Re: Ilie Nastase C/P
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No man, least of all a sportsman, likes to contemplate his youthful potency for too long. It makes him all the more aware of the dread creak of his bones. At 57, Nastase, who is six feet tall and has tufty hands the size of dinner plates, remains physically intimidating. 'My wife, she like the big hands, too,' he says, as I place my tiny hands against his. 'That is one of the first thing she notice about me.' He laughs heartily. 'Is a good sign of other things, no?' His face, like something out of Goya, is lumpen and swarthy, his eyes a pair of oily boreholes that, mostly, he keeps hidden behind dark glasses. The long hair is thinner but still dark. It is hard to believe now but, during Wimbledon 1977, there were so many hysterical girls waiting for him outside the players' exit that their screaming interrupted a doubles match on Centre Court and the police had to intervene.
Nastase may have won last year's American Open seniors competition, but he also knows that the wrinkly tour is a ghostly counterfeit: a show of bravado performed by the gammy knee-ed and the slack- bellied. 'Tennis is my life,' he says. 'Once the racket is in my hand, I'm no longer myself, no longer that shy boy from Bucharest. I miss the tournament. It made me happy. But I do not feel fit. Some players, like McEnroe, they still believe they can be number one. Me? At the back of my head is the idea that I want to win. But it's not possible. The French say we are en passage . When you get to my age, you understand what they mean by that. Everything is going too fast. So my ambition now is all for my children and my wife.'
With a hammy grimace, he leans over to pick up his sunglasses. 'I'm just an old guy. I know that.'
Nastase was the unlikeliest of tennis champions, not least because of his Romanian background (there have only ever been three Romanian sports stars of any real note: Nastase, the footballer Gheorghe Hagi and the gymnast Nadia Comaneci). He was born in 1946, in Bucharest, where his father worked as a policeman for the national bank. The family lived in a property owned by a bank in the grounds of the Progresul tennis club, where Davis Cup ties were played. It was there that Nastase's interest in the sport was first piqued. At three, he would clamber up to the top of the stadium's open wooden benches where, during hot weather, he liked to strip naked before settling down to watch the tennis. On one occasion, after being caught short during a particularly exciting match, he merrily urinated over the heads of the fans sitting below.
His parents were not as desperately poor as many others - the authorities allowed them to keep a cow and a goat at the club, so there was always milk to go with the meagre foodstuffs for which his father had to queue. But growing up in the Fifties under communism was difficult. Lunch was a slice of bread with sugar sprinkled on it. Because of his erratic temper the young Nastase was often in trouble at school; his teacher would punish him for his misdemeanours by making him kneel on upturned walnut shells for hours at a time. At school he devoted himself largely to his two favourite pastimes: football, and running over to the American ambassador's residence, where he would go through the dustbins in search of Coca-Cola bottle tops, prized symbols of Western decadence.
At six, inspired by his older brother, later a Davis Cup player, Nastase began playing tennis, not with a racket but with a kind of wooden bat. Not having ever seen televised international tennis, he knew nothing of technique. But what he lacked in elegance, he made up for in instinct and motivation. He would hit the ball against a wall that was directly below a chocolate factory and, because the women who worked there would occasionally throw sweets down to him, he had an added incentive to practise. By the time he was 11, he had a coach; by the time he was 13, he had won the national championships for his age group. It was during this event that he was given his first new racket, a beautiful Slazenger. It was here, too, that he met Ion Tiriac, the then Romanian national champion who would change his life.
With Tiriac - a silent warrior who could demolish 14 eggs at one sitting - at his side, Nastase established himself on the tennis circuit. At 17, while still a shaven-headed army recruit, he played his first tournament abroad, in Bulgaria; at 19, he was finally allowed to travel to the West. His game was unorthodox, relying on speed and anticipation, and he held his racket awkwardly, so that the end of its handle was buried in his hand. But he was hugely powerful; his wristy shots were often unreturnable. He was soon winning big matches. As a result, the authorities gave him the freedom to travel. 'I thought about defecting. I told myself I would do it if they started following me, asking me about money. That didn't happen. I was great for Romania's image and I never gave them a reason to get upset with me.'
Nastase won the American Open in 1972 and the French Open in 1973, during which time he was ranked world number one. He is still, however, better known for his temper and for the matches that he didn't win - such as the 1972 Wimbledon men's singles final against Stan Smith. Delayed for three long days by rain, their match lasted for almost three hours and was the first final since the Second World War to reach 5-5 in a fifth set. (Serving at 5-6, Nastase reached 40-0 before Smith produced a winning return that changed the match.) He also lost the 1976 Wimbledon final to Bjorn Borg. Two weeks short of his thirtieth birthday and aware that this was his final chance to win the tournament, a sluggish Nastase was beaten in straight sets.
As for his temper, long before McEnroe began his reign of terror Nastase was querying umpires and demanding that they showed respect and addressed him as Mister (hence his nickname, Mr Nasty). During one match at the exclusive River Oaks country club in Houston, Texas, Nastase noticed that a woman behind him was clapping his mistakes. 'If you don't shut up,' he said. 'I'm going to shit in your hat.'
His most notorious outburst came during a match against Arthur Ashe at the 1975 Masters tournament in Stockholm. Irritated by a heckler and annoyed when Ashe was distracted by a ball boy, Nastase tried a little sarcasm. 'Are you ready, Mr Ashe?' he asked. Ashe, the most gentlemanly player of them all, was unexpectedly furious. 'I've had enough!' he announced, after Nastase had repeated this question several times, and promptly left the court. Both players were disqualified although, after Ashe expressed his outrage at this decision, he was later reinstated.
'I was like day and night,' says Nastase, now. 'All my fights were on court. Off it, I didn't have a temper at all. Okay, I once punched a photographer, but he came to my room at 8.30 in the morning; anybody would have been upset and I did pay for his broken glasses. The worst match of my career was against McEnroe in 1979. First, they defaulted me, then they defaulted him. We were enemies on court, but later that night we were sitting together in a restaurant.'
Did he ever regret losing his dignity? 'I always had my reasons. The great players never complained about me; they just tried to concentrate on beating me. You see, if someone made a bad decision, it was like they had stolen something from me. One point could make the difference between winning a title and losing it.'
He even came to mistrust the new bleeping electronic line machines. 'Bloody things! They were probably made in Russia.'
In preparation for their proposed deal with Hello!, the Nastases are on a strict diet. After five o'clock, they permit themselves to eat nothing but fruit - which is why, I assume, Ilie attacks his roast chicken with such devout gusto during our lunch. Nastase is a clumsy, even childlike, man, with a habit of absenting himself when he tires of the conversation. On the subject of tennis, he is mundane; he mourns the death of the rally, the passing of wooden rackets and bigger balls, and he thinks the modern game is too professional, its stars surrounded by such big entourages, 'they no longer even know how to tie their own shoelaces'. But ask him about his private life and he comes bounding right up to the net. 'It was a different world,' he says. 'Mick, Bianca, Warhol, Halston - I met some nice people in the Seventies.'
He lost his virginity in Paris, in 1966, to a prostitute laid on for him by a friend of Tiriac's. After that, there was no stopping him. For Nastase, unlike his friend Vitas Gerulaitis, the maverick tennis star who was also a coke addict, drugs held no appeal; the consequences of getting caught, for a Romanian, were simply too dire. Neither was he a drinker: he did not have his first beer until he was 28. Women and sex were what excited him.
In the beginning, these were mostly the compliant daughters of the families who put him up on the circuit. Once he became famous, however, there were long lines of tennis groupies from which to choose. '[Having] a lot of sex in those days was like taking a daily shower,' he writes in his autobiography. 'You take one, it feels nice, then you forget it.' The secret was not to let any single female hang around for so long that she began to start thinking of herself as the official girlfriend.
So did he really sleep with 2,500 of these poor creatures? A leery grin. 'I don't know exactly. I make an average.' So what was his secret? After all, he was hardly an oil painting. He begins with a long digression involving the most well hung guy on the circuit (this was not him, apparently, though he makes it clear he came a close second). Then he says: 'I think they probably wanted to see if I was the same person off the court as on it. Or maybe they wanted me to scream in bed, I don't know. I didn't care. Sex is like food; the more you eat, the more you want to eat. But it was just a moment, like an animal. When you're playing tennis, you must concentrate. I didn't want to be bothered by relationships. So for me, it was a quick meeting wherever possible. If she liked that, okay. If she didn't, then bad luck for her and bad luck for me.'
Two women, however, caught his eye long enough to become his wives. He married the first of these, Dominique, a 21-year-old French woman, in 1972 (they have a daughter, Natalie) and the second, an American model called Alexandra, in 1984 (they have an adopted son and daughter). Both marriages, he thinks, ended as a direct consequence of the circuit. In 1996, at a concert given by Sting in aid of Romanian orphans, he met Amalia. A student at Bucharest University, she was working as a cigarette girl for Lucky Strike. At first she refused to give him her phone number. Naturally, her coolness served only to intensify his ardour , but it was two years before she capitulated. Is Amalia his last wife? He rolls his eyes. 'Yes, this is what I told her. She trusts me. I'm a good boy now. I can control myself. What do I have to prove at 58? Also, we spend all our time together. Travel - that's when the trouble starts.'
The tennis circuit in the Seventies was almost unimaginably different from the way it is today: a world of late nights and high jinks with, it sometimes feels, a few rallies thrown in now and then to pass those boring hours in the middle of the day. In 1977, Nastase - whose friends already included Jack Nicholson, Ryan O'Neal and Richard Harris - began going to Studio 54, the New York nightclub. It was owned by Steve Rubell, a big tennis fan. There, he would hang out with Margaret Trudeau, Andy Warhol and the designer Halston. Gerulaitis was a regular, too. 'Sometimes,' Nastase writes of his late friend, 'he and the others would go up to the top of the gallery to do I don't know what, but I always stayed downstairs. I'd watch the show, with all the dancers and sometimes these white horses would come on.'
Afterwards, the gang would move on to Halston's house on Park Avenue. But while Nastase knew his limits and would usually leave in the small hours, Gerulaitis could stay up all night and still play his match, as per usual, the next morning. (He died in 1994, of carbon monoxide poisoning. 'We all used to tell him he'd die young,' says Nastase. 'So when the end came, it was so shocking to find out it had nothing to do with drugs.')
Today, aspects of Nastase's behaviour can seem truly shaming. While he was cheerily tolerant of lesbians on the circuit, including his doubles partner Rosie Casals, and played mixed doubles with Dr Renee Richards, the game's first transsexual, some of the jokes he made about his friend Arthur Ashe are no longer terribly funny, if they ever were. His nickname for Ashe was Negroni (although he insists that in Romanian, the word doesn't mean 'nigger' but 'a little black kid, dressed nice').
During one match in Kentucky, Nastase, in cahoots with Jimmy Connors, used boot polish to black himself up in order that he and Ashe might look as if they were 'on the same team' (doubles partners who did not wear matching colours were fined). Oh, it was a hoot - especially when the stuff melted in the sun. For Nastase, this is a warm memory, one that, amazingly, encapsulates the way he hopes to be remembered.
Prize money in the Seventies might not have been swollen to the grotesque proportions of today, but Nastase is, he tells me, perfectly content with what he made. His first purchase as a teenager was a longed-for bicycle; later, he bought a black and silver Ford Capri, in which, instantly recognisable, he used to roar round Bucharest. There followed a series of homes, first in Paris and rural France, later in Manhattan and Connecticut.
Today, he lives more modestly, in the house that, in 1973, the authorities finally allowed him to buy for his parents. 'I think I spent a lot of money,' he tells me. 'But I'm happy with what I've got. People say, "Ilie, you should have been born 10 years later." I don't agree. That's the way things go. They'll probably be saying the same thing to Sampras one day.'
I have a hunch that his biggest luxury now is almost certainly his wife.
But his first love remains tennis and he is a proud president of his country's tennis federation, a position that gives him continued access - as if it were needed - to the best boxes in the best stadiums at the best tournaments in the world. Macho, phlegmatic, stubborn, Nastase is not, as you might have guessed, one for analysis of his weaknesses as a player, or even for nostalgia and regrets (though I imagine he has a few).
But he is, like most egotists, a sentimental man. Ask him which tournament he most regrets failing to win and his answer is always the same: 'If I was able to swap my American Open title for the Davis Cup [which Romania lost to the USA in the final of 1968] you know what I'd do? Take the cup. Every time.'
As for ambition, following a brief dalliance with politics (in 1996, he stood as a candidate for mayor of Bucharest), all his hopes are for those close to him. But there is one thing. Twenty-five years ago, when it became apparent that he was never going to win Wimbledon, an achievement that qualifies a player for automatic membership of the All England Club, he formally applied to join its ranks. He has been on a waiting list ever since. 'All I want is the chance to watch the tennis when I'm no longer playing.'
Why doesn't he just ask to join?
'Tch! It's too embarrassing.'
He drinks his espresso and rises, his craggy form casting an eclipse-like shadow on this, the hottest day of the year so far. Then he glances over at Amalia, who is inscrutable as ever behind her two great circles of rose plastic. Will I excuse him? His wife is in an awful rush and there is his diary to be done before she hops in her taxi.
· Mr Nastase is published by HarperCollins on 7 June