SI Vault
Curry Kirkpatrick
October 16, 1972
Presenting Ilie Nastase, paradox from Rumania: at most times a joyous companion, bon vivant and ladies' man, but with a racket in his hand a rascal—a baiter of opponents and officials alike
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October 16, 1972

Bad Is Beautiful

Presenting Ilie Nastase, paradox from Rumania: at most times a joyous companion, bon vivant and ladies' man, but with a racket in his hand a rascal—a baiter of opponents and officials alike

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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.

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