Ilie Nastase: The Tennis Bad Boy

Ilie Nastase

Ilie Theodoriu Năstase (born 19 July 1946) is a Romanian former world No. 1 tennis player.

He held the top singles spot from 23 August 1973 to 2 June 1974, and was the first man to hold the position on the computerized ATP rankings.

Năstase is among the 10 players in history who have won over 100 total ATP titles, with 64 in singles and 45 in doubles. Năstase won seven major titles: two in singles, three in men’s doubles, and two in mixed doubles.

He also won four Masters Grand Prix year-end championship titles.

He was the first professional sports figure to sign an endorsement contract with Nike, doing so in 1972. Năstase was inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame in 1991.

At the beginning of his career in 1966, Năstase traveled worldwide competing with Ion Țiriac.

They represented Romania in the Davis Cup competition, runners up in 1969, 1971, and 1972. In singles, Năstase won his first tournament at Cannes on 16 April 1967.

His first victories against top players happened in 1969 in Stockholm, where he defeated Tony Roche and Stan Smith. Năstase became one of the best players in 1970, with many experts ranking him as the sixth-best player in the world at that time, behind the Australians Rod Laver, Ken Rosewall, John Newcombe, and Tony Roche, and the American Arthur Ashe.

In 1973, Năstase won 17 tournaments, including the French Open, a doubles title at Wimbledon, and a third Masters title.

He was the world No. 1 in the ATP rankings that year. He also won the ‘Martini and Rossi Award, was voted for by a panel of journalists, and was ranked No. 1 by an international poll of 17 tennis writers, Tennis Magazine (U.S.), Bud Collins, Rino Tommasi, and Rex Bellamy.

In the Davis Cup, he won seven of eight singles rubbers. In matches against the other top players, Năstase was 1–0 against Newcombe and 1–1 against Smith.

The Romanian won the French Open without dropping a set in succession. Năstase was seeded No. 2 for Wimbledon, behind the defending champion Stan Smith.

When the newly formed ATP withdrew its players from the tournament following the suspension by the ITF of Yugoslav Nikola Pilić, only three ATP players (Năstase, Roger Taylor, and Ray Keldie) defied the boycott and were fined by the ATP’s disciplinary committee. Nastase was promoted to No. 1 seed for the players in the subsequently weakened field and publicly stated his support for the ATP action but insisted that as a serving captain, he was under orders from the Romanian army and government to compete and thus could not boycott the tournament.

Considered one of the most gifted tennis players in history, Năstase was noted for his ability to entertain, amusing spectators with his antics and mimicry. Even during a crucial phase of a match, he was likely to do something bizarre that would entertain the crowd.

One of the fastest players, he is remembered for his magnificent lobs and retrieves.

Năstase could apply a discomforting spin to his shots, being an expert at putting the ball just beyond an opponent’s reach.

  1. In October 1977 at the Raquette d’Or tournament, Năstase used a ‘spaghetti string’ (double-strung) racket to end Guillermo Vilas’s 46-match winning streak.

The racket was known for creating large amounts of topspin and unpredictable bounces. Vilas quit the match in protest of the racket. A few days later, the ATP banned the use of such racquets.

  • During the US Open in 1979, Năstase was defaulted from his match against John McEnroe. The umpire previously docked Năstase a point in the third set and then a game in the fourth for arguing and stalling.

A near-riot followed as the crowd disagreed with the umpire’s decision, throwing beer cans and cups on the court.

The match was restarted, with the umpire being replaced before McEnroe won.

  • In 1994 Năstase, Davis Cup captain of his country, was banned for an away match against Great Britain, for “‘audible obscenities and constant abuse and intimidation of officials” in a tie against South Africa.
  • In 2017, while captaining his country’s Fed Cup team against Great Britain, Năstase was overheard commenting about Serena Williams’ unborn child, and the 71-year-old asked Britain’s Fed Cup captain Anne Keothavong for her room number while posing for photographers.

Năstase previously made unfounded comments about Williams allegedly doping.

Before Great Britain and Romania began their two-day World Group play-off, Năstase allegedly stormed into the media center to confront British journalists over the reporting of his comments the previous day.

Năstase could only find Press Association tennis correspondent Eleanor Crook before launching into a tirade about the reporting.

During the second rubber, after the crowd had been told to respect the players, he said to match umpire Andreas Egli: “It’s not the opera, what’s your fucking problem?” He was ultimately ejected from the stadium for unsportsmanlike conduct.

In a statement, the International Tennis Federation (ITF) additionally confirmed that Năstase had his accreditation removed and would take no further part in the tie. The next day, the ITF provisionally suspended Năstase under the Fed Cup Regulations for a breach of the Fed Cup Welfare Policy, meaning that he was banned from the site of any ITF event.

When Năstase was ejected from the stadium he met Crook again and, separated by a large number of security guards, verbally attacked her.

The next day, despite being banned from the venue, Năstase reappeared and went to have lunch in the onsite restaurant. He additionally sent flowers to the British team. On 21 July 2017, he was suspended by the ITF until 2021.

Williams released a statement on social media branding the comments about her unborn child as racist, noting that it saddened her that we live in a society where these comments can be made. Năstase then apologized on social media regarding the comments he made about Williams but made comments about Konta speaking to the umpire which upset him.

In a further interview with the BBC, Năstase justified his comments to Konta, stating that he only abused her after being ejected from the court and did so as a fan rather than a captain. Năstase also said that he regretted his behavior in the incident. Nastase was not invited to the French Open and Wimbledon following his suspension. The Madrid Open, however, invited Nastase to be part of the prizegiving ceremony, which was won by Simona Halep (another Romanian player). This was a move that was deemed irresponsible by the WTA, which had revoked Nastase’s privileges while the ITF carried out its investigation.

  • Allegations of inappropriate behavior included Pam Shriver claiming Năstase frequently asked in a joking manner if she was still a virgin. After about 30 occasions of this happening, Shriver asked him to stop asking that, which he did.
  • Dominique Monami, captain of the Belgium team, then mentioned that Năstase had abused her in the round before the match with Great Britain. Monami later added that Năstase was abusive for two games during the match between Elise Mertens and Irina-Camelia Begu.

Năstase has been married five times:

He tied the knot with his fifth wife Ioana Simion, during a “simple and beautiful” ceremony at the Mamaia resort in the seaside city of Constanta, Romania in 2020.

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