It is a basic matter of record that bad has always been better than good. Bad has more substance, more technique, more style, more noise, color and taste, more imagination, more passion, more variety and more of whatever there remains to sink one's teeth into. It seems only appropriate that commentators from Walt Whitman to Longfellow to John the Apostle have spoken of the condition as inherent in our species. "All men are bad and in their badness reign," is what Shakespeare wrote in a sonnet. It comes as no particular surprise, then, that bad currently seems to be in a lot more demand than good. And reigning, too.
Among recent fun people who have ingrained themselves in American pop culture just by hanging around being bad are Clifford Irving, Jane Fonda, Mick Jagger, Ben the movie-star rat and a whole flock of sports boys who talk a lot, don't talk at all, fight in bars, refuse to fight in wars, kiss girls, pop pills, smoke weed, drink alcohol, change their name, demand money, jump teams, flay the citizenry and boogaloo to Francis Scott Key. Now we're really talking bad.
All the same, men such as Muhammad Ali, Joe Namath, Dick Allen, Duane Thomas, Bobby Fischer and Derek Sanderson make the world of sport seem somewhat more logical and realistic when they descend from their false pedestals and are shown, as they have been, to share the discipline lacks, hangups and crazies that burden us all in one way or another.
The game of tennis has always been a haven of gentility in this world, a place where customs die slowly and manners are as important as physical skill. Bad takes different configurations in tennis. Bad is a momentary glance, an offhand remark, a kick of the foot, a wave of the arm, a delay, a stance, a stare. As a result, most of tennis' historical bad boys never would have been able to cut the mustard as evil characters in our other vicious, insensitive games. Bad in tennis was always only semibad. Which is why the game's newest, baddest star is such a refreshing personality.
Ilie Nastase, a 26-year-old, 6', 175-pound Rumanian, is a man for tennis' time. He is just the person needed to crush old molds, outsmart hoary conventions and even break the austere rules that have held the game back from that one crucial, giant step to total public acceptance and the big time.
He is a nonpareil showman, an utterly exasperating gamesman, a pouting, crying genius with a racket in his hand and a curse on his lips. He is a magnificent enfant terrible any self-respecting sport would be glad to call its own. At a given moment Nastase will out-charisma Ali, out-sex Namath, out-temperament Fischer and out-bad anybody you care to suit up. He is the first Iron Curtain athlete ever to make this kind of an impact on world sport, and his potential is unmatched anywhere. He is the Wimbledon runner-up, the U.S. Open champion, the Grand Prix point leader and the winner of over $100,000 for the season. This weekend in his hometown of Bucharest only a minor miracle can stop him from leading his team and a worshipful country to victory over the U.S. in the Davis Cup. At the top of the tennis world, bad looks to be reigning once again. This fall Ilie has it all.
In Rumania, the name Ilie (rhymes with Billy) is a common one, derived from St. Ilie, who sits on the right hand of God and causes things to happen. St. Ilie paints it dark or light, makes it rain or pour and rolls back the thunder ("He figures it to go boom," says Nastase). The surname (pronounced Nas-taz-ee) is more of a rarity in Bucharest, more Italian than Rumanian. It has no special meaning the way most Rumanian names do except to convey possible explanations about Ilie, his personality and his Roman ways. On the birth and government papers of Ilie's father the name is spelled with an i instead of an e—Nastasi. On his own papers Ilie's name has the e. He does not know the reason for the difference.
Ilie's mother says that on the day her son was born the sky was not blue. It was yellow as it had never been before. She says that Ilie was a child without luck for whom it would be very hard to succeed. She says he was sickly and continued to be for several years. She says he was moody early, covered with the shadows of the yellow sky, and would be forever. Though one can hardly imagine a man of such light-hearted manner and obvious relish for the play of life being anything other than a child of azure, perhaps his mother was somewhat prophetic.
When her son is on the court the skies do become yellow and his acute feel for mischief controls the mood. This feel, this constant reach for trickery, guile and the other fine weapons of gamesmanship, infuriates opponents and, more often than not, provokes crowds. At the same time it has propelled Nastase into countless disputes and altercations from which he always manages to emerge unscathed and joyous.
If Nastase were Br'er Rabbit, controversy would be his briar patch. If you're looking for trouble, you've come to the right place, he seems to be saying. In reality, trouble is a piece of the game for him; it is a vital part of life. "Why they talk me all the time, babee?" he asks in happy, lilting English, a speech pattern that is broken into the pleasant Latinate sounds of his Rumanian accent. His use of the English language is devoid of almost all prepositions and articles as well as many forms of the verb "to be." His slang—"babee," "shudup"—is impeccable. "Why they listen me and nobody else and ask me behave? What is behave? Every player like this, not only me, babee. We all nervous, all temperament, all crazy."