Anyone for tennis? Or an eggy sandwich?

Deborah Ross talks to ILIE NASTASE Interview

It is 4pm at the exclusive Hurlingham Club in Fulham, south-west London: teatime at one of those Senior Tennis Championships where companies pay pounds 230 a head to treat their clients to a good lunch followed by "a galaxy of legends" - the bumf's description, not mine - hitting a few balls about.

There has been no play today because the rain hasn't let off for a minute. Ilie Nastase, the one-time glamour god who is now, perhaps, the greatest star in that galaxy, is in a petulant mood. He is bored, mostly. He takes it out on the sandwiches on offer. No, he doesn't want cucumber, as dainty as they are. Or smoked salmon, cheese or ham. He wants "eggy".

"I want English eggy. Eggy! Eggy! Eggy!" he keeps wailing. He is only cheered when he is summoned to the reception desk and returns, beaming and excited, with a beautiful, lustrous-haired, caramel-skinned woman of, I would say, around 30 or so.

As far as I can gather, he first met this woman yesterday, at the Harbour Club. As far as I can gather, Ilie Nastase has an empty evening ahead of him at the Hilton Hotel which needs filling. As such, I am cruelly ejected from the chair next to him - tipped on to the floor, almost - in favour of this infinitely better, more attractive prospect. I consider feeling hurt, but then remind myself I have bags of personality.

Anyway, I shift to another chair on the other side of the table. Surprisingly, Ilie doesn't seem to mind me spying so indiscreetly on him and his possible companion for the night. But then he has always loved playing to an audience. Whatever, I am privy to the conversation, which goes something like this:

Ilie: "You like me? You think I'm good-looking? Yes?"

Woman: "Well, it's what's inside a person that counts."

Ilie: "I look at a woman, look at her physically, and I know straight away if we going to be beautiful together or not."

Woman: "Oh."

Ilie: "I like the tall women, with long hair and nice legs and nice hands, like you. We do dinner, OK? You want champagne, yes?"

Woman: "What star sign are you?"

Ilie: "Cancer. And you are Leo. I know because Cancer and Leo very good together."

Woman: "I am Leo! I am! I am!"

Nastase howls triumphantly - "I knew it! I knew it!" - then goes on to tell her a very dirty joke followed by several even dirtier ones. The words "horny" and "blowjob" in particular seem to figure largely. These are the sorts of jokes fathers always seem to tell after a certain age while you are going "no, dad, no" inside. The other players on the table - the Amritraj brothers, Manuel Orantes, Roscoe Tanner - laugh until tears run down their leathery faces, and they must wipe them away with the backs of their gold-ringed hands or their glitteringly Rolexed wrists.

But the more I pretend to laugh - "ho, ho," I go, I'm ashamed to say - the more saddened I feel in my heart. Don't get me wrong here. I am not, on the whole, someone who tends to take the moral high ground. It's just that here, today, it all seems so depressingly arrested and sad. And you don't want Nastase to be depressingly arrested and sad. You want him to be dashing and dazzling and heroic. You want him to be, in person, like the tennis player he was in the Seventies, when the all-round virtuosity and charisma of his game was just such a beguiling and wondrous thing.

He was, I think most would agree, one of the most beautiful and gifted players ever. (Later, Vijay Amritraj tells me "there has never been anyone to match Nastase for raw, god-given talent".) He could be argumentative and spoilt, to be sure, but unlike, say, Connors or McEnroe, who were American and brattish, he was darkly Romanian and the sporting public always adored him. The sheer magic of his play always saw to that, as did all his on-court tomfoolery - borrowing umbrellas from the crowd, kissing the hands of lady linesmen, that kind of thing. Of course, this could have been to do with putting off his opponent. And perhaps it was. But it never seemed so.

His entertainer's instinct, his larking about, may actually have done for him in the end. In terms of the biggies, he only ever won the US and French Opens the once, which isn't much considering his supreme ability.

The Wimbledon singles title always evaded him. He was beaten in the finals twice, once by Stan Smith in an epic, five-set defeat - "Please, don't remind me of it" - then by Bjorn Borg. "Ah, Bjorn. In the locker room, after, you can never tell if he win or lose. He take off his shirt, his pants, his socks in the same way and then always fold them in the same way."

Could Ilie compete against today's champions, if he were their age? "Of course." Is Tim Henman going to do it for us at last? "I think Tim good for England, but could be better."

Ultimately, Ilie Nastase proved one of the game's greatest under-achievers. But who cares? Mere statistics do not sum him up. For anyone who saw him, the memory lingers. This is a good thing, in most respects. It makes it hard to meet him, though.

Ilie: "So, we have dinner. I show you a good time."

Woman: "I have an appointment tonight, actually."

Ilie: "Tomorrow, then? I am 51 but I still look good, yes? I look at myself in the mirror in the morning and I say Ilie, you still look good. Ah, the eggy sandwiches have come. I love the English eggy. We get intoxicated on this English Eggy, yes?"

The thing about great tennis aces, as I am beginning to learn, is that it is perhaps unfair to expect them to be anything other than great tennis aces. Or even emotionally grown up. They begin their careers in earnest at what? Seven or eight? Then, for the next 20, perhaps 25 years, they go on to live a life disconnected from the real world and real people. It's all training sessions, planes, hotels, tournaments, cash prizes, the next training session, plane, tournament. They may end up owning several properties worldwide (Ilie has six, including ones in New York, Miami, Paris, Monte Carlo), but never really belong anywhere. Marriages go pear- shaped not just because they are never at home, but because they never really get to relate to anyone beyond their fans, the others on the circuit and the shag-happy groupies. They tend to be shallow in this way.

Ilie: "Where are you from?"

Woman: "Sri Lanka."

Ilie: "Ah, Sri Lanka. I never been there. But I been to Ceylon. How far Sri Lanka from Ceylon?"

Vijay Amritraj: "They're the same place, Ilie!"

Ilie: "You think Vijay handsome? You think him nice?"

Woman: "He seems very nice."

Ilie: "Vijay, it not break my heart if you leave now. Now, I tell you this very good joke. This man, he want to have the sex with his wife but the wife say ..."

Nastase doesn't, financially, have to be here. He is a multi-millionaire - the winnings; property companies; shares in Romanian companies; deals with Adidas and Christian Dior; a business which exports Nastase bolognese to the United States.

He, much like the others here today, is still playing tennis because he can't stop playing tennis. Although not a great one for introspection or self-analysis, I think he says as much when he tells you what it was like when he realised he was no longer good enough to play at the highest level. "I stop when I am ranked 50 or something, because I do not want to stop when I am 200. It is very difficult adjusting to regular life, because you have never had a regular life. When you wake up, you miss the pressure in your stomach. You miss the tension. You want to be always in front of people. Once you have been in front of people, there is no way you can forget it."

Last year, Ilie Nastase did try to break out. He stood in the election for mayor of Bucharest, an act which surprised many not only because he hadn't returned to Bucharest for years, but also because he had never been known to have a political thought in his life. Frankly, I think he may still be a little suspect on this front. (Ilie, what did you make of Ceausescu? "He do a lot of bad things, yes, but he do a lot of very good things, too, and people forget this. He built wonderful buildings.")

Failing to win was a disappointment, yes, but he's glad to be back doing this All Our Yesterdays business. "I miss the putting on of the shorts and the chasing of the little ball. I miss the atmosphere and the friendships very much, yes."

Ilie's father, Georges, was a bank cashier. The Nastase family, with five children, lived in one of the bank's houses, situated on the edge of a tennis club, also owned by the bank. They were better off than many other families in Bucharest, but still, money was scarce. Some weeks they only ate bread with sugar. Ilie used to go to school in a shirt still damp from the wash, because he only ever had the one shirt.

Every day, at 6am, he would get up to ball-boy for the early-morning tennis players. "I would get some money for this. But I would always have to give it to my mother." I wonder what it felt like when, later, all that prize money started rolling in? "It very nice. I invite everyone for dinner. I buy myself nice cars. I like the Ferrari very much."

His earliest memories are all to do with either playing tennis or kicking a soccer ball about. He could, he reckons, have been a great footballer, but opted eventually for the tennis because "it was not so hard on my legs". To cut a long story very short, he was Romania's child champion at 12 and junior champion at 15, left Romania pretty much for good at 17, and was number one in the world when computer rankings started in 1973.

There was never any time for puberty or adolescence or any of that stuff, which may go some way towards explaining why Ilie Nastase still seems such a childlike creature today. In some ways, this is endearing. He is open, eager to please, very much someone who lives in the moment. But in other ways, it's a handicap. He can't fill up his evenings with books or films because his attention span is so limited he can never get to the end of them. Our interview, if you can call it such, is a very stop- start affair, because mid-question he will suddenly get up and wander off. He is much heavier and slower than he was, and lopes away like some big old bear.

In fact, he is only truly interested or animated when talking about sex, which he does in a very pre-teenage way. He has loved women for ever, he says. When he was at school, even, he would put mirrors on the tips of his shoes so he could look up girls' skirts to see if they had knickers on or not. (I thank God I am very much a trousers sort of woman.)

How many women has he slept with? "I don't know. Too difficult to count, I think." He can concentrate on sex, then, at least? "Ha. Yes. I concentrate better on the sex than the tennis. I not first have sex until I was 19, 20, but then I catch up fast and become very good professional. The women always say to me oh baby, you good."

His first marriage, to Dominique, a Parisian beauty, took place when he was 26. It collapsed for the reasons most tennis marriages collapse. "I travel, travel, travel all the time. This is OK for one year, or two, but not for 10. My daughter [Natalie, now 23] is a baby one day and then she is 14, 15 and I never see her grow up."

He is now married to Alexandra, an American beauty, and has a further two children, Nicholas and Charlotte. I wonder why he married again. "I didn't want to. But I live with her for two years and she wants to marry and her parents want her to marry."

If Nastase goes the whole way with the women he encounters on the road, I do not think he would see it as infidelity as such. It's just what you do when you are on these tours. He would not think of his life as sad or lonely or superficial because he's never lived any other way. Probably, he's not even aware you can live life any other way.

Anyway, before I go I note the Sri Lankan woman has gone. To keep that appointment? Perhaps. But Ilie is not downhearted. A perky brunette in a tight, short-sleeved purple sweater is now sitting in that chair. When I interrupt to say goodbye, he gives me a big bear hug and a kiss, but then quickly gets back down to business. "So, you like me? I tell you this good joke. Man goes to doctor because wife not giving it to him, if you know what I mean ..."

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