to be like them. I really feel this difference—I played them and I know.
"I have now arrived to approach the great ones. Can beat many aces of tennis. For them my victories not any more such great surprise. Laver knows everything, though, equally great in all aspects. Missing ball doesn't bother him a bit even though he may want to break racket in his hand. Myself, I cannot control. I feel blood rising to my head when I miss one. If I am to beat Laver and the rest I need to hit ball better and control my blood. Listen, babee. Why should I play WCT without guarantee now? I doing fine the way it is. I would not always get seed in WCT. Then what happens if I draw Laver second round couple of times, or maybe Newcombe? I no eat. I feel this way about contracts. When their contracts expire, I not believe Laver and Rosewall play without guarantees, either. I wait while for to get better. I want year. Maybe then I play whole time."
Quickness and daring, creative shot selection, and a backhand topspin passing bullet that is nearly impossible to return mark Nastase's technique. But he seems to be on the threshold of something more. Tennis being a game of mistakes, the power players—Kramer, Gonzales, Laver—have always used the big serve and volley to force opponents into errors that were made while trying to keep the power subdued.
Nastase's ability makes possible an entirely different scheme. "It's a new idea," says Kramer. "He is so fast and passes on the run so well that he gets the power guy at the net thinking he's got to hit supervolleys every time or else Nasty will run them down and pass him. Players aren't willing to be careful with him; they think they have to hit winners all the time. He forces a lot of errors just by being so quick."
There is nothing classical about the style. Nastase has never hit the ball hard. And rarely has he ever hit it on balance. Like most Europeans, he was brought up on clay and taught to just get the ball into play on service and then start the point from there. He has a tendency to serve "lollipops" but the ball is thrown up in such a way (far out front of his body) and the racket motion is such a quick last-second flick of the wrist that his serve becomes very difficult to follow. Ashe concedes it takes him a very long time in a match before he picks up Nastase's serve coming off the racket; Tom Gorman, who has never beaten the Rumanian, says he has yet to pick it up.
On defense Nastase is just as deceptive. He receives service far behind the baseline and is actually retreating (rather than advancing) as he hits the ball. His returns and ground strokes, struck again from far out front, are mostly top-spin and they float on occasion, making him susceptible to a solid volley game. Nevertheless, opponents seem unwilling to crowd him enough or close in hard because his ability to turn off-balance gets into passing winners.
"He may not look it, but he's quicker than Okker. He's quicker than anybody," says Fred Stolle. "And it's not scrambling. The guy never scrambles. It's not much anticipation, either. It's just all zoom. He doesn't seem to be trying. He doesn't do much on the volley, either. Then all of a sudden he's there. He's always there."
"Nasty doesn't really have a weakness," says Ashe, "because he is so dependent on speed, timing, his hands and his athleticism. He doesn't have many bad days with all that going. But his general game could be torn to shreds by controlled power, by a Newcombe or a Rose-wall with his accuracy. Nasty sometimes takes too long to end points on fast surfaces and that would hurt him on our tour."
On any tour the standard criterion for comparing players of different styles and eras is how good were they at the top of their game? How tough on their best day? Who would you take for one match? Almost always, general agreement favors Lew Hoad, the blond strong-boy from Sydney who won the major titles during the 1950s and who now coaches the Spanish Davis Cup team from his tennis resort near Malaga. For one match Lew Hoad himself says he would take, first, Lew Hoad and, second, Ilie Nastase.
These days, the quicksilver messenger from Rumania is beginning to throw off the claims of other pursuits that have partially curtailed his concentration on the game. Those pursuits—all of them—being girls. At his initiation into the jet-set atmosphere of international tennis he was already an attractive, eligible romantic who drew young things to him with a single glance. Since then, a smoky, dramatic air has fallen about Nastase—a sultry electricity that he never fails to promote to full effect, from Stockholm to Salisbury, Md.
On his very first passage through U.S. customs in 1969 Nastase succeeded in making a date with an American stewardess despite an English vocabulary consisting almost wholly of the words "honey" and "fiancée." Since then, he has introduced to the other players on the tour more of his "fiancées" than Tommy Manville ever thought of. Asked last year in Bastad at the Swedish Open why he did not have any regular "fiancée" along with him, Nastase replied, "Foolish fool. You do not bring buckets of water to the sea."
Much of this play-action will soon come to an end. In December, Nastase is to be married to Dominique (Niki) Grazia, a stunning dark-haired model from Brussels who—it seems unanimous—has the deepest, largest, brownest pools of eyes ever seen on any tennis circuit at any time. The daughter of a wealthy banker, Dominique met Nastase at Forest Hills last year and they cooed at the Hippopotamus until dawn. She is a strong-willed, intelligent young woman who seems to have the bubbling Nastase wrapped around her finger. "I am the real fiancée," she says, pointing to her own ring that Ilie wears. "From now on everything is tennis." After the wedding the couple will move into a new home Nastase is building in the immaculate lake district of Floreasca on the outskirts of Bucharest.
The success of the past few years seems to have affected Nastase only in his relations with Tiriac, who broke off their tour doubles partnership prior to Wimbledon this June. Tiriac cited his own age (33) and the fact that Nastase was no longer interested in trying to win in doubles. (The two still play Davis Cup doubles together and both are very much interested in winning this week.)
"I think time arrive when Ilie be big boy and go on his own," Tiriac says. "I never let him down in my life in tennis or anything. But I expected him tell me when he wanted to try hard and when not. Very few matches he fight to win doubles. I realize he big star now. But sometimes I feel like dog trainer who teach dog manners and graces. Then just when you think dog know how should act with nice qualities, dog make puddle and all is wasted."
Still Tiriac, like everyone else Nastase touches, cannot help but be charmed by him most of the time. Nastase has never mourned a defeat for more than a few minutes—even at Wimbledon, where he laughingly swept his way through adoring crowds who mobbed him an hour after he had lost the biggest tournament in the world. Tennis is a fancy with him, life a whirl; and even if he is enjoying such a fairy-tale existence to excess, as one cynic points out, "because he knows what the alternative is back behind the Curtain," that is his privilege.
So Ilie Nastase is just some country Communist hot dog lucky enough to have Dominique, money, soul, all that fun and all those marvelous shots. So tennis is just some sport lucky enough to have him.