It was shaping up as a disastrous week for Ilie Nastase, the bad boy from Bucharest. His first wedding anniversary was coming up on Friday, so naturally he took his stunning wife Dominique with him to Boston for the $50,000 Commercial Union Masters—but did he figure on having his mother-in-law come, too? He was the top seed in the round-robin portion of the tournament—but he lost to the bottom seed the first day. Somebody in the audience called him a bum and he hit a ball in the heckler's direction. On the second day the referee had to persuade him not to stalk off the court. He did not shake hands with his opponent after the match and he seemed well on his way to earning the Spoiled Brat Award, which in tennis is a much-sought-after bauble.
Instead, irate Ilie won the championship. How he did it is not entirely clear even now, but it involved his most dangerous rival suffering an injury at a climactic moment (perhaps as a result of Rumanian black magic), another rival getting knocked off by a fellow Eastern European, Jan Kodes, and some mathematical figuring that would have taxed Einstein. It also involved many excellent shots by Mr. Nastase, who beat Dutchman Tom Okker in the Saturday afternoon final 6-3, 7-5, 4-6, 6-3. It was rather conclusive proof that if, as has been claimed, God is an Englishman, he must have some Rumanian ancestors.
The Masters is the finish of a seven-month, 22-nation money chase called the Grand Prix, which is sponsored by Commercial Union, an insurance giant that sells policies of various sorts from Tokyo to Timbuktu. In 51 tournaments, plus the Davis Cup, players vie for points as well as money. Those with the most points at trail's end get cash bonuses. Nastase, the runaway winner, received $55,000. The Masters is a special dessert for the top eight men and when Nastase beat Okker in the final, he was the beneficiary of an additional $15,000.
Actually, Nastase's opponent in the final should have been John Newcombe, an Australian Davis Cup hero just the week before. And it would have been Newcombe except for a case of lightning striking twice in the same place, a freakish eventuality that any one of Commercial Union's subsidiaries would have gladly insured against.
December 17, 1973
Last December in the semifinals of the Masters in Barcelona (the show is moved from country to country each year), Tom Gorman had outplayed Stan Smith and had him at match point in the fourth set, when Gorman defaulted. An old back injury had flared up and Gorman knew from painful experience that he would be too stiff to bend over and tie his shoelaces the next day, much less bend for perhaps five sets' worth of low volleys in the finals. It was a fine sportsmanlike deed.
Last week, after Nastase easily disposed of Jimmy Connors in one semifinal 6-3, 7-5, Newcombe met Okker in the other. Newk was ahead 6-3, 5-7, 5-3 and was serving. All he had to do was hold service to win. The crowd in Hynes Auditorium leaned forward collectively, already savoring the taste of a final the next day between Newk and Nasty, probably the two best players on Earth just now. Newcombe got it to match point, then made a volley error. Deuce. Then ad Okker, then deuce again. Newk smashed an overhead to the corner to regain the advantage. Match point again. Certainly this time the Flying Dutchman would make a forced landing.
But Newcombe was limping! He sat down in a linesman's chair and rubbed his right leg. A few people in the front row had heard something pop when he landed after hitting the overhead. The year before Smith had rushed to Gorman's side, but this night Okker just walked to the net and stared incredulously. He edged over toward the umpire's chair, looking sideways up at the ump as if to ask, "How much time are you going to give him?" Veterans in the press gallery were reminded of that immortal Italian player, Fausto Gardini, who is said to have once leaped excitedly around the body of a fallen, cramped-up opponent and screamed, "Play must be continuous! Play must be continuous!"
If Okker had any such inclinations, he was spared the trouble when Newcombe defaulted because of what was later diagnosed as torn fibers in the lateral muscle of the upper right calf.
"I felt something bunch up in the back of the knee about a half-hour before and knew something was torn," said Newcombe. "When I went up for the smash at deuce in the last game, it went completely. I could have played one more point hoping to hit an ace but knew that I could not play tomorrow."
Ironically, it was the second time the two men had been involved in such a match. In Florida once, Okker was about to beat Newk when he turned an ankle. He hobbled to the baseline and pitty-patted two serves, but Newk hacked both and Okker won. And the Sunday before the Masters, Newcombe's second Davis Cup singles win moved him past Okker into second place in the Grand Prix standings and cost Tom $10,000.
Besides Nasty, Newk and Okker, the Masters had the Czech, Kodes; Gorman and Smith again, both of whom had just lost two Davis Cup singles matches and were not altogether thrilled about picking up their rackets so soon; Manuel Orantes of Spain; and the 21-year-old American, Jimmy Connors, who had just become engaged to Florida's tennis sweetheart, Chris Evert. (Arthur Ashe, Rod Laver and Ken Rosewall had finished 10th, 11th and 17th in the Grand Prix and were resting elsewhere in their tax shelters.)
Four of the entrants had at least semi-legitimate claims to being No. 1 in the world. Nastase had won the Grand Prix and had been fined more than anybody else. Okker had won six Grand Prix tournaments and had a 4-2 head-to-head edge over Nastase. Smith had won the World Championship of Tennis (WCT) singles and doubles. Newcombe had won Forest Hills and led Australia's Davis Cup recovery mission. Perhaps this event would indeed produce a Master.
The eight were put into two groups, Blue and White. For the first three days each man would play in a round robin within his group. On Friday night the affair would turn into a single-elimination tournament, the top two from each group playing in the semifinals.
The most interesting White battle was Smith vs. Connors. With other male players, Connors rates just a little above tennis elbow on the popularity scale. This is because he has more gall than a daylight burglar and less maturity than a ball boy, because he declines to join WCT and instead builds up his record and his bank account against lesser opposition, because he makes distracting, wiseacre comments during matches, because he won't join the players' association and because he would not play on the Davis Cup team in the early rounds but then volunteered to play in the final. What makes it all harder to swallow is that he is such a fine tennis player. He annoys his fellows and then beats them, too.
The rankings of the U.S. Lawn Tennis Association, based on play from October to October, have not been released, but chances are Connors will replace Smith in first spot, or at least be co-ranked No. 1. Going into the Masters match, Connors had a 2-0 record against Smith in 1973.
He improved it to 3-0 on Wednesday, making it even worse by winning the first set 6-0 and taking the third and deciding set—a 12-point tiebreaker—after trailing 4-1. It was Smith's fifth straight loss in singles and he was despondent.
"A wonderful year with a terrible ending," he said. "I keep blowing matches at the end. I can't remember losing a love set since I was a kid."
The next day he ended the losing skein by beating Orantes and sending the Spaniard back to Barcelona with the booby prize and a 0-3 record. Okker (3-0) and Connors (2-1) moved into the semis.
The Blue group was a lot more complicated. Nastase lost to Gorman but then made a comeback, beating Kodes and Newcombe, who said he was saving himself for the semis and final, since he already had a semifinal berth clinched. On Thursday night Kodes played Gorman. If Gorman won, he would be tied with Newcombe and Nastase, all with 2-1 records, and the officials would have to go by sets lost. If there was still a tie, they would go by games lost. If still tied, then they would have consulted each player's astrology chart. Suffice it to say that if Gorman won handily, he could have edged past Nastase, and it was a real possibility since Gorman had never lost to the Czech. With the reporters up above Section K trying to figure out all the mathematical possibilities and Nastase pacing up and down in his sweatsuit, it was the greatest balcony scene since Romeo and Juliet.
"Oh, you Russian, you have got to win this game for me," said Nastase, mixing up his Communist neighbors. "You should help me. We are border countries, you know."
Kodes, perhaps aided by the slow Mateflex surface brought in from France, won the match 6-3, 3-6, 6-3 and had his subsequent press conference interrupted by a playful, un-nasty Nasty:
"Can I ask a question please? Why you not win in two sets? You help a friend, I know that.... Kodes, you're on caviar tonight. You are my guest."
The rest was fairly smooth sailing for Nastase, who all of a sudden thought the Boston fans were delightful. He had beaten Connors nine out of 10 times and continued that dominance in the semis, leading Jimmy to say, "He's the guy who comes up with the great shots at the right time. The ball just sped by me, as it usually does when I play him. Ilie moves better than almost anybody I play."
The Okker-Nastase final was not quite as good natured. Okker was sour and surly over what he thought were bad calls and Nasty hit a ball—not very hard—at a service linesman, drawing an immediate announcement of a $100 fine from Jack Kramer, chief executive officer of the Association of Tennis Professionals, who was doing the color commentary on TV. But Nastase completed his comeback and won in four sets, serving nicely, putting all sorts of spin on his ground strokes and even coming through with a behind-the-back volley.
And how did Nastase feel about his third straight Masters trophy, probable No. 1 ranking on most of the world lists and $228,750 in 1973 winnings?
"I'm not feel that bad," he said with a grin. "Can be even better next year, I am hoping."