It is 45 years since Centre Court at Wimbledon rose to applaud the charismatic entertainer that was Ilie Nastase, loser of a memorable five-set final against the American Stan Smith. After the Romanian’s appalling behaviour in Constanta this weekend during Great Britain’s Fed Cup tie against the home team he coaches, it is unlikely a British audience will ever again give him such rapturous acclaim.
When the 70-year-old Nastase reduced Johanna Konta to tears in the second set of her match against Sorana Cirstea on Saturday by calling her, “a fucking bitch” he transformed a mere sporting event into ugly farce.
He probably did not know that the British No1 a couple of days earlier had learned an inquest ruled that her former life coach, Juan Coto, had killed himself in November – and that might have been a factor in her response, or perhaps she had compartmentalised the grief – but, regardless, Nastase was now as out of control as he was when regarded as the eternal rebel of tennis, so long ago.
He directed the same vileness towards the Great Britain coach, Anne Keothavong, as well as the chair umpire, screaming, “What’s your fucking problem?” It had all started, apparently, over noise in the crowd.
Nastase’s ill-judged and cowardly rudeness to three women – having already insulted Serena Williams in her absence the night before – crossed a line that, even in his playing days, he did not tread. He was rightly escorted from the arena and surely must be evicted from the sport altogether.
When Romania’s best player, Simona Halep, was asked on Friday to comment on the American player’s pregnancy, which was confirmed on Wednesday, Nastase was heard to remark in Romanian about the ethnicity of the unborn child, “Let’s see what colour it has. Chocolate with milk?”
Nastase subsequently worked himself up for his Saturday afternoon outburst with an unprovoked verbal assault on a fourth woman, the British journalist Eleanor Crooks, when he stormed into the press box before play looking for the authors of the Williams story that had appeared in most newspapers that morning. It was Crooks’s misfortune to be the only British journalist present, and Nastase took full advantage of her vulnerability.
“He said the English were out to get him and called me stupid a few more times,” Crooks said. “Fortunately he was across the other side of the room from me and there were other journalists around so it was unpleasant rather than threatening.”
As a veteran observer who knows him well remarked on social media, Nastase is “too big a name” to censure. However facetious a remark that is, it is also ludicrous. Nastase once was a giant of tennis, certainly, but no more. Most young people will never have heard of him. And so what? His stature should hardly be a shield against punishment.
At the height of his notoriety in the 70s, he said, “I am a little crazy, but I try to be a good boy.” It summed him up perfectly. Except he never tried too hard to be good.
Those who saw Nastase play will never forget him, for most of the right reasons. He was lightning quick, a master at the net as well as the baseline, and he had more tricks than a magician. The first time I went to Wimbledon, I slipped a steward a fiver to get on to the court where he was playing doubles. I was as transfixed as everyone else – ignoring the gifts of the other three and watching only Nastase.
Others were watching too. His president, Nicolai Ceascescu, ordered him to break the players’ boycott of Wimbledon in 1973. It cost him $5,000 and life membership of the All England Club. For someone who earned more than $2m in purses over a long career and had an open disregard for authority, it was probably a bearable slight.
Nastase has made a career out of being a clown. He revelled in the nickname given him, the Bucharest Buffoon, and his showmanship and talent made him a star turn at big tournaments long after he quit playing seriously in the 80s – although he very rarely did play seriously, which was central to his charm, on and off the court.
Where others went about their well-paid work grimly and professionally, Nastase brought laughter and joy. He carried that sense of mischief into bars and clubs everywhere, a playboy for an era that embraced such behaviour. This probably informed his view of women. He could have anyone he wanted, he must have thought. There were no limits on him. Rules were for others. His looks have long faded but his attitude remains.
As the International Tennis Hall of Fame described Nastase when inducting him in 1991, he was, “noted both for his sorcery with the racket and his bizarre, even objectionable behaviour. He was an entertainer second to none, amusing spectators with his antics and mimicry, also infuriating them with gaucheries and walkouts.”
Sadly for this engaging but infuriating individual, he remains an unreconstructed fool. Indulged by those prepared to either live in the flickering glow of his personality or simply look the other way, he continues to do as he pleases.
We saw where that indiscipline led him in front of his own people this weekend. Halep, who had asked for Nastase to be made captain, was annoyed with him but forgave him. Perhaps, she said, he should apologise to Williams. And every woman he has ever insulted, too, while he’s at it.