No player in history has been more gifted or mystifying than the 'Bucharest Buffoon', Ilie Nastase, noted both for his sorcery with the racket and his bizarre, even objectionable behavior. He was an entertainer second to none, amusing spectators with his antics and mimicry, also infuriating them with gaucheries and walkouts. Despite a fragile nervous system and erratic temperament, Nastase - a slender 6-footer, quick, leggy and athletic - could do everything, and when his concentration held together he was an artist creating with great originality and panache.
His record in the season-closing Masters was spectacular. He won four times, 1971-73, '75, and was finalist to Guillermo Vilas in five sets in 1974. Born July 19, 1946, in Bucharest, he was the greatest of his country, the first Romanian of international prominence. Largely through his play that small country rose to the Davis Cup final on three occasions, 1969, '71-'72, losing each time to the U.S. At the end of 1985 after playing Davis Cup since 1966, Nastase ranked second behind Italian Nicola Pietrangeli among the busiest players in Cup history, the only men to have won more than 100 matches. Nastase, 11 wins behind, captured 109: 74-22 in singles, 35-15 in doubles for 52 series. Romania was favored to lift the Cup from the U.S. in the 1972 finale on the friendly slow clay of Nastase's hometown. However, his nervousness combined with an inspired performance by Stan Smith added up to an 11-9, 6-2, 6-3 victory for the American in the crucial opening singles, and the U.S. kept the Cup, 3-2.
Nastase's foremost disappointment occurred three months prior, when Smith narrowly defeated him in the Wimbledon final, 4-6, 6-3, 6-3, 4-6, 7-5, one of the most exciting championship matches there. Nastase was in another Wimbledon singles final in 1976, but was beaten easily by Bjorn Borg. Nastase, a right-hander, first came to attention in 1966 when he and his first mentor, countryman Ion Tiriac, reached the final of the French doubles, losing to Clark Graebner and Dennis Ralston.
Romania was a nowhere nation in Davis Cup until Nastase came along to link with the hulking, Draculanice hockey luminary, Tiriac. The country had entered sporadically since first joining in 1922, winning only one series before 1959. That year Tiriac, from Count Dracula's Transylvanian neighborhood, spurred a couple of wins. Still, Romania had won but nine prior to the 1969 Ilie-Ion splurge of five victories that carried them to the semis against Britain, a 3-2 victory at Wimbledon. There the irrepressible duo, then unknown, flabbergasted everybody, themselves included - "we can't play on this grass," said Tiriac after beating Mark Cox on opening day. It took a fifth match victory by Nastase over Cox to propel them into the final against the U.S. in Cleveland. Another foreign surface, asphalt, plus Arthur Ashe and Stan Smith ended the unfamiliar joyride, 5-0. But they became very familiar figures, getting to the final in the U.S. again in 1971, and getting closer, 3-2. However, it was Ilie's failure against Smith in the opening match (7-5, 6-3, 6-1) that made the difference, as it was a year later in Bucharest. By 1970 Nastase began to assert himself. He won the Italian singles over French Open champ Jan Kodes and jolted Cliff Richey in the U.S. Indoor final.
Following his Davis Cup and Wimbledon heartaches of 1972, Nastase had the immeasurable consolation of winning the U.S. Open at Forest Hills from a seeming losing position, down 2-4 in the fourth set and a service break to open the fifth against Ashe. The score: 3-6, 6-3,6-7 (1-5), 6-4, 6-3. It was his only major grass-court singles prize. His finest season was 1973, when he was regarded as No. 1 in the world after winning the most one-sided Italian final, 6-1, 6-1, 6-1, over Manolo Orantes, the French, over Nikola Pilic, 6-3, 6-3, 6-0, and 13 other titles, plus downing Tom Okker in the Masters final, 6-3, 7-5, 4-6, 6-3. That season he won 15 of 31 tourneys on a 118-17 match record, also eight doubles for an overall total of 23, tying Rod Laver's open-era record (17 singles, 6 doubles), broken by John McEnroe's 27 in 1979.
Though he provoked controversy, and his career was marred by fines, disqualifications, and suspensions, Nastase was good-natured, likeable and friendly off-court. He had a sense of humor in his on-court shenanigans, but frequently did not know when to stop and lost control of himself.
"I am a little crazy," he said, "but I try to be a good boy." His comrade, Tiriac, amicably put it this way: "His brain is like a bird in a cage." He was expert at putting the ball just beyond an opponent's reach, and applying discomforting spin. He lobbed and retrieved splendidly, in his prime possibly the fastest player of all, and he could play either baseline or serve-and-volley. In 1976 he was the first European to exceed $1 million in career prize money, and had a career total of $2,076,761.
Nastase played World Team Tennis for Hawaii in 1976 and Los Angeles in 1977-78, leading L.A. to the league title in 1978 as player-coach. Eight times between 1970 and 1977 he was ranked in the World Top Ten, No. 1, in 1973, the year he won the French and Italian back-to-back, an unusual coupling. In a career begun in the amateur era and continued in the open era, he was one of five players to win more than 100 pro titles in singles (57) and doubles (51). He was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1991. Ilie lives in New York with his American wife, Alexandra. He has been Romanian Davis Cup captain and president of the Romanian Tennis Federation. He reaped considerable international attention again by running for mayor of Bucharest in 1996, but he was defeated. "Probably a very good thing for him and Bucharest," chuckled Tiriac.
Ilie was inducted to the Tennis Hall of Fame in 1991.
Bio Courtesy Bud Collins