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Sprawled in an aisle of the Tennis-hallen in Stockholm last week, feet stuck out like invasion barges, jaws chomping steadily in gloomy concentration, great predatory nose twitching, Ilie Nastase watched Arthur Ashe play Manuel Orantes in the last of the preliminary round-robin matches of the Commercial Union Masters Tournament.
It was a contest that was hardly important to Ashe. He had already qualified for the semifinals. But it mattered a great deal to Nastase and to Orantes. If Orantes won, he could join Ashe, Bjorn Borg and Guillermo Vilas in the playoffs. Otherwise the place would go to Nastase. And to an outsider, the odds had to be heavily stacked in Orantes' favor. To begin with, he had all the motivation in the world to win. The Masters, a tournament of increasing stature that brings together the eight top-scoring players on the Commercial Union Life Assurance Grand Prix circuit, offered a first prize of $40,000. Also, as even a casual observer of the tennis scene could attest, Arthur had no special reason for extending a friendly, helping hand to Ilie.
Only a few days previously, indeed, summoning up what is probably the most pejorative word in his gentlemanly vocabulary, Ashe had called Nastase "that ass." For an uncomfortable 24 hours, until a committee of officials in hasty conclave reversed the umpire's decision to disqualify both Nastase and Ashe and declared Ashe the winner of their early match, the president of the Association of Tennis Professionals ( Ashe) was in the undignified position of being equally penalized for a joint public pratfall with the biggest clown in sport ( Nastase). Up in the stands, therefore, furiously pounding his gum, Nastase might have been justifiably pessimistic.
The story of the trouble is confused but it seems clear that the night before the tournament started, Nastase was holding court in the cocktail bar of the Grand Hotel in Stockholm. "I'm going to drive Ashe crazy tomorrow," an eavesdropper claims to have heard him say. "I'm going to give him all the old tricks and some of my new ones." At this point, Ashe entered. "Hi, Negroni," Nastase hailed him familiarly, "I'm going to give you a hard time tomorrow."
What is in the public domain is that at 15-40, with Ashe ahead 4-1 in the final set, Nastase served before Ashe was ready. After losing the second set, Nastase had bashed the ball against the side board very close to the linesman who had called his last shot out. He had been warned then and he was warned again when Ashe caught the ball on the premature serve. "All the time he isn't ready," Nastase yelled. Then he began to mime serve. Ashe walked off a moment before the German referee, Horst Klosterkemper, could disqualify Nastase, and was disqualified also.
So as Nastase watched Ashe fail to take advantage of six break points against Orantes in the fourth game, the gum took an even worse beating. But then, considering maybe that he had tortured Nastase enough, Ashe began to play, committing himself at the net, pushing the game at Orantes. He tied the first set at 4-4 and won 6-4. When he took the first game of the second set, Nastase unwound himself, stopped chomping, and moved off.
Even Nastase, though, could hardly have foretold the astonishing surrender that Orantes was about to make. In the second set the Spaniard offered a public concession of the match, losing 12 of the last 13 points and ending by wildly banging the ball out of the court. Handed an alibi after the game, he turned it down. "I wasn't tired," he said. "I'm still fresh. But all week things have not been quite right...it is political." He implied that the Swedish crowd had been against him because of recent events in Spain, though in fact the fans had shown exemplary sportsmanship even when their hero Borg was playing. (Later, after winning the doubles title with Juan Gisbert, Orantes admitted he might have exaggerated. "It's been a long season," he said.)
By the weekend, then, the form of the semifinals had emerged. Ashe had even cleared up the Nastase problem. "Ilie's been very nice to me today," he said, after beating Orantes. "Why shouldn't he be? I've just given him the $40,000 chance." Old Nasty himself sealed the truce with a bouquet of flowers. "If I meet him in the final," said Arthur, "I won't be walking off again. Things are completely normal now."
But before such a final could be played, Ashe had to beat Borg and Nastase had a seemingly much tougher task in meeting Vilas, the winner of the 1974 Masters at Melbourne when he defeated—who else—Ilie. The sensible money in Stockholm was confident of an Ashe-Vilas final match.
The money was entirely wrong. In the first semifinal, Ashe started lethargically, losing his first service game. "He's always been a slow starter," a supporter said hopefully. "Most times he's won this year he's lost the first set." As he did on this occasion, 6-4. Ashe's authority was spasmodic. More often there were smashes missed and drop shots placed six inches from the top of the net. The recovery that his friends hoped for seemed to be coming in the second set, when Ashe began to take advantage of Borg's inaccurate first and weak second service, but even though Ashe took it 6-3, there were ominous lapses.