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CP: Nasty and Me

Ilie Nastase action shot"No sex," Ilie Nastase told me. "No sex could I have before. That is why I don’t play so good."
That is why, tennis great Nastase explained, Romania lost to the U.S. in one of the great Davis Cup finals of the Open Era.
Each year as the Davis Cup season gets under way across the world, I find myself thinking of a time spent with Nastase in a far-off corner of the world.
Fourteen years ago I went to Romania to work as a Fulbright lecturer in journalism, at Bucharest University. Originally I had hoped to go to some glamorous destination, such as France or Italy.
The Fulbright folks had other ideas. They sent me deep into Eastern Europe. I knew nothing about Romania except that it was a cold place and the home of Dracula.
Turns out I was wrong about both of those things. I found Romania a country of warm and giving people. They laughed when I mentioned vampires. Drac? Pure dreck.
Generous as Romanians were, they did have a culture that left me occasionally puzzled. Such as the wild dogs who roamed the streets. More on that later.
By the time I arrived in Bucharest, the capital city, a post-Communist residue of grinding poverty lay everywhere. The horrors had ended only eight years before when Romania’s deranged dictator, Nicolae Ceausescu, a man who once canceled Christmas, was lined up with his equally nutjob of a wife and shot by a firing squad of his own soldiers.
Nastase_TiriacNot long after I settled in, I learned that Romania was to face Norway in, as it is known to Romanians, Cupa Davis. This tie would be played close by my apartment, at the Sala Palatului, a massive, gray and grim hall built early in the Soviet occupation.
Romania’s rich tennis history, particularly in Davis Cup, is well known. Led by its two great stars, Ilie Nastase and Ion Tiriac (pictured, right), three times Romania had reached the Cup finals during the late 1960s and early 1970s only to fall all three times to the U.S. That last final, in 1972 in Bucharest, is considered among the most controversial Davis Cup events ever.
I remembered reading accounts of the ’72 final, of Romanian spectators who screamed like loons when the Americans were serving and of officials suspected of pocketing cash bribes.
I had not heard much about Romanian tennis since then, chiefly because the country did not have two players like Nastase and Tiriac. Nastase most especially. A marvelous shotmaker in those days of wood rackets, he could hit offensive lobs off both sides. The slender Nastase reached five Grand Slam finals in singles, winning two. He won three Grand Slam titles in doubles and 100 professional tournaments in all. Formerly the world’s No. 1-ranked player, he was inducted into the International Hall of Fame in 1992.
"Most definitely a legend," says Robert Soneru, the tennis director at Albuquerque’s Highpoint Sports & Wellness Club and a Romania native who fled his homeland in 1983, for a better life in the U.S.
"You say ‘Ilie Nastase’ even to people who weren’t alive when he played, and they know him," Soneru, 46, says. "Just like John McEnroe here."
A photograph of Nastase surrounded by young kids decorates the refrigerator at Soneru’s Albuquerque home.
Soneru served as a ballboy for a Cupa Davis tie as a teenager. "Nastase was a genius with a racket. Without even warming up he could be brilliant."
His cup runneth over
CredentialsAmerican tennis fans know John McEnroe’s allegiance to Davis Cup. Over 14 years, he played in 30 ties and had a record of 59-10, in singles and doubles combined. Think that’s a lot? Nastase played Davis Cup for 20 years. He took part in 52 ties and wound up 109-37.
By 1998, Romania’s days as a Davis Cup force were ancient history. The country had fallen out of the World Group and was hosting a zonal qualifier with Norway in an attempt to earn its way back with the big boys.
I decided to buy a ticket. I asked around and a student of mine at the university told me to go to the Romanian Tennis Federation, and found the address for me. Down a gloomy hallway I went—all hallways in Romania seemed gloomy to me—until I found a one-room office. There I met Gabriela, not a woman but an affable gent who chain-smoked cigarettes, as did so many in the country.
When I told Gabriela I was an American journalist interested in attending the Davis Cup, he quickly reached in a drawer and handed me a media credential. No questions asked. Then he grinned and said, "Nasty will be there."
Nasty, of course, was the nickname foreign journalists and fans called Nastase for his bad-boy behavior on the court. Nastase’s mind often wandered during matches, particularly at the end of his career. Irritation at his declining abilities begat endless buffoonery. He’d moan and perhaps moon the galleries or bicker relentlessly with chair umpires and be fined heavily.
"I would like for you to talk to him," Gabriela said. "You know him, do you not?"
Nastase had lived for a time in the States, I knew, and his second ex-wife (he’s now had three) was American. Gabriela likely thought that a famous tennis journalist such as me surely had crossed Nasty’s path often.
"Uh, I’ve seen him," I said. "But I don’t believe we’ve ever met."
Ilie Nastase todayGabriela looked surprised.
On the Friday evening of the opening singles, no one at the Sala Palatului inspected my credential. I simply strolled in. One more sign that the glory days of tennis in Romania had vanished.
A small group of people in the lobby of the building stood around waiting for the doors to open. Suddenly I heard my name. It was Gabriela, calling me over.
When I got there, a hefty man with lank, long hair turned around. At first I thought it was the French actor Gerard Dépardieu. It wasn’t. It was Nasty, nearing 52 and showing it. He pointed to a corner of the lobby and said we should go there to talk.
Though he does not have much formal education, Nastase is fluent in English as well as French. He has published two novels about tennis, both apparently written in French and then translated to English. I own one of the novels, "Break Point." My hunch is that the translator of both books was also a rewriter of colossal expertise.
I asked Nastase about the state of tennis today in Romania. Could the country ever recapture those banner days of the early 1970s?
Toby and Romanian students copyNastase shook his enormous head and talked about the lack of money, the failure of player development, the need for better leadership in the Federation. As he went on, I noticed that we were now surrounded by television cameras.
My one-on-one interview was being filmed by three different Bucharest TV stations.
Clearly this was a slow news day in Romania.
The following week at least a dozen students of mine said they had seen me on television. Before then, I was just some newspaper guy from Albuquerque, a place that meant absolutely nothing to them.
Suddenly in my students’ eyes I was a celebrul jurnalist.
After my interview, I went into the hall’s main room for the Cup’s opening ceremony. Right away something appeared odd: There was hardly anyone there. I watched Romania’s No. 1 player, Andrei Pavel, then a rising young professional, play Norway’s Christian Ruud. (Editor’s Note: Pavel now lives in the Phoenix-metro area and runs the Pavel/Blackwood Tennis Academy).
During the match I spotted Nastase, which was easy because of the near-empty stands. He was sitting by himself. He saw me and motioned me to join him. He wanted company, but apparently not from another fawning Romanian.
An unpleasant memory
Nastase had long carried with him a playboy reputation. He had slept with more than two thousand women, it was said. When he wasn’t bedding females, he was goofing off. What cannot be denied is that he had come a long way.
ilie_nastase_laureusHe grew up the son of a groundskeeper at the Progresul Club, where the famed 1972 Davis Cup final was played. As a kid, he served as a ballboy there for Cupa Davis matches.
Our conversation eventually turned to the October 1972 Davis Cup final, which Romania had entered as the heavy favorite. Nastase was then at his peak. That summer he had lost to Stan Smith in the Wimbledon singles final, in five tight sets. Just a month before the Davis Cup he won the U.S. Open, beating Arthur Ashe. Moreover, the Cup final would be played on the Progresul Club’s very slow, red-clay courts, hardly America’s best surface.
Very few Americans saw that final, for entering a Communist country in 1972 was like slipping into a Swiss bank vault.
From the beginning, Romanian fans were over the top.
"They were like soccer crowd," Nastase told me. Were the officials corrupt? He shrugged; he could not say, he would not say.
To open the ’72 final, Nastase lost to Stan Smith in straight sets. In the doubles the next day, he and Tiriac were blown out in three by Smith and Erik van Dillen.
Nastase’s play during the final can only be described as uninspired, and for years no one could understood why. Nastase was playing at home, on a court where he had grown up, in front of people who worshipped him.
"What happened?" I asked.
Nastase rubbed his prominent jaw. He sighed and shook his head. It seems that Romanian authorities did not want another terrorist act like the one that had just occurred at the Munich Olympics. To prevent that, Nastase said, the government locked up the Romanian team in a hotel all that weekend—when it wasn’t playing.
Nastase_Final"I don’t like being locked up," Nastase said. "I should be having sex. You know, sex always make you best player."
Abstinence apparently did not bother Tiriac, a hulking, shrewd figure. He played well in the final, mostly because he stalled, berated the chair, incited the crowd of 7,200 and cursed at the Americans. At one point, a linesman was seen rubbing a cramp in Tiriac’s leg and offering him words of encouragement.
The gamesmanship was not enough. The U.S. defeated Romania to capture the Cup, 3-2.
The loss devastated all of Romania, which has never won the Davis Cup.
Were those shenanigans fair? I asked Nastase. The bad sportsmanship, the treatment by the fans?
"Look," he said, "this was Cupa Davis. You do anything to win. You are fighting for your country, like in a war."
We watched the Pavel-Ruud match in silence. Nastase suddenly turned to me. "You know, I would trade in any of my big wins—U.S. Open, French Open—to win Davis Cup."
A familiar face
I saw Nastase several times after that. He had run unsuccessfully for mayor of Bucharest two years previous, so he moved about his home city with great ease and adulation. When I attended the opening night of an exhibition at the National Museum of Art, there was Nastase, in a suit and tie. Not surprisingly, he was talking to a beautiful woman. I did not interrupt.
When I went to watch a national holiday parade, there was Nastase, signing autographs for a group of young women. I offered a hello and shook his hand. The look in his eyes suggested, Who in the world are you?
Toby and Petre copyOne morning I glimpsed him at Daylight Donuts. He was jamming pastries into his mouth as if he had only minutes to live.
That spring I began to play tennis regularly on the red-clay public courts at Herastrau Park. On nearly every occasion I went to the park I spotted Nastase there, a sizable gut hanging over his shorts. He always played giggle doubles, with three women.
The women, I noticed, were usually attractive but not especially adept tennis players. I waved to him. His response was an expression of confusion.
Sadly, I was never invited to join Nastase’s doubles matches. I was the wrong sex, I told myself.
Once I left for him on a bench beside his court a copy of Tennis Week magazine, for which I had written an article about Romanian tennis. The magazine was still there when I went home that day. Nastase was gone.
Most of the time I played tennis with my students or with the manager of the Herastrau courts, a lovely fellow named Petre Ionescu. More than once my conversations with Petre turned to Nastase. The court manager spoke in reverence, as if talking of a holy person.
"Nastase," Petre said, "was God’s gift to Romania."
Petre believed that Nastase could have excelled at any sport he chose, including professional football, otherwise known as soccer.
During my last week in Romania I finished playing doubles one afternoon and went to hail a taxi to take me to my apartment. Suddenly I felt something against my bare leg. When I glanced down, I stared directly into the eyes of a small angry dog. In the next moment, the dog bit deep into my ankle.
In a show of crazed omnipotence, Ceausescu had bulldozed everything in sight in Bucharest, including Robert Soneru’s tennis club. Many fine old homes in the city were demolished. In their place came concrete block apartments, rows and rows of them, all alike, all dreary. The offspring of dogs that had once been pets in those leveled homes, now lived on the streets. They were everywhere in the city.
Just like Nasty.
Toby132COUNTERPUNCHER is an online exclusive series written by former Albuquerque Journal reporter and USTA Southwest Marketing Committee member Toby Smith. Smith has been writing on tennis for more than 40 years.


To reach Toby, contact tobysmith68@gmail.com or 505-681-0667 .


View past Counterpuncher stories HERE.


Ilie Nastase could be a boor. But he was never boring