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Joe Jares
December 17, 1973
Ilie Nastase carried a burden to Boston for the Commercial Union Masters tournament: his wife, his mother-in-law, his fiery temperament and top seeding. He left with a heavier bundle—of money
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December 17, 1973

That Rumanian Black Magic

Ilie Nastase carried a burden to Boston for the Commercial Union Masters tournament: his wife, his mother-in-law, his fiery temperament and top seeding. He left with a heavier bundle—of money

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Besides Nasty, Newk and Okker, the Masters had the Czech, Kodes; Gorman and Smith again, both of whom had just lost two Davis Cup singles matches and were not altogether thrilled about picking up their rackets so soon; Manuel Orantes of Spain; and the 21-year-old American, Jimmy Connors, who had just become engaged to Florida's tennis sweetheart, Chris Evert. ( Arthur Ashe, Rod Laver and Ken Rosewall had finished 10th, 11th and 17th in the Grand Prix and were resting elsewhere in their tax shelters.)

Four of the entrants had at least semi-legitimate claims to being No. 1 in the world. Nastase had won the Grand Prix and had been fined more than anybody else. Okker had won six Grand Prix tournaments and had a 4-2 head-to-head edge over Nastase. Smith had won the World Championship of Tennis (WCT) singles and doubles. Newcombe had won Forest Hills and led Australia's Davis Cup recovery mission. Perhaps this event would indeed produce a Master.

The eight were put into two groups, Blue and White. For the first three days each man would play in a round robin within his group. On Friday night the affair would turn into a single-elimination tournament, the top two from each group playing in the semifinals.

The most interesting White battle was Smith vs. Connors. With other male players, Connors rates just a little above tennis elbow on the popularity scale. This is because he has more gall than a daylight burglar and less maturity than a ball boy, because he declines to join WCT and instead builds up his record and his bank account against lesser opposition, because he makes distracting, wiseacre comments during matches, because he won't join the players' association and because he would not play on the Davis Cup team in the early rounds but then volunteered to play in the final. What makes it all harder to swallow is that he is such a fine tennis player. He annoys his fellows and then beats them, too.

The rankings of the U.S. Lawn Tennis Association, based on play from October to October, have not been released, but chances are Connors will replace Smith in first spot, or at least be co-ranked No. 1. Going into the Masters match, Connors had a 2-0 record against Smith in 1973.

He improved it to 3-0 on Wednesday, making it even worse by winning the first set 6-0 and taking the third and deciding set—a 12-point tiebreaker—after trailing 4-1. It was Smith's fifth straight loss in singles and he was despondent.

"A wonderful year with a terrible ending," he said. "I keep blowing matches at the end. I can't remember losing a love set since I was a kid."

The next day he ended the losing skein by beating Orantes and sending the Spaniard back to Barcelona with the booby prize and a 0-3 record. Okker (3-0) and Connors (2-1) moved into the semis.

The Blue group was a lot more complicated. Nastase lost to Gorman but then made a comeback, beating Kodes and Newcombe, who said he was saving himself for the semis and final, since he already had a semifinal berth clinched. On Thursday night Kodes played Gorman. If Gorman won, he would be tied with Newcombe and Nastase, all with 2-1 records, and the officials would have to go by sets lost. If there was still a tie, they would go by games lost. If still tied, then they would have consulted each player's astrology chart. Suffice it to say that if Gorman won handily, he could have edged past Nastase, and it was a real possibility since Gorman had never lost to the Czech. With the reporters up above Section K trying to figure out all the mathematical possibilities and Nastase pacing up and down in his sweatsuit, it was the greatest balcony scene since Romeo and Juliet.

"Oh, you Russian, you have got to win this game for me," said Nastase, mixing up his Communist neighbors. "You should help me. We are border countries, you know."

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