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The Good,
the Bad
and the Nasty


The good old days of tennis featured a cast of "Hollywood" bad guys in which Ilie Nastase played leading role


     “There’s too much money and too many nice guys around,” John McEnroe said not long ago about the state of men’s tennis.  Come to think of it, tennis has lost much of the excitement it had when bad boys like John McEnroe, Jimmy Conners, and Ilie Nastase were in full swing. They created havoc during tennis matches, made life miserable for officials, infuriated opponents, and aroused the ire of fans.  Ah yes, the good old days. We do have a few rascals these days, to balance out the plethora of mild-mannered Clark Kent types, but none are capable of raising a stink the way those guys did.
     My favorite bad boy was Ilie Nastase, who peaked in the 1970s.  Born in Bucharest in 1946, he earned the nickname “Nasty” and was commonly referred to as the Bucharest Buffoon because of his outrageous on-court antics.  But in spite of whatever else he might have been, he was a great tennis player. He ranks third in the number of singles and doubles titles won (104) behind those other two bad boys, Jimmy Connors (128) and John McEnroe (152).  He won two Grand Slam singles titles, the US Open and the French Open, four season-ending Masters tournaments and was a finalist in a fifth, and was ranked Number 1 in the world in 1973. He also won three Grand Slam doubles titles, two with Jimmy Conners and one with Ion Tiriac.
     To a great extent, Nastase was a creation of his Romanian countryman, Ion Tiriac, a hockey hero and tennis player who was Nastase’s coach, manager, doubles partner, and bodyguard.  Tiriac was from Transylvania, the home of Count Dracula, and sometimes called himself the “brother of Dracula”. He looked like a villain out of a horror movie, with bushy black curls, a droopy mustache and a sinister countenance.  He is not known to have an appetite for blood, but once after drinking a Bloody Mary he ate the glass. (Afterward he remarked, tastefully, that given a choice of glassware to dine on, he would have preferred a fine crystal).  Tiriac, a tough, 210 pound veteran of the ice hockey wars, was not a man to be trifled with. When he was threatened, his favorite method of rendering a foe hors-de-combat was, literally, going tete-a-tete with the poor fellow using his head as a battering ram. It was his menacing presence that often saved Nastase from bodily harm from enraged tennis opponents with murder or mayhem on their mind.
      Nastase was blessed with incredible athletic ability, but that alone does not a tennis player make.  Tiriac saw Nastase’s potential for tennis greatness the way Michelangelo saw a sculptural masterpiece in a fine block of marble, and was instrumental in molding him into the world-class tennis player he came to be.  Tiriac also used his Svengalian powers as coach and manager to help the likes of tennis champions Boris Becker, Guillermo Vilas, Henri Leconte, Mary Jo Fernandez and Goran Ivanisevic.
     Davis Cup tennis in Romania was as dead as a vampire with a stake in its heart until Tiriac came along to resurrect it.  He teamed with Nastase starting in 1968, and the odd couple astonished the tennis world by winning 21 of 25 Davis Cup ties over the next five years.  They played the United States three times in the finals.  The first time in 1969 they were routed 5-0 by Stan Smith and Arthur Ashe in Cleveland.  The fact that they were clay- courters out of their element on a hard surface court was probably more of a factor for the lopsided loss than Smith and Ashe.  In 1971, the duo improved their performance, losing a close tie with the United States in Charlotte, 3-2.  Stan Smith won both his singles matches and Frank Froehling lost his singles match to Nastase, but beat Tiriac to clench the title.
     In 1972, the United States again played Romania in a Davis Cup final, this time in Bucharest.  It was one of the most controversial Davis Cup ties of all time.  Tiriac was determined to win the coveted Cup by any means, fair or foul.  The matches were played on the American’s worst surface, a slow clay court, before a partisan crowd of screaming Romanians and corrupt line judges.  Arthur Ashe remarked that the “cheating by local officials reached an abysmal low.”
     Stan Smith, who played the first match, had a good record against Nastase, but was pessimistic about his chances of beating him on clay.  But the pressure to win for the hometown crowd was too much for Nasty.  A nervous Nastase serving for the first set at 9-8, lost his serve and the next two games and the set went to Smith, 11-9. Feeling a surge of confidence, Smith went on to win the next two sets, 6-2, 6-3, and the match went to the U. S.
      Tiriac lost the first two sets to Tom Gorman in the second match and it looked as  if the U.S. was about to go up 2-0.  But then, Tiriac rose out of his coffin and raised the level of his game while being urged on by 7200 Romanians shouting “Tiriac!, Tiriac!”   As Gorman was serving, a goodly number of spectators started coughing and clearing their throats in unison to distract the American.  When Tiriac needed a rest, his supporters cheered until he signaled he was ready to play.  All this and some bad calls by linesmen on strategic points unnerved Gorman who went on to lose the match 4-6, 3-6, 6-4, 6-3, 6-2.
     The doubles was no contest, as Smith and Erik Van Dillen beat Nastase and Tiriac decisively, 6-2, 6-0, 6-3.  The U.S. was up 2-1, but it was far from over. In the reverse singles, it was Smith vs. Tiriac in the fourth match and Gorman vs. Nastase in the final match.  There was little doubt that Nastase would win over Gorman, so it was up to Stan Smith to carry the day for the U.S. 
     Tiriac’s screaming mob and thieving linesmen outdid themselves against Smith. His powerful serve was neutralized by fault and foot-fault calls.  The line calls favored Tiriac to such an extent that Smith began to play every ball no matter where it landed and aimed his shots well inside the lines so the ball couldn’t possibly be called out.  One of the most bizarre incidents in tennis occurred when a presumably non-partisan linesman massaged a cramp in Tiriac’s leg, then urged him to fight on.  Somehow, playing under the worst conditions imaginable, Stan Smith maintained his composure and battled Tiriac to 2 sets all.   In the fifth set, Smith revved up his game and pounded a stake in Tiriac’s heart winning 25 of the 33 points and the match 4-6, 6-2, 6-4, 2-6, 6-0, giving the U.S. the championship.  Nastase salvaged a modicum of honor with a win over Gorman, making the final score 3-2.
     On September 14, the four participants assembled in Bucharest to observe the 30th anniversary of the infamous Davis Cup final.  Ilie Nastase, Ion Tiriac, Tom Gorman, and Stan Smith each received several minutes of applause from a friendly crowd when they stepped on the court to play an exhibition doubles match.  Diplomatically, Tiriac was paired with Smith and Nastase with Gorman. It turned out to be a crown pleasing event with some fine tennis from all and some amusing antics from Nastase.  However, it was Tiriac who stold the show.  Now 63, Tiriac, who rarely plays tennis, dazzled the crowd and received standing ovations as the aging warrior demonstrated the guts and guile that served him so well decades earlier in hockey arenas and tennis stadiums throughout the world.
     A likable fellow with a good sense of humor off-court, Nastase was the last person you’d expect to hold the record for fines and suspensions—that is, until McEnroe came along.  On-court, he turned into a monster.  Nasty could curse opponents and officials in six different languages.  He has mooned a referee, thrown a shoe at a line judge who called foot-faults and changed both his shirt and shorts on the court. He sometimes angered opponents with his heckling to the point where they stalked off the court. 
     Since there were no rules to curb this kind of behavior, the honchos of pro tennis came up with what is called the “Code of Conduct.”  TV tennis commentator Bud Collins, author of the book, My Life With the Pros, has argued that it should be called the Nastase Act, to honor the man responsible for its being.  The Code is a four-strikes-and-you’re-out deal: first offense you get a warning from the chair umpire, second results in loss of a point, loss of game on the third, and disqualification on the fourth.
     The Code of Conduct was sorely tested in 1979, when Ilie Nastase, then 33, played John McEnroe, 19, in the second round of the U.S. Open.  Collins likened the event to a remake of the movie, When Frankenstein Meets the Wolfman. The next-to- impossible task of maintaining law and order on the court fell to portly Frank Hammond, a highly qualified chair umpire with a knack for handling testy tennis players. 
     Nastase, whose career was in decline, used every trick in his repertoire to psych the rising young tennis star.  He cut up, cursed, argued line calls, stalled and hurled insults across the net at his opponent.  McEnroe, no slouch when it comes to invective, replied in kind.  While the match degenerated into a donnybrook, an unruly New York crowd of 10,000 got involved and the booing began.  As Nastase increasing lost control, a reluctant Hammond had no choice but to start enforcing the Code of Conduct.  Nasty received a warning and penalty point; then trailing 1-2 with McEnroe serving in the fourth set, he committed another infraction and was penalized a game, making the score 3-1, McEnroe.  Nastase then refused to serve, despite pleas from umpire Hammond. After several minutes delay, referee Mike Blanchard signaled for Hammond to put Nastase on the clock, giving him 30 seconds to serve or be defaulted. A minute elapsed and nothing happened, so Hammond announced, “game, set and match to McEnroe.”
     The crowd erupted and began throwing garbage on the court.  After some discussion, Bill Talbert, the tournament manager, reinstated Nastase saying he feared a riot might occur.  He replaced Hammond with Blanchard in the chair and the match resumed.  McEnroe finished off Nastase in four games and won the match a second time. He went on to win his first U.S. Open with a victory over Vitas Gerulaitis in the final.
     Had Nastase been a no-name player exhibiting his boorish behavior before a handful of spectators on court 19, he would have found himself banished to the showers early in the match.  But when you’re a star with huge drawing power playing before a sizable crowd in a televised event, codes of conduct are subject to a more lenient interpretation.  After all, tennis is show biz, and one of dictums of show biz is “The show must go on.”  You just can’t give one of your star performers the old heave-ho in the middle of a rousing performance. This lesson was not lost on McEnroe, who in the years to come became a master of brinkmanship when it came to challenging and surviving the Code of Conduct.
     Ilie Nastase was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1991.  He lives in New York with his American born wife, Alexandra, plays senior tennis and has written some thrillers in French including Break Point and The Net. In 1996, he was in the news when he ran for mayor of Bucharest and lost.  “Probably a very good thing for Ilie and Bucharest,” Tiriac said.

Much of the material for this article comes from Bud Collins’ book, My Life With The Pros, New York, E. P. Dutton, 1989 and Jack Kramer’s The Game (with Frank Deford), New York, G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1979.  We highly recommend both books for an entertaining and informative look back at the colorful history of pro tennis.


(If you have any comments, Jim Swetnam, the Netman, can be reached at editor@AmericaToday.com or directly at jswetnam1@msn.com)

 





 

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