"Some people sweat in the chest. They change shirts. I have a big rear end. So I changed shorts. What’s the big deal?" Ilie Nastase once said. He was the first No. 1 male player in tennis when ratings (or rankings) was introduced into the sport in 1973. As the best tennis player in the world, Ilie Nastase was awarded the Martini & Rossi gold tennis racket. Commentator Richard Schneider observed in 1978, "In tennis there are computer ranking, point rankings, money-winning rankings and just plain old subjective rankings."
Ilie Nastase turned pro in 1969. "When Nastase won tournaments a decade or so ago," Dave Woolford of The Blade remarked in 1981, "the prize money was $3000. Now (in 1981) it's getting into the 6-figure area." In tennis, Ilie Nastase was the player most people paid to watch. In 1979, promoter Tom Cooke convinced Ilie Nastase to come to Sarasota to play in a tournament on a wild-card instead of taking a vacation in Puerto Rico. "I'm glad he came, even if he was more 'wild' than wild-card. Without him, I doubt that we'd have had that 3000-plus crowd Friday night, which at least guaranteed that we'd break even." Ilie Nastase lost in the semifinals. "Without him in the singles finals, the Sunday crowd of about 2000 was much less than hoped for," it was reported. Tom believed, "Many who had bought finals' tickets in advance for our tourney didn't show up." As a semifinalist, Ilie earned $2000 plus $1250 for winning the doubles.
Ilie Nastase was nicknamed "Nasty" because of his famous on-court tantrums. On court, Ilie Nastase was said to have possessed a "Dr. Jekyll and Mr Hyde split-personality." Ilie insisted, "I don't want people saying, 'Let's go out and watch Nastase play, he is a very bad boy. I prefer them to say, 'Ilie is a great player and a nice man'. . .I admit I have done many bad things on the court. I don't deny it. But you should have seen me when I was 17. I was terrible. . .I don't try to be bad. I just want to win. To win, you have to be like a bull in the ring." On reflection, "I don't think you can have a good time and win everything. So I have a good time and win some things."
Ilie told the press in 1983, "I take out everything, all of the pressure in my system. I don't do it for the crowd. If that pleases the crowd, it's even better. I do it for myself. I normally play against the crowd because of my temper. When I win, imagine how I feel when I play against the crowd, the opponent, and the umpire." Tom Cooke added, "Let me tell you, Nastase is a very polite, extremely intelligent man. He goes out of his way to make people feel comfortable. He's very gracious. Unfortunately, he's a changed person on the court, as I was forewarned by Grand Prix officials. And I’m sorry that several of our linespeople became upset and took his tantrums to heart."
Ilie Nastase reached 5 Grand Slam singles finals (at the 1971 and 1973 French Open, at the 1972 and 1976 Wimbledon and at the 1972 U.S. Open), winning two, in 1972 at the U.S. Open and in 1973 at the French Open. "I have been building my game since I was 7, 8 years old," Ilie elaborated in 1976. The Romanian ambassador to the United States Corneliu Bagdon who presented Ilie with the gold tennis racket made the point, "In Bucharest (*), he's a hero, but sometimes a victim of his own heroism. People in Bucharest sometimes expect too much of him. After all, he's a man, not a god. If he doesn't perform like a god and beat everyone, sometimes they get mad at him. You know how it is."
(*) It was noted the capital of Hungary was Budapest. Romania became a country in 1861 after Moldavia and Wallachia sought independence from the Ottoman Empire (or Turkey) in 1859. Henry J. Taylor of United Features told readers, "Dacians were the earliest known of Romanian people. They were merged with the invading Proto-Thracians. From 106AD to 271 Rome occupied the Dacian kingdom and the people and language were romanized. Hungary – officially the Magyar Nepkostarsasag People's republic – borders on Romania. 'Saluta' the Romanian equivalent of 'Hello.'"
"He (Ilie Nastase) is to the tennis racket what (Ignacy Jan) Paderweski was to piano keys, Pele to the soccer ball, Muhammad Ali to the boxing ring," Will Grimsley of the Associated Press explained. Bill Riordan brought tennis to the masses concurred, "Ilie reminds me of (Arturo) Toscanini – the complete artist performing his symphony before the crowd, hair flying, every move a picture of grace." Bill remembered, "I first saw Nastase in 1968 at Alexandria, Egypt – he was only 22. I brought him over to play in my tournament and later became his financial adviser. . .He has a very nervous temperament – like all great artists. My complaint with him is that he lets bad calls bug him, sometimes for weeks. He lacks the killer instinct." Ilie acknowledged, "It's only on the court that I get mad because of the close calls."
"Ilie Nastase always get everybody involved – his opponent, the umpire, the linesmen, occasionally even the referee and especially the spectators," Dave Anderson expressed. "Nastase was not created to play a team sport. He is a soloist." Because Ilie Nastase's matches sold tickets, his on-court behavior was often overlooked. At a tournament in Australia held in December 1981, Ilie received a $3000 fine and a 3-week suspension for language on the court after TV viewers called Channel 7 and complained about his behavior. "If they don't like me, they can watch Channel 9. If you don't like X-rated movies you shouldn't go and watch them," Ilie said afterward. A Channel 7 representative voiced, "I would hate to see the sound effects deleted because one man forgets he is on air."
Ilie Nastase retired from tennis in 1985, "The strokes are there, but you don't get to the ball when you should. When you're young, everything is natural. You don't think about going cross court. Now you have to think about what you're doing." Another factor, Ilie mentioned to Michael Farber of The Montreal Gazette, "It's a matter of confidence and I don't have the confidence to win a big tournament. It's not a matter of losing speed or strokes. I have the same strokes. It's just a lack of confidence, and if I win a big tournament, things could change. It used to be like that, when I'd arrive in the finals of Wimbledon and Forest Hills (the U.S. Open). Confidence. Now (in 1979) look at (Bjorn) Borg. Why does he win even when he's not playing well? Confidence." Ilie also made the observation in 1984, "When you don't win, you calm down. You fight when you know that one point can cost you a match or a tournament. When you're No. 1 or 2, you have the right to fight. When you're No. 300 or 200, I don't think you have the right. Maybe you do have the right, but nobody will listen to you. If (John) McEnroe starts to shout, nobody says anything. But if No. 300 starts to shout, they'll punish him. I know how to turn a crowd. They're against me, and the next time they're with me."
Ilie Nastasee and Dominique Grazia were married for 10 years (December 1972 to 1982). She told Tony Kornjeiser of the New York Times in 1976, "I married 2 men. There is the man I see at home and that other man I see on the court. I love the 2 parts, the good and the bad. It is the special thing about Ilie. I don't know how you say in English. You either love him, or hate him. You see, there is no middle with Ilie."
Ilie met Dominique (or Nikky) in 1971 at the U.S. Open. Ilie was playing in the doubles and she was a spectator. Nikky's sister Natalie was a fan of Ilie, "Ilie was her idol. Me? I like tennis, but I had no idol. I knew the name, Nastase. That was all. It's hard to believe, but Ilie said he saw me in the crowd and immediately knew he wanted to meet me. Maybe for him it was love at first sight." Although Ilie proposed in November 1971, Nikky waited until December 1972 to marry because "tennis players have so much temptations. I thought he still might find someone else. Or that maybe I find someone else. I just wasn't sure." They named their only daughter, born in 1975, Natalie after Nikky’s sister.
Nikky made known, "You see, he has Latin blood; I have Latin blood. It is the way we are. I know him 5 years (since 1971), and I know he will not change. I will not change. We are who we are." On court, "I don't know why he act like that. I know he doesn't plan to act like that, so crazy. Sometimes I see him out there playing, and he is like the Walt Disney person, Peter Pan. The way he moves. The way he jumps, so lightly. But sometimes something happens, he goes mad, I guess. I think there are times when he does not know what he is doing, when he does not know where he is. All he really wants is the crowd to enjoy him. But he cannot control himself. Sometimes I am embarrassed by it. Because the crowd does not understand him. But he seems so mad out there. He is like a child, I guess. He just cannot keep it inside him; it must come out when he feels it. I hear him curse, and I think how many times I say to him, ‘Ilie, you speak 5 other languages – French, Romanian, Italian, Spanish and Russian. Why in America you curse in English?' . . .But tennis is his life; he loves it so much. If Ilie didn't exist, I think tennis not exist. He brings so much interest. The people all come to see him."
In 1976, some 12,553 spectators paid to watch Ilie played Hans Jurgen Pohmann in the 2nd round of the U.S. Open on center court. Nikki remembered, "I think Ilie was really crazy, really near to cry when he was playing Pohmann. It was the crowd, I think. All I think is they want him to get mad on the court. Like they pay the money, and they come to see a crazy man do crazy thing on the court. It was the Lions and the Christians." In the final tie-break set, Hans fell twice because of leg cramps. The umpire called for Dr. Dan Manfreidi "strictly in violation of the rules". Hans told the press, "He called me a son of a bitch and he spit at me. He called the umpire a son of a bitch at least 10 times. It was unbelievable. He came at me in the dressing room. His eyes were not normal, you know. He started screaming. 'Where are your cramps? Where are your cramps?' He pushed me and called me Hitler . . . I never saw anything like that before." Nikky begged to differ, "I hear them bait him. I hear the crowd call him, 'communist pig'. I hear it when they say, 'Go back to Romania'. He cannot be cool. He has to answer. I sit there and watch until I cannot sit anymore. I get sick in my stomach sometime, and I have to leave."
In 1989, the fall of Nicolae Ceaucescu brought communism to an end in Romania. In June 1996, Ilie Nastase was among 47 candidates running for the Mayor of Bucharest race. On election day, Ilie was heard joking, "I don’t know how to vote, do you?" to which an election official who guided Ilie to the voting booth said, "I hope, at least, he can read." Ilie was a candidate for the Social Democracy party which won 43% of the vote. The opposition Democratic Convention party won almost 57% of the vote.
Ilie spoke of admiration for Francois Mitterrand, Ronald Reagan and Dracula - Vlad Dracul (or Vlad the Impaler). "He was a good man," Ilie countered. "We could do with a bit of impaling around here, but without the drinking of blood." At the time, Ion Tiriac told a local paper, "If he would run for Mayor of New York or Paris, I think he should be put in a cell somewhere. But after the last 5 years (since 1990) in Bucharest, he might just be the man."