Tennis: Nastase returns and revives old memories: Ian Tasker talks to a legendary rebel who has shed an old image and now espouses traditional values

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THE lank, collar- length hair remains the same and the impish grin still creases readily across familiar features, now padded with the weight of advancing years. Nasty no more, maybe, but he is still an entertainer.

Ilie Nastase, one of the most talented players ever to wield a racket, is back at Wimbledon, 20 years after defeat in his classic final with Stan Smith, and is now recovering from early defeat in the Over-45 Gentlemen's Doubles.

In his heyday, Nastase used to elicit squeals of admiration and admonition in equal proportion, his antics and outbursts not always endearing him to officialdom.

Those who remember him in his prime might therefore be surprised to discover that the loveable old rebel has turned into something of a traditionalist.

He does not like coloured clothing, prefers wood to graphite and wishes Monica Seles would keep quiet during rallies. Funny thing, growing old.

Despite two defeats in the final at the All England Club - he also lost to Bjorn Borg in 1976 - Nastase, now nearly 46, cannot escape its lure. 'It's the memories. I like to come back,' he said. 'Just to get out there is great.' And not just for the player himself.

Although modern advances in racket technology have improved his own game - 'My serve is much better, and harder, than it was 20 years ago' - he feels it has benefited the women's game rather than the men's.

'I never liked to watch girls,' he professed, somewhat unbelievably. 'It was only Martina (Navratilova) and Chris (Evert) but now the top six or seven they're all athletes and play great tennis.

'I was at the French Open and watched the girls' semi-finals and final, almost every point. It wouldn't have happened like that 25 years ago. Now most of the girls' matches are good from the quarter-final stage.'

Of course, he watches the men as well but does not like everything he sees, particularly fines for misdemeanours such as racket abuse. 'I'm glad they didn't have that in my day,' he said, 'otherwise I'd be sleeping under a bridge somewhere.'

That is exactly where Andre Agassi looks like he has been slumbering when he is not dressed in his Wimbledon white, according to Nastase. 'He's looked dirty, like he's never taken a shower,' Nastase said. 'When he perspires there's a spot on the back, spot on the front. If he's a rock star maybe it's OK. I don't think he'll be dressing that way when he's 30. He looks and plays much better in white.

'I think in a few years everybody will be playing in white again.'

As a parting shot, competitive as ever, when asked how he would have coped with today's power game, he replied: 'Jimmy Connors has done all right and I used to beat him 6-1, 6-2.'

(Photograph omitted)