No sport has changed quite so much in the recent past as tennis, and no two books illustrate the changes so well as two disparate volumes: Nasty, Ilie Nastase vs. Tennis, a biography of that contemporary gentleman by Richard Evans, and A Handful of Summers, an informal, episodic memoir of languid times past, by Gordon Forbes, who was a journeyman South African player two decades ago.
Evans, a British journalist, appears to know Nastase every bit as well as Forbes knows Forbes. No tennis writer has stayed quite so close to the modern game as the dapper Evans. Indeed, so close is he to his subject that, while he can be professionally critical of Nastase, minutiae and gossip get as much attention as more substantial matters. For goodness' sake, at one point Nastase's computer horoscope is reprinted verbatim. Evans could have profited by having an Ion Tiriac for an editor.
Evans' Nastase comes across as a likable chap, a victim of loneliness and bad advice and too much tennis—all the polluted effluence of the modern game. Nastase is, in this view, a tragic product of his environment. Another major failing of this often splendid study is that Evans neglects to deal sufficiently with Nastase's pivotal loss to Stan Smith in the '72 Davis Cup final round. With Nastase playing before his hometown Bucharest fans, that match should have been the crowning moment of his career. Since then, Nastase has been an artist without portfolio. Somehow his boorish antics would seem more justified if they were the consequences of defeat, if it was not merely jet lag that had done him in.
Ah, but what a wonderful time Ilie would have had in the tennis world that Forbes writes about. It's fun to be reminded how quaint it all was. Forbes writes well, too. Rod Laver, always so bland, has never come across more fully. In the delightful sketches of Don Candy, Pam Shriver's coach, we can see why she has coped so well at such a young age. And nothing is more poignant than Forbes' memories of his sister Jeannie (long since Mrs. Cliff Drysdale), who was the Tracy Austin of her own summer and a has-been the very next, at age 16. "I wish I could remember why it was that I used to want so badly to play!" she says to her brother. Jeannie still had all the strokes, only there was no more game. I think she may have said it for all the phenoms everywhere. And maybe, it occurred to me, that is what Nastase might say, too—if he were to write his epitaph.