“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 player—and the most fined player in the history of tennis—will 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 play—but 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 regularity—both at Wimbledon and elsewhere. In his memoir, Nastase traces his tennis and his misbehavior to their origins—in 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 player—winning 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 him—and 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.
Both on and off the court, Nastase became ever more social. On it, he partnered with Pablo Casals’s distant relative Rosie (whom he called “Rose Butt”) until, at the 1979 U.S. Open, he switched mixed-doubles partners for the game’s first professional transsexual, Dr. Renée Richards. He launched himself into the failed venture of Team Tennis. (He played for the Hawaii Leis, before transferring to the Los Angeles Strings, the greatest rivals to Billie Jean King’s Philadelphia Freedom—for whom Elton John, a rabid tennis fan, wrote the song of the same name.) Off the court, he went to lots of parties. At Studio 54 (during the U.S. Open), he became friends with Warhol (“he asked me if I wanted to do a shoot for him, but stupidly I never found the time”), Bianca Jagger, and the ex-wife of Canada’s prime minister, Margaret Trudeau (“As well as going out with Mick Jagger, Margaret also spent a couple of nights with me”). While he gradually became less successful on court, he remained every bit as popular off. He moved to Monte Carlo, shot the film Players (with Ali MacGraw and Dean Martin’s tennis-playing son Dino), and went bowling with Prince Albert of Monaco.
Nastase retired in 1984, and, as was to be expected, became depressed (“My level of desperation was such that I even started to like American football”). He thought about becoming a coach, but then decided it wasn’t for him (“You have to travel, wake up with the guy, go to practice with him, eat at the same time as him, then you get fired if he doesn’t win”). And so he looked for other occupations. That same year, he broke out of his depression and recorded a French single, “Globetrotter Lover,” which cheered him up by going to number two in the French pop charts (“I know there’s not too much competition in France, but still”). He then wrote two novels in French (which he nowhere mentions in his memoirs), which made interesting beach reading for French travelers in the summers of 1985 and 1986. To give the non-Francophone reader an idea: In Tie-Break (“adapted from the Transylvanian,” as the title page indicates), a savvy American detective is brought to Roland Garros to investigate a mysterious on-court death (due, as it turns out, to a fatal mixture of aphrodisiacs and the sporting superdrug “HBO-10”). He follows the players to Wimbledon, where there is an even more mysterious death, and to the U.S. Open, where he at last uncovers an unbalanced Canadian pro who has hired a hit man to kill the tour’s Borg-like hero at the moment he is to accept the victor’s trophy (the Borg stand-in is so good that the Canadian simply assumes he will win). As fate would have it, the rabid Canadian himself wins the U.S. Open—and in his excitement forgets about the hit man he hired until it is too late. After Tie-Break and its follow-up, The Net, Nastase settled into a life of sedate luxury, hobnobbing with everyone from Jean-Paul Belmondo to fellow memoirist Bill Clinton. He ran for mayor of Bucharest in 1996, lost narrowly, and per his usual reaction, refused ever to have anything to do with politics again. He is now in his third marriage, has a large family and lots of friends, and, like everybody, tries to be happy.
Nastase played at Wimbledon from 1966 to 1982, reaching two finals and only missing two years (because of injuries). He will be there again this year, and as ever, no one knows how he will behave—not even Nastase himself. As his motto goes, “My ambition is to do a good job. I never plan anything.”
Leland de la Durantaye is an assistant professor of English and American literature and language at Harvard University.