"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.' "