By Alex Distefano
By Scott Snowden
By Anna Merlan
By Steve Almond
By Jena Ardell
By Jon Campbell
By Alan Scherstuhl
By Tessa Stuart
"I used to have this dream that came all the time during Wimbledon. Finally, I win this son-of-a-bitch tournament, and I take my trophy and go all around the stadium, bowing to people and giving the finger to everybody. Then I take my rackets and break them in my hands. I throw them in the river, and I stop playing tennis forever. Just like that." These are the last words of Ilie Nastase's long-awaited autobiography, Mr. Nastase, which is appearing in England just in time for Wimbledon's fortnight. Whether or not he goes around breaking rackets or giving people the finger (he's entered in the Seniors draw), 1973's number one playerand the most fined player in the history of tenniswill be signing books at Wimbledon's All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club on July 1.
Publication couldn't have come at a better time. Today's tennis, with its baseball hats, baggy shorts, and good behavior, pales in comparison to that of Nastase's generation. One looks at the current top seeds and finds brilliant playbut no brilliant figures. These pros aren't any less talented or driven as those of Nastase's tight-shorted, long-haired generation, but they are a good deal less engaging. Like a prophet come down from the mountain of misbehavior, Nastase is back to preach his gospel of colorful language.
Nastase's title comes from an incident that, appropriately enough, took place at Wimbledon. During one of many altercations, a referee addressed the temperamental Romanian not as "Mr. Nastase," but as "Nastase," which duly led him to completely flip out (multilingual swearing, racket-breaking). Flipping out is something he did with amazing regularityboth at Wimbledon and elsewhere. In his memoir, Nastase traces his tennis and his misbehavior to their originsin Transylvania. His very first memory is of watching tennis on the roof of Romania's largest tennis stadium. He is a naked three-year-old (it is a hot summer and no one can see him up there) and Romania is in a Davis Cup tie against France. Little Ilie is so transfixed by the ball flying back and forth that he loses track of his priorities ("I started to pee and everything started to dribble between the stands. At first, people below thought it was raining"). Once he descended to the courts, Nastase's talent was quickly recognized. While still a teenager, he gained permission from his government to travel and, with the help of a minimal state stipend, began the life of a journeyman tennis playerwinning a match at a major Egyptian tournament in socks when he had no money to buy new shoes, and suffering through long seasons moving his way across India, where he played a number of tournaments in unbelievable heat on courts made from hardened cow dung.
With time and the ripening of his skills, his fortunes began to change. Romania's Davis Cup team reached the finals in 1969, and though they narrowly lost to a powerful U.S. team led by Arthur Ashe and Stan Smith, Nastase made a name for himself and was soon propelled into tennis's widening spotlight. Both teams went to Washington to meet the president ("Nixon gave us each a golf ball with his face on it"). Under the tutelage of his doubles partner, fellow Romanian and tactical genius Ion Tiriac ("my relationship with him was like a marriage without the sex"), Nastase quickly climbed the world rankings and by 1973 was the best player in the world.
His reputation began to precede him. In 1973, the fledgling Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP) decided to boycott Wimbledon for supporting the suspension of a Yugoslavian player; the ATP ordered Nastase to follow suit. When Nastase chose to obey an opposite order from his country's dictator, Nicolae Ceausescu ("Play Wimbledon!"), he quickly made a host of enemies. (Tiriac resisted Ceausescu's call and was to later avow that he considered killing Nastase at the time, according to the autobiography.) Though he didn't win the strike Wimbledon of '73, he survived it, and as he remained atop the rankings, glamour and success soon became fixtures of his jet-setting life. With success came sex ("Tennis is a sport where there is no shortage of girls willing to sleep with a player, just for the sheer hell of it") and celebrity. But with the latter came stress, and with stress, more misbehavior ("Afterwards, the umpire claimed I spat at him, which is certainly possible, but he was lucky I didn't do something else"). In 1975, he violated Wimbledon's all-white dress code for the first time by appearing along with new doubles partner Jimmy Connors in a rugby shirt (Connors wore green for Ireland, Nastase red for Romania).
Success and misbehavior continued hand in hand. In 1976, after a quarterfinal victory, Nastase walked off Wimbledon's Centre Court backward so that the photographers he felt had unnecessarily pestered him during the match could not shoot himand thereby failed to bow to the royal box. (He later claimed that he didn't forget, but given the alternatives, bowing to show his backside, and not bowing at all, he chose the latter.) He relentlessly amassed misconduct fines ("if I hadn't been winning so much I'd be sleeping under a bridge by now") and became a sex symbol ("I just don't understand. I'm thirty-one, married, and very ugly"). To escape the crush of female fans at Wimbledon in 1977, he and his wife had to leave the grounds with the help of three decoy cars.