Sprawled in an aisle of the Tennis-hallen in Stockholm last week, feet stuck out like invasion barges, jaws chomping steadily in gloomy concentration, great predatory nose twitching, Ilie Nastase watched Arthur Ashe play Manuel Orantes in the last of the preliminary round-robin matches of the Commercial Union Masters Tournament.
It was a contest that was hardly important to Ashe. He had already qualified for the semifinals. But it mattered a great deal to Nastase and to Orantes. If Orantes won, he could join Ashe, Bjorn Borg and Guillermo Vilas in the playoffs. Otherwise the place would go to Nastase. And to an outsider, the odds had to be heavily stacked in Orantes' favor. To begin with, he had all the motivation in the world to win. The Masters, a tournament of increasing stature that brings together the eight top-scoring players on the Commercial Union Life Assurance Grand Prix circuit, offered a first prize of $40,000. Also, as even a casual observer of the tennis scene could attest, Arthur had no special reason for extending a friendly, helping hand to Ilie.
Only a few days previously, indeed, summoning up what is probably the most pejorative word in his gentlemanly vocabulary, Ashe had called Nastase "that ass." For an uncomfortable 24 hours, until a committee of officials in hasty conclave reversed the umpire's decision to disqualify both Nastase and Ashe and declared Ashe the winner of their early match, the president of the Association of Tennis Professionals (Ashe) was in the undignified position of being equally penalized for a joint public pratfall with the biggest clown in sport (Nastase). Up in the stands, therefore, furiously pounding his gum, Nastase might have been justifiably pessimistic.
The story of the trouble is confused but it seems clear that the night before the tournament started, Nastase was holding court in the cocktail bar of the Grand Hotel in Stockholm. "I'm going to drive Ashe crazy tomorrow," an eavesdropper claims to have heard him say. "I'm going to give him all the old tricks and some of my new ones." At this point, Ashe entered. "Hi, Negroni," Nastase hailed him familiarly, "I'm going to give you a hard time tomorrow."
December 15, 1975
What is in the public domain is that at 15-40, with Ashe ahead 4-1 in the final set, Nastase served before Ashe was ready. After losing the second set, Nastase had bashed the ball against the side board very close to the linesman who had called his last shot out. He had been warned then and he was warned again when Ashe caught the ball on the premature serve. "All the time he isn't ready," Nastase yelled. Then he began to mime serve. Ashe walked off a moment before the German referee, Horst Klosterkemper, could disqualify Nastase, and was disqualified also.
So as Nastase watched Ashe fail to take advantage of six break points against Orantes in the fourth game, the gum took an even worse beating. But then, considering maybe that he had tortured Nastase enough, Ashe began to play, committing himself at the net, pushing the game at Orantes. He tied the first set at 4-4 and won 6-4. When he took the first game of the second set, Nastase unwound himself, stopped chomping, and moved off.
Even Nastase, though, could hardly have foretold the astonishing surrender that Orantes was about to make. In the second set the Spaniard offered a public concession of the match, losing 12 of the last 13 points and ending by wildly banging the ball out of the court. Handed an alibi after the game, he turned it down. "I wasn't tired," he said. "I'm still fresh. But all week things have not been quite right...it is political." He implied that the Swedish crowd had been against him because of recent events in Spain, though in fact the fans had shown exemplary sportsmanship even when their hero Borg was playing. (Later, after winning the doubles title with Juan Gisbert, Orantes admitted he might have exaggerated. "It's been a long season," he said.)
By the weekend, then, the form of the semifinals had emerged. Ashe had even cleared up the Nastase problem. "Ilie's been very nice to me today," he said, after beating Orantes. "Why shouldn't he be? I've just given him the $40,000 chance." Old Nasty himself sealed the truce with a bouquet of flowers. "If I meet him in the final," said Arthur, "I won't be walking off again. Things are completely normal now."
But before such a final could be played, Ashe had to beat Borg and Nastase had a seemingly much tougher task in meeting Vilas, the winner of the 1974 Masters at Melbourne when he defeated—who else—Ilie. The sensible money in Stockholm was confident of an Ashe-Vilas final match.
The money was entirely wrong. In the first semifinal, Ashe started lethargically, losing his first service game. "He's always been a slow starter," a supporter said hopefully. "Most times he's won this year he's lost the first set." As he did on this occasion, 6-4. Ashe's authority was spasmodic. More often there were smashes missed and drop shots placed six inches from the top of the net. The recovery that his friends hoped for seemed to be coming in the second set, when Ashe began to take advantage of Borg's inaccurate first and weak second service, but even though Ashe took it 6-3, there were ominous lapses.
Ashe's recovery could not be maintained. In spite of available break points early in the third set, he went down 6-2 and the real crux came in the fourth when each of the first three games was bitterly contested, moving again and again to deuce. Ashe took one out of the three but it was his last stand. Borg won 6-2 to enter the final.
"I wasn't unsure how to play him. I know how to play him. I've played him on this type of court a million times," Ashe said later, still seemingly bewildered. "He's played against me before just as well as he did today in the last two sets. That first set at Wimbledon he was just as good. But my approach shots got me into trouble today." And Ashe had also served seven double faults. "I haven't been serving well this entire tournament," he said. "So that was nothing new today."
More significant, what Ashe probably lost for good was the chance of a double triumph. "I've said before you've got to be strong as an ox to win the WCT and the Masters in one year," he said. "It can be done, but I don't think I'll ever do it now. This was about my last shot at it. I'll be trying again, but not as hard as I did this year."
Anyone arriving half an hour after the start of the Nastase-Vilas semifinal would have missed the first set because Nastase had it wrapped up in 23 minutes flat, score 6-0. In the second set Vilas' only achievement was to stiffen a helter-skelter rout into an orderly retreat: at one point he stood holding his head in both hands, visibly trying to compel himself to concentrate on his attack. But a fighting retreat was all he could manage. Nastase was outplaying him all the time, making him come to the net instead of working, as he likes to, from the base line and forcing him into volleying errors. Nastase, 6-3. In what was to be the last set, four successive games went against service but the final break was in Nastase's favor as Vilas drove a forehand shot helplessly into the net. After that, Nastase cruised home, 6-4.
So there it was. Into the semis by the grace of Ashe, Nastase had survived him. "I have not played as well since 1973," Nastase said after meeting Vilas. Perhaps significantly, also, he had gone through the match without any serious temper problems, having got rid of his tension in one short, improper piece of advice snarled to a photographer early in the second set. "I think the Masters is my tournament," he declared happily.
Up until this week, indeed, he had reached the finals four times and won the title three times, in 1971, 1972 and 1973. And the $40,000 now riding on the Borg final would be useful. "Boy, I'm scared nervous," he confessed. "Tomorrow I will have had three years of marriage. So I bought her a fur coat, $2,000. But everybody has to buy a coat sometime, huh?" This was in sly reference to the sartorial triumph of the Stockholm tournament, the magnificent black bear coat that Ashe had bought to protect himself from the sharp Swedish air. The détente symbolized by the bouquet of flowers was being eroded at a fast pace.
The sartorial flop of this affair, by common consent, was the bilious yellow outfit in which Bjorn Borg had appeared through the week. "Like a hard-boiled egg yolk that's been in the water all night," a perceptive critic put it. But on Sunday afternoon in the final, Borg and his yellow were not in the public eye for very long. In fact, they were on display just 65 minutes, a distressingly short period for the program planners of Swedish TV, who had set aside a full three hours for the event. Nastase demolished Borg in even less time than he had taken to dispose of Vilas, in a style that showed not only the limitations of Borg's game but, more important, the classic skills of Nastase that lie on call behind the clowning facade.
Because above all it was an elegant massacre, an outstanding visual image, the lovely, curled backhand strokes from Nastase, and the ball dropping precisely in the corners. From the time that he broke Borg's service in the fourth game, the result was not seriously in doubt. There was a minor Borg revival in the sixth when he leapt high for two successive smashes, with the crowd giving him a sustained, deep-throated Swedish cheer, but then Nastase pushed an almost contemptuous shot past him, turned to the still hopeful fans and puffed out his chest like one of the half-frozen pigeons in the snow outside the Tennishallen. In that first set the critical game was probably the seventh when Nastase came back from 30-40 to win. In the eighth another of his many passing shots put him at set point and he broke Borg.
For everyone except the home crowd the match now offered the satisfaction similar to that which comes when a stylish, classical boxer coldly cuts up a plodder, a comparison that is a little unfair, perhaps, to Borg, but gets to the truth in a reasonable way. The Swede would have been very happy to slug it out from the base line, moving his opponent across the court and finally coming in for a fast kill at the net. But he was never permitted to achieve this. Instead, Nastase kept drawing him closer and closer to the net, bewildering him into more and more misses, as he had done with Vilas the previous evening. In the last set, Borg's first service had become as innocuous as his second, and Nastase, spooning up drop shots that Borg helplessly smashed into the net, was able to take the time to produce an impudent shimmy for the crowd which, in spite of its disappointment, stayed with Borg until the end, a bitter one for the Swede with the game scores 6-2, 6-2, 6-1.
Long before that end came, somebody said, "The only way that Nasty can lose now is by walking off the court." That wasn't very likely, as Nasty himself made clear when he announced the new reformed Nastase after the match. "This is the second time I concentrate in—how old am I, 29?—in 29 years. The first time was yesterday. I realize now," he went on, deadpan, "that it's good for my game." And good for the game of tennis, he might have added.