Nastase embodies an era with a touch of class

Disarmingly funny, roguishly charming, one of the tennis world's great entertainers can still pull in the crowds at 56
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The Independent Online

Not least among the many delights of Wimbledon fortnight is that, as the second week begins, as the holy grail gets closer, the grunts louder and the grimaces uglier, the old-timers arrive to inject the proceedings with a welcome dose of levity. Among the entertainers competing in the over-45s - or nearly deads as Ilie Nastase cheekily calls them - are Vijay Amritraj, John Newcombe, and of course Nastase himself, potent reminders of Wimbledons gone by, when the sun always shone and strawberries really tasted like strawberries.

Except, of course, that 30 years ago, Wimbledon was assailed by more bitterness and recrimination than it has known since, as the Association of Tennis Professionals called a boycott for long-forgotten political reasons concerning the Yugoslav Tennis Federation's decision not to allow the Yugoslav Nikki Pilic to play in the Davis Cup team. Nastase, a losing finalist the year before, was perhaps the highest-profile player to defy the strike, although he claims that his hand was forced by the leader of his country no less, Nicolae Ceausescu. Three decades on, the episode still rankles.

"It wasn't my decision," he says. "The [Romanian Tennis] Federation called me and said I had to play Wimbledon. The Minister of Sport was a general in the army, and there was pressure from Ceausescu. At the time he was very well-received in the West, because he was a little bit against Russia. Two years before he was here in England being greeted by the Queen. I couldn't say to Ceausescu 'the ATP don't want me to play'. He didn't know what the ATP was. He didn't even like tennis, he liked volleyball. So I played, and the ATP fined me $5,000, and Wimbledon didn't give me membership, so I was shafted by everybody."

Nastase looks intently at me with those big, brown, seductive eyes. "You have to win Wimbledon to become a member, but there are sometimes exceptions. They made other finalists members but not me. So I played in '73 and then I was shafted by the All England Club. They say to me, 'you have to wait' and I waited, and now it's been 30 years. I might get a chance one day if I see one of those old guys at Wimbledon and push him down the stairs. Then there might be room for me.

"Because I think I did a lot for Wimbledon. I got to two finals, won two mixed doubles [both with Rosie Casals], one men's doubles [with Jimmy Connors], and even now when I play matches on the outside courts I sometimes can't get on to court myself because so many people want to see me." A pause. "I think it will be sad if one day I come to Wimbledon and have to stand in line."

Ironically, Nastase's little tirade against the All England Club is delivered from the heart of the Hurlingham Club, another bastion of establishment pomp and privilege. He is here to play in the Marsh Classic, a jolly seniors' event now in its 10th year. And even at 56, he is still good enough to draw prolonged applause from an admiring crowd. Indeed, although the nose is as splendidly bulbous as ever, he is slimmer than he has been for years. Perhaps he is getting in shape for his next stab at fatherhood. The third Mrs Nastase is heavily pregnant, which causes him considerable amusement, doubtless mixed with a certain manly pride. "People see me with my pregnant wife and say 'you're going to have a grandchild?' I say no, a child."

He lets rip a huge chuckle. I ask him what he thinks of men's tennis now. Does he, the man who doused it in charisma, not think it depressingly dry, comparatively bereft of personality? But he will not be manoeuvred into criticising the game. "The only word I can use is that it is different now," he says. "I love it, and in 20 years' if I am still alive, I will still love it."

I persevere. Does he not, as a touch and feel merchant, lament the shock-and-awe tennis practised by the likes of Andy Roddick? Would he reintroduce the wooden racket, or give the players only one serve, or soften the balls, all measures which have their advocates?

He shrugs. "Who knows, if we had those rackets 30 years ago, maybe we play the same way. I like the serve-volleyers but there are not many around. Maybe Tim Henman. I am a member of the Romanian Federation, and we are discussing making the ball bigger, heavier, softer, but... the rules have been like this for 100 years or whatever. I don't know. One serve would be strange. Maybe changing the ball is the answer."

So much for the future, what of the past? Nastase was born into tennis, albeit not in the same way as Henman, whose maternal grandfather, Henry Billington, played at Wimbledon. Nastase's parents were caretakers at the Progresul Club in Bucharest, so he grew up watching the Communist Party élite playing tennis - Communist rallies, if you like.

He did not have his own racket - a Slazenger, he recalls with the misty-eyed look of a man remembering his first kiss - until he was 12. Before that he simply hit a ball against a wall with a piece of wood, which is doubtless how he acquired his exquisite touch. It is no coincidence that the "feel" players in sports considered more easily accessible to the affluent middle-classes, notably tennis and golf, are often those who grew up poor, learning to hit balls with makeshift rackets and clubs. Lee Trevino and Seve Ballesteros spring to mind.

By his mid-teens, it was clear that Nastase's talent would take him beyond the confines of the Progresul Club. But he did not play at Wimbledon until 1966, when he was 20. "Even then that was old," he tells me. "I lost in the first round, to Peter Curtis, an English guy. I regret not playing Junior Wimbledon. Other guys of 20 had been competing against each other for maybe six years. I had never even seen a grass court when I arrive at Wimbledon. But little by little I start to get confident."

In 1972 he was beaten in one of the more thrilling men's finals (and the first, incidentally, to be played on a Sunday) by the towering American Stan Smith, who prevailed 7-5 in the fifth set. The final he reached in 1976 was rather less thrilling, for he lost in straight sets, but in its own way was no less notable, because it marked the emergence of a new superstar: the 20-year-old Bjorn Borg.

"Of course, nobody knew that he would win for the next four years, but he was very good, maybe the best. He could play just as well on clay, which people forget. He won six French [Opens] and five Wimbledons, and it is tougher to win the French than Wimbledon. You don't win the points easily like you do on grass. I'm not saying the US Open is not important also, and the Australian, but to win six French and five Wimbledons I think makes Borg the best ever. Sampras won more Grand Slams, but if you put six French and five Wimbledons against seven Wimbledons and five US, and with wooden rackets, I would take Borg."

Nastase v Borg, like McEnroe v Borg a few years later, was a meeting of temperamental opposites. It is tempting now, especially in the light of Greg Rusedski's shameful outburst on Wednesday, to look back with near affection at what constituted dissent in Nastase's day, but at the same time, as disarmingly funny and roguishly charming as the Romanian could be on court, he could also be unpleasantly crude.

Moreover, in the acrimonious tennis spats of the past dredged up in the press coverage of Rusedski's fall from grace, Nastase's 1979 tirade against an umpire at Flushing Meadow, in a match against McEnroe, of all people, loomed large. Admittedly he was largely vindicated when the referee subsequently removed the umpire, but it wasn't pretty.

"Sometimes those situations lost me the match," he recalls, ruefully. "It was said I was trying to put off the other guy, but more often it worked against me. I'm still volatile. But if I behave on court I wouldn't be me. It would be like asking Borg to be more like Nastase."

McEnroe's outbursts, I venture, were like his but without the charm. "I think it's right to say that. He did it in an upset way, I did it, usually, with a smile on my face. But when I see McEnroe play ... unbelievable. I forgive him what he did on court because his tennis was so good."

The quality of Nastase's own tennis arguably yielded less than it should have done. But he won the US Open in 1972, and the French in 1973, and was for years his country's most famous export, which moves me to invite him to name, in his view, the five most famous Romanians of all time.

He ponders. "Ceausescu," he says. "Nadia Comaneci. Vlad the Impaler. Brancusi, who was a fantastic sculptor, better than Rodin. And me."

In 1996, trading on that fame, he embarked on a political career, running unsuccessfully to become mayor of Bucharest. What happened to his political ambitions, I wonder? Shouldn't he at least be Chancellor of the Romanian Exchequer by now?

"Ah, the political thing. My craziness, I call it. I'm glad I didn't succeed. In sport you win or lose, in politics you have to promise things you cannot deliver. But I wanted something I was missing from not playing tennis any more ... power, I suppose. And I wanted to help the people. Because the situation then was even worse than in Ceausescu's time. The young people realised that they had to suffer before things got better, but for the old people, the future didn't exist. They could only see that things were better in the past."

For Nastase, too, as diplomatic as he is in his assessment of modern men's tennis, things were better in the past. "My era was full of guys with class," he says, and there is no gainsaying his examples. "Pele, Beckenbauer, Cruyff, Bobby Charlton, Muhammad Ali, guys with great technique, maybe less physical than now but nicer to watch. Those guys really gave something back to the spectators."

Somewhat sycophantically, I suggest to him that he was, in a way, the Muhammad Ali of tennis. He smiles. I think he quite likes me. "Well, I don't know about that, but I was the one to start the talking on court. I met Ali a couple of times. Once, in a night-club in LA, I went behind him and covered his eyes, and he says 'this guy behind me must be a faggot'. Then he turns around, and says 'no, it's the guy with the big mouth'. Someone did a photograph with us, with my fist in his mouth. He said to me, 'you see this fist, it's in my mouth because I want it there. Nobody else would get their fist this close'."

Larking in an LA night-club with the most famous man in the world ... the son of the Progresul Club caretakers did rather well out of tennis, and continues to do well. He has a home in Bucharest and two homes in France, and is president of the same Romanian Federation that ordered him to play at Wimbledon 30 years ago. And what, finally, of his forthcoming baby? Will he encourage him or her to become a tennis pro?

"No. I have a daughter of 13 and a boy nearly 16 and thank God they are not into tennis. Thank God I don't have to coach them." Maybe that's just as well. The other thing about the touch-and-feel brigade is that they usually make lousy coaches. And although the world should be thankful for Nastase the tennis player, one is enough.


Born: 19 July, 1946, Bucharest, Romania.

Highest world ranking: No 1 (1972-73).

Grand Slam record: US Open singles winner 1972 and doubles winner 1975 (with Jimmy Connors); French Open singles winner 1973 and doubles winner 1970 (with Ion Tiriac); Wimbledon doubles winner 1973 (with Jimmy Connors).

Other sporting achievements: Romanian Sportsman of the Year (1969-71, 1973); first and only Romanian to appear in the International Tennis Hall of Fame (1991); one of only five players to win more than 100 pro titles.

What else has he done? Elected to Romania's National Council in 1995; unsuccessfully ran for mayor of Bucharest in 1996; president of the Romanian Tennis Federation; written several tennis-based thrillers.

Best remembered for: One of the best players never to win the singles title at Wimbledon; his tantrums; his good looks.

He says: "As long as I can get angry then I play well. If I play well I can beat everybody. I am happy because I am getting angry."

They say: "It's hard not to have fun when you're playing with people like Illie." Mansour Bahrami on playing against him on the seniors tour.

"Probably a very good thing for Ilie and Bucharest." Ion Tiriac on Nastase not being elected for mayor of Bucharest.

Lisa Clarke