In '73, Nastase made sure things got a bit nasty
By Bud Collins, Globe Columnist | November 19, 2004
HOUSTON -- Marat Safin, the mad Russian, may be a one-man demolition derby with tennis racket, Lleyton Hewitt a furious in-your-face adversary, Roger Federer a light-fingered pickpocket in short pants, and Andy Roddick a youth impersonating a thunderbolt. But these strong-willed contenders in this week's elite shootout called the Masters Cup aren't up to the theatrical standards of a guy who won it four times: Ilie Nastase.
This is the 35th edition of the campaign-ending playoff among the year's top eight guys, an event that moves across the planet and made its first US stop at Boston's Hynes Auditorium in 1973. It is unique in that a second-chance provision makes it possible for a loser in the early round-robin skirmishing to rebound and win the title.
After the first two years, which were so-so in Tokyo and Paris, the sponsor, Commercial Union Insurance, wanted something different, a new format. A couple of CU reps, Barry Lorge and Geoff Mullis, were delegated by Henry Stone, CEO of the American branch (headquartered in Boston), to come up with a formula for the competition. That they did, diagramming their idea on a paper napkin at the Globe's cafeteria during a 1972 visit to Boston.
Nobody knows what happened to the historic napkin. But Nastase ought to remember Lorge and Mullis in his will, because he won two of his Masters by beating their system, yet in force, overcoming defeats in title runs of 1973 and 1975. Lorge, now a PR
guy in San Diego, doesn't remember much about the lunch, except, "It wasn't fois gras. Maybe baked beans, a nice Bostonian touch."
Half-baked was a fitting description of Nastase, the only man to poutingly walk away from his crown -- then run back to it. Nastase was either the "Bucharest Buffoon" or the "Romanian Razor," depending on what mood or 'tude he was in. A screw-loose loser, or one of the sharpest practitioners of slick-quick shtick ever to grace a tennis court. Other than a superior temperament (of course, not an insignificant quality), the current monarch, Roger I of Switzerland, has nothing on the shotmaking ease and majesty of the masterly Nastase of 1971-72-73-75.
During his five Masters appearances (he lost the 1974 final to Guillermo Vilas), Nastase tied foes -- and himself -- into knots, alienating and delighting. Sleek and fleet, as high-strung as a racehorse, he disembarked in Boston at age 27 for the fourth Masters, proclaiming himself No. 1, and disdainful of anybody who thought differently. Still, it had been a strange year in which the major titles were divided three ways. Nastase had one piece, the French Open. But Sydney native John Newcombe had two, the Australian Open plus the US Open, and Czech Jan Kodes had the most renowned championship, Wimbledon.
Anyway, Nastase knew he would have to outperform Newcombe if he were to depart Boston as No. 1 for '73. Only days before in Cleveland, Newk, along with Rod Laver, had nuked the US (Stan Smith and Tom Gorman), 5-0, to break the homeboys' five-year stranglehold on the Davis Cup.
Nastase could feel his diadem slipping away in his opening round-robin match, as attack-minded Gorman -- usually the Romanian's pigeon -- volleyed out a 6-4, 6-1 decision. The crown practically fell on the floor the next day as Nastase fell behind Kodes in their third set, and his constant bickering turned the crowd against him.
"They don't like me," he wailed, and then abruptly surrendered. Nastasean walkouts weren't uncommon, although this one would have cost him the championship. Two losses in the round-robin phase were fatal. He was hotly cooking his own goose. The audience was stunned, as were tournament director Jim Westhall and referee Mike Blanchard.
Nastase's bye-bye was an unnerving boo-boo for everybody, even Kodes. Beaten once himself, Kodes would have profited by a default. Nevertheless, the Czech, whom Nastase taunted by calling him "Russian," joined Blanchard and Westhall in trying to talk the champ out of a premature farewell.
It was highly irregular, but, after a long delay, Nastase, forgiven and calmed, returned to stay alive by winning, 6-4, 2-6, 6-4. A formidable boulder was yet in his way: Newcombe, who had beaten Kodes and Gorman. But the reprieved Romanian was taking wing, and qualified for the semis, 7-5, 6-3, over the Aussie.
Illinois-born Jimmy Connors was 21 and rising. He had ducked a match point in defeating Smith, 6-0, 3-6, 7-6 (8-6), to enter the semis of a tournament he would win four years later. The win also earned Connors a deadlock with Smith for the No. 1 US ranking. Moreover, he had built a local fan base by winning his first significant title, the US Pro at Longwood, five months previously.
However, his pal Nastase -- they had won the Wimbledon doubles together in July -- was too much for Connors in the semis, 6-3, 7-5. Nastase's positive reversal of fortune, in the helpful hands of others, continued. After beating Kodes, he had needed a Kodes win over Gorman to make sure he reached the final four. And Nastase got it as he roamed the arena, shouting encouragement to the Czech: "Come on, `Russian!' You can do it, `Russian!' "
A spectator again, Nastase got a further break when Newcombe was betrayed by a calf muscle. A Nastase-Newcombe faceoff for No. 1 appeared imminent as the Aussie leaped to smash an overhead that took him to match point against Netherlander Tom Okker in the other semi, giving him a 6-3, 5-7, 5-3 advantage.
Alas, on landing, Newk groaned at the "Pop!" heard 'round the tennis world. He couldn't go on, done in by a torn muscle in his right leg.
It was a rancorous final, both Okker and Nastase complaining about officiating that was decidedly amateurish because the regular New England corps of umpires and line judges pulled a Nastase. They walked, too -- their work stoppage a complaint against tourney director Westhall. Westhall's perceived sin was selecting an outsider, the estimable Blanchard, to chair the finale.
Replacements were recruited from the audience of 3,800, and the show went on -- and to Nastase, 6-3, 7-5, 4-6, 6-3. It was his 16th singles title of a year that was his.
At one juncture, Nastase batted a ball at a service line judge who had called a fault on a ball that Ilie shrieked "was an ace, stupid!" In the television booth, I asked my commentary partner, Jack Kramer, "Isn't that an automatic fine, Jack?"
Kramer, a Hall of Fame great on the court, was a founder of the ATP and, at that moment, its executive director. "Well, yeah," he responded, "I guess that's a hundred-dollar fine."
Probably the only time an athlete was penalized by a TV announcer. Nastase, winner of the $15,000 first prize, a lavish jackpot 31 years ago (it's a minimum $1.4 million this time), declared he would not pay the fine. Who knows if he ever did?
At any rate, he was largely responsible for the present code of conduct, which, in fairness, ought to be called the Nastase Act. I think he feels slighted.