The Smith-Tiriac encounter went 4-6, 6-2, 6-4, 2-6, 6-0, and all that remained was for Nastase to redeem himself in front of his countrymen against a personal punching bag, Tom Gorman. This he did (6-1, 6-2, 5-7, 10-8) but it was long after anybody was counting. If Nastase ever wants to know what went wrong on this embarrassing weekend for Rumanian tennis, he need only ask himself.
This was the first time in 35 years that a Davis Cup final had been held anywhere except in the U.S. or Australia, and the only time in Eastern Europe. Because of rumors that Black September terrorists would make Bucharest their next target, extraordinary security was set up around the American team and its two Jewish members, Harold Solomon and Brian Gottfried. Rumanian President Ceausescu let it be known that "heads would roll" if there was a hint of an incident. As a result, the U.S. players walked, talked, rode in private limousines, took meals and practiced while surrounded by 20 unsmiling secret police, officially known as "translators."
"Translate for us, George," van Dillen joked one day to the players' favorite G-man. "Translate what that heavy object is sticking out under your coat." George did not crack his un-smile.
The American team lived in isolation on the 17th floor of the sparkling new Intercontinental Hotel. They were watched by monitored cameras. They rode a private elevator. They were not allowed near windows, and they disappeared nightly upstairs to eat meals with their guards and watch movies sent over by the U.S. Embassy. When they did go out it was only to practice or to the matches at Progresul. They left and returned by different routes each time. It seemed silly, but after Munich who is to say.
What the U.S. contingent missed outside was a city of such surface calm and lack of color and noise that it was difficult to imagine it as the home of two outrageously demonstrative tennis stars.
Though Rumania has been called "an island of Latins in a sea of Slavs," Bucharest itself is a kind of Balkanized Paris. It is considered fashionable to speak French there, to wear berets and to regard the gardens of Cismigiu Park in the center of town as a reasonable facsimile of Versailles. Bucharest even has its own Arc de Triomphe, near which Nastase and Tiriac were quartered in regal surroundings normally reserved for visiting dignitaries of the Communist Party.
Except for the native dress, which tends to be predominantly dark and lifeless, much of the Western world can be seen in the cultural fiber of Bucharest. Oscar Wilde is in the theater, The Liberation of L.B. Jones at the movies and The Forsyte Saga on TV. Vintage Connie Francis ("Stupid Cupid") is heard all over town and Ernest Hemingway comic books flood the newsstands. Most Rumanians are on a 7-to-3:30 workday. After that they crowd stores and trolley bus shops, where peasants sell steaming ears of corn out of paper bags.
Into these unfamiliar surroundings came the grandest competition in tennis, a culmination of the sport's five years of spectacular growth in Rumania. As the 33-year-old Tiriac's popularity reached a zenith and Nastase showed signs of becoming one of the world's best, the number of tennis players increased more than tenfold. Alexandru Lazarescu, the secretary general of the Rumanian Tennis Federation, estimates that 25,000 Rumanians now play the game. "In historical theory, the people make interest in game and heroes," Lazarescu said. "Here is opposite. Nastase himself has created game and followers."
The city was in the grip of the Davis Cup. Officials tripled the seating capacity of Progresul to almost 7,000, and all those who could not afford Rumania's highest-priced sporting ticket ever (150 lei: about $9.50 for the series) seemed to gather downtown at the spectacularly ornate Central Army House for the draw.
Beforehand Nastase, laughingly referring to Tiriac's age, said Rumania had "one and one half players." But the elder partner just glowered when informed of the remark. "Is right," Tiriac hissed, "I am the one and one half player. I play with bums all my life. "But Nastase alone should beat the Americans here."