To one eyewitness, Ilie Nastase behaved in a “vile, disgusting and deplorable manner to every member of the British team”. Another talked of “very base and vulgar language” with “gross finger gestures” to the crowd. Some even wondered whether the match between Romania and Great Britain should be called off. Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? Two days ago familiar, perhaps? Only these comments weren’t about this weekend’s Federation Cup tie – but came from the British team following a Davis Cup match against Nastase’s Romania in 1978.
So we shouldn’t be surprised that Nastase called Johanna Konta“a fucking bitch”, made offensive remarks about Serena Williams’ unborn child, or leched over the British team captain, Anne Keothavong, before asking for her room number. Sneering, leering, loud, louche: such adjectives should define Nastase as much as those used to describe his remarkable shot-making on court.
The Romanian has been suspended by the International Tennis Federation over the incident that left Konta in tears. It is far from the first time – in fact after the aforementioned match against Britain, Nastase was suspended from the Davis Cup for a year on the grounds that his behaviour had “brought the game and the event into disrepute”.
Even so, it was a probably a minor punishment, given he had just attacked David Lloyd with a racket. As Lloyd later explained: “He got very annoyed as he does when an opponent fails to rise to his bait. He then made a most obscene remark to me and angrily hit me on the head with his racket. Three times. I almost walked out of the match in disgust.”
Note the “almost”. For nearly 50 years Nastase has visited the last-chance saloon, but in his case has always been allowed back in. In 1975 and early 1976, for instance, he was disqualified four times in less than 12 months. On another occasion, after losing another match for being abusive to an umpire, a report noted – without irony – “This is the second time in nine months that Nastase has been disqualified from the quarter-final round of national clay court championships.”
In the early 1980s, meanwhile, he called one spectator at a pre-Wimbledon tournament a “witch” – and the linesman who penalised him for a foot fault “a member of the SS”. And this was in the opening service game.
According to a contemporary report, Nastase then spent the final game of the match serving “from somewhere between four and eight feet behind the baseline, and then for the final point from close to an advertising hoarding in the corner of the arena.”
So it is no surprise to read that at one point, the head of one of the umpires unions admitted: “Out of our membership of 200, there are no more than a dozen at the most we would ask to umpire a match involving Nastase.” And yet still the show went on.
In 1980 he even slapped the Daily Mail reporter John Passmore at Wimbledon – admittedly after the journalist had been asking him questions about the break-up of his marriage – without charges being pressed. Passmore’s description of the incident is not pleasant. “He pushed me in the throat with his open hand. I reeled backwards and my glasses fell off and were smashed.”
Too often such incidents have been brushed off, smothered and forgotten due to Nastase being one of the game’s great “characters”, or “a personality”. Yet in a 1994 New Yorker piece, Martin Amis skewered such casual language, describing a “personality” in tennis “as an exact synonym of a seven-letter duo-syllable word starting with ‘a’ and ending with ‘e’ (and also featuring, in order of appearance an ‘ss’, an ‘h’, an ‘o’, and an ‘l’)”.
Naturally Nastase was the first name that came to Amis’s mind (“a serious ‘personality’ – probably the most complete ‘personality’ the game has ever boasted”). Unsurprisingly he is someone who has previously boasted of having as many as 900 notches on his bedpost “including the ugly ones”. He is so unreconstructed it would be no surprise if he still wore Old Spice or sported a gold medallion.
But listening to Pam Shriver on Saturday it became clear how tennis should have dealt with him decades ago. Rather than being indulged, he should have been bluntly challenged. As Shriver explained, Nastase asked her about 30 times whether she was still a virgin while she was a teenager. “When I got older, perhaps 20, and he asked me for about the 30th time, I said: ‘Would you please stop asking me that?’ Sort of to his credit, he never asked me again. I set a firm boundary and he stopped.”
It was a strategy also followed by the tall “and menacing in manner” American Clark Graebner early in Nastase’s career. Suspecting the Romanian was about to get up to his tricks he “stepped over the net, grasped the Romanian by the shirt and gave him a sharp, finger-wagging warning. Nobody’s going to bully me on the court.”
On Sunday evening it was revealed Nastase had sent flowers to the British team, yet he can’t be allowed to come out of this smelling of roses. Tennis must send a message that he can no longer volley away his foibles and misbehaviours.