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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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It was shaping up as a disastrous week for Ilie Nastase, the bad boy from Bucharest. His first wedding anniversary was coming up on Friday, so naturally he took his stunning wife Dominique with him to Boston for the $50,000 Commercial Union Masters—but did he figure on having his mother-in-law come, too? He was the top seed in the round-robin portion of the tournament—but he lost to the bottom seed the first day. Somebody in the audience called him a bum and he hit a ball in the heckler's direction. On the second day the referee had to persuade him not to stalk off the court. He did not shake hands with his opponent after the match and he seemed well on his way to earning the Spoiled Brat Award, which in tennis is a much-sought-after bauble.

Instead, irate Ilie won the championship. How he did it is not entirely clear even now, but it involved his most dangerous rival suffering an injury at a climactic moment (perhaps as a result of Rumanian black magic), another rival getting knocked off by a fellow Eastern European, Jan Kodes, and some mathematical figuring that would have taxed Einstein. It also involved many excellent shots by Mr. Nastase, who beat Dutchman Tom Okker in the Saturday afternoon final 6-3, 7-5, 4-6, 6-3. It was rather conclusive proof that if, as has been claimed, God is an Englishman, he must have some Rumanian ancestors.

The Masters is the finish of a seven-month, 22-nation money chase called the Grand Prix, which is sponsored by Commercial Union, an insurance giant that sells policies of various sorts from Tokyo to Timbuktu. In 51 tournaments, plus the Davis Cup, players vie for points as well as money. Those with the most points at trail's end get cash bonuses. Nastase, the runaway winner, received $55,000. The Masters is a special dessert for the top eight men and when Nastase beat Okker in the final, he was the beneficiary of an additional $15,000.

Actually, Nastase's opponent in the final should have been John Newcombe, an Australian Davis Cup hero just the week before. And it would have been Newcombe except for a case of lightning striking twice in the same place, a freakish eventuality that any one of Commercial Union's subsidiaries would have gladly insured against.

Last December in the semifinals of the Masters in Barcelona (the show is moved from country to country each year), Tom Gorman had outplayed Stan Smith and had him at match point in the fourth set, when Gorman defaulted. An old back injury had flared up and Gorman knew from painful experience that he would be too stiff to bend over and tie his shoelaces the next day, much less bend for perhaps five sets' worth of low volleys in the finals. It was a fine sportsmanlike deed.

Last week, after Nastase easily disposed of Jimmy Connors in one semifinal 6-3, 7-5, Newcombe met Okker in the other. Newk was ahead 6-3, 5-7, 5-3 and was serving. All he had to do was hold service to win. The crowd in Hynes Auditorium leaned forward collectively, already savoring the taste of a final the next day between Newk and Nasty, probably the two best players on Earth just now. Newcombe got it to match point, then made a volley error. Deuce. Then ad Okker, then deuce again. Newk smashed an overhead to the corner to regain the advantage. Match point again. Certainly this time the Flying Dutchman would make a forced landing.

But Newcombe was limping! He sat down in a linesman's chair and rubbed his right leg. A few people in the front row had heard something pop when he landed after hitting the overhead. The year before Smith had rushed to Gorman's side, but this night Okker just walked to the net and stared incredulously. He edged over toward the umpire's chair, looking sideways up at the ump as if to ask, "How much time are you going to give him?" Veterans in the press gallery were reminded of that immortal Italian player, Fausto Gardini, who is said to have once leaped excitedly around the body of a fallen, cramped-up opponent and screamed, "Play must be continuous! Play must be continuous!"

If Okker had any such inclinations, he was spared the trouble when Newcombe defaulted because of what was later diagnosed as torn fibers in the lateral muscle of the upper right calf.

"I felt something bunch up in the back of the knee about a half-hour before and knew something was torn," said Newcombe. "When I went up for the smash at deuce in the last game, it went completely. I could have played one more point hoping to hit an ace but knew that I could not play tomorrow."

Ironically, it was the second time the two men had been involved in such a match. In Florida once, Okker was about to beat Newk when he turned an ankle. He hobbled to the baseline and pitty-patted two serves, but Newk hacked both and Okker won. And the Sunday before the Masters, Newcombe's second Davis Cup singles win moved him past Okker into second place in the Grand Prix standings and cost Tom $10,000.

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