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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"Nasty doesn't really have a weakness," says Ashe, "because he is so dependent on speed, timing, his hands and his athleticism. He doesn't have many bad days with all that going. But his general game could be torn to shreds by controlled power, by a Newcombe or a Rose-wall with his accuracy. Nasty sometimes takes too long to end points on fast surfaces and that would hurt him on our tour."

On any tour the standard criterion for comparing players of different styles and eras is how good were they at the top of their game? How tough on their best day? Who would you take for one match? Almost always, general agreement favors Lew Hoad, the blond strong-boy from Sydney who won the major titles during the 1950s and who now coaches the Spanish Davis Cup team from his tennis resort near Malaga. For one match Lew Hoad himself says he would take, first, Lew Hoad and, second, Ilie Nastase.

These days, the quicksilver messenger from Rumania is beginning to throw off the claims of other pursuits that have partially curtailed his concentration on the game. Those pursuits—all of them—being girls. At his initiation into the jet-set atmosphere of international tennis he was already an attractive, eligible romantic who drew young things to him with a single glance. Since then, a smoky, dramatic air has fallen about Nastase—a sultry electricity that he never fails to promote to full effect, from Stockholm to Salisbury, Md.

On his very first passage through U.S. customs in 1969 Nastase succeeded in making a date with an American stewardess despite an English vocabulary consisting almost wholly of the words "honey" and "fiancée." Since then, he has introduced to the other players on the tour more of his "fiancées" than Tommy Manville ever thought of. Asked last year in Bastad at the Swedish Open why he did not have any regular "fiancée" along with him, Nastase replied, "Foolish fool. You do not bring buckets of water to the sea."

Much of this play-action will soon come to an end. In December, Nastase is to be married to Dominique (Niki) Grazia, a stunning dark-haired model from Brussels who—it seems unanimous—has the deepest, largest, brownest pools of eyes ever seen on any tennis circuit at any time. The daughter of a wealthy banker, Dominique met Nastase at Forest Hills last year and they cooed at the Hippopotamus until dawn. She is a strong-willed, intelligent young woman who seems to have the bubbling Nastase wrapped around her finger. "I am the real fiancée," she says, pointing to her own ring that Ilie wears. "From now on everything is tennis." After the wedding the couple will move into a new home Nastase is building in the immaculate lake district of Floreasca on the outskirts of Bucharest.

The success of the past few years seems to have affected Nastase only in his relations with Tiriac, who broke off their tour doubles partnership prior to Wimbledon this June. Tiriac cited his own age (33) and the fact that Nastase was no longer interested in trying to win in doubles. (The two still play Davis Cup doubles together and both are very much interested in winning this week.)

"I think time arrive when Ilie be big boy and go on his own," Tiriac says. "I never let him down in my life in tennis or anything. But I expected him tell me when he wanted to try hard and when not. Very few matches he fight to win doubles. I realize he big star now. But sometimes I feel like dog trainer who teach dog manners and graces. Then just when you think dog know how should act with nice qualities, dog make puddle and all is wasted."

Still Tiriac, like everyone else Nastase touches, cannot help but be charmed by him most of the time. Nastase has never mourned a defeat for more than a few minutes—even at Wimbledon, where he laughingly swept his way through adoring crowds who mobbed him an hour after he had lost the biggest tournament in the world. Tennis is a fancy with him, life a whirl; and even if he is enjoying such a fairy-tale existence to excess, as one cynic points out, "because he knows what the alternative is back behind the Curtain," that is his privilege.

So Ilie Nastase is just some country Communist hot dog lucky enough to have Dominique, money, soul, all that fun and all those marvelous shots. So tennis is just some sport lucky enough to have him.

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