Wednesday, February 1, 2006

Ilie Nastase, the Romanian George Best


City of London, summer 2004, to publicise the publication of his autobiography, Mr Nastase. By Alastair McKay

The waitress comes to the table where I am sitting with Ilie Nastase.
“Whatever,” he says in his Bond-villain voice, rejecting the menu. “Hamboorger. With a Coke.”
The waitress motions to the next table, where Jane, Nastase’s PR, and Debbie, his ghost-writer, are sitting.
“Did you not want to sit together?” she asks.
“No,” says Nastase. “We don’t like women. We are gay.”
“Well I’ll make it nice and romantic and light your candle for you,” the waitress says.
“Thank you very much,” says Nastase. “A Coke please. Diet Coke.”
The waitress lights the candle, leaning in front of Nastase’s face.
“Actually,” he says, “we try to get married.”
“Well,” she says, smiling demurely, “you came to the right place.”

Nastase is perhaps the least gay man in the world, and proud of it. In his autobiography, Mr Nastase, he calculates he has slept with 2500 women, but admits to only one chat-up line: “My problem starts if you say ‘yes’ to me. Then I don’t know what to do to you. I get nervous.” He also claims to be shy, and says that he never exploited his fame. He is a riddle inside an enigma inside an Adidas shell-suit.
“Girls,” I say to him.
“There was a lot of girls,” he replies flatly, almost as if I had asked him to recall a particularly fine biscuit. “Exact number I don’t know. Maybe more than 2500, I don’t know. I pick a number which I thought was close.”
And these girls: did none of them ever get back in touch, asking for money, or carrying babies?
“It never came out,” he says cryptically. “But also I have to say the relationship was not important. Most of them I see them one night and then I leave for another tournament. Maybe my performance was no good.”
He allows himself a laugh. “You know, I have a great thing. When I don’t like a girl I say: ‘Listen darling, I have to play tennis in the morning,’ even if I don’t have to play. That’s my great excuse if I don’t like a girl. ‘Oh, God, I have to play tennis… I forgot to tell you. Please go.’”
Today, Nastase is tired. It is not the 2500 women, or the 500 books he just signed. He recently moved apartments, and on 5 June was married (to Amalia – a cigarette girl he met at a Sting concert) at a Greek Orthodox church in Paris, with a further ceremony by the centre court at Roland Garros. The wedding - at which the bride wore Dior, and guests such as Alain Delon and Omar Sharif were photographed for Hello! - followed last July’s civil event, which may explain why he is enduring a month of self-promotion rather than honeymooning.
If it is hard to be precise about the number of weddings, Amalia is his third bride. Nastase’s first wife, Dominique, and his second, Alexandra, were unable to cope with his lifestyle, in which constant travel led to frequent and unapologetic unfaithfulness. Still, with such a heavily-notched headboard, his faith in marriage is quite endearing.
“I believe in the right person when I meet them and, you know, there is no guarantee. At least I have to believe in somebody. This one might last maybe. Maybe it won’t be forever. I don’t know. To me I find the right person and I have a beautiful daughter, and things are more organised with her now. I have a really normal life which never happened before.
“The only thing I regret now is that I am not younger. Because finally I live like a normal person but it is right at the end of my life. Maybe I don’t have the time to enjoy. You never know. Some people have a normal life as soon as they start to live. But I am not complaining. It was a good life. I wanted to do that. Nobody forced me to break anything.”
Nastase is fond of such circular pronouncements, but he repeats the line about enjoying a “normal” life often enough to suggest that he has grown to believe it, and acknowledges that he had trouble accepting the life that came after his athletic decline. Possibly the autobiography is a way of containing his pre-normal existence.
It is an extraordinary story. His father was a policeman for the Romanian bank under Ceausescu. Nastase’s older brother played in the Davis Cup team. At the age of six he picked up a racket. By 11, he had a coach. At 13, he won a National Championship in his age group.
“I was lucky. My father was a groundsman of a tennis club. My brother was playing, and we had some animals, and the property there, so we don’t have a problem with the food. I was happy just to go on the tennis court all day. Maybe it was a good thing that I don’t have to worry about what to eat the next day.”
Oddly, Nastase’s parents did not take much interest in his career. “They don’t dislike sport but they are not enthusiastic about it. They don’t say: ‘Son, you have to go and win the tournament’. They find out from their friends if I won a tournament. They know that I have to leave them for a long time, and they accept that.”
Nastase’s statistics suggest that while he may have been the best player in the world, his temperament contrived to make him less successful than he should have been. He won only two grand slam events, though there were some memorable near things, most notably his defeat by Stan Smith in the rain-delayed Wimbledon final of 1972. His enduring reputation has much to do with his capacity for mischief. Long before John McEnroe, Nastase was the dark star of tennis. So frequent were his outbursts that a new code of conduct was introduced.
Nastase remains unapologetic, believing his talent was fuelled by anger. “[Bjorn] Borg told me when he was young, he played table tennis first, and then he started to play tennis. And in one match he lost control, he started to swear at the umpire and he threw his racket over the kids’ heads, and he woke up the next day and he thought: ‘I’m crazy, what am I doing?’ So he went from crazy to good.
“I don’t think that can happen to me. Being shy made me do all those crazy things on the court. To get rid of the shyness I had to perform, I had to do something. Not for the people, for me. To be comfortable with myself.”
Nastase’s bad behaviour was limited to the tennis court. When the game was over, he was a different man. “Imagine me being a crazy person off the court. I would be dead by now. Somebody would kill me in the street. But also it would not be healthy to live like that. I lost control, I lost my nerve. That’s the situation of every player. When you are off the court you cannot be like that. You want to relax.”
Asked where he got his attitude towards authority, he shrugs.
“I don’t know. You born with this. I don’t know. I’m wondering myself.”
The waitress arrives with Nastase’s burger.
“Oh my God!” he exclaims. “You bring it from America! Straight from America!”
He gulps at the cola.
“My mentality is that whatever tragedy happens, you don’t forget but you don’t need to go over it. Because then you stop there.” He points at his temples. “My mother told me that when I was born, the first thing I did was smile when I came out. My daughter when she born, the first thing she did when she opened her eyes was start to laugh. I guess she gets it from me.”
He chews down a chunk of burger, poking the bacon with his knife. We talk about drugs. The book tells how Vitas Gerulaitis used to play tournaments after cocaine-fuelled nights in Studio 54. Nastase was happy to brush shoulders with the likes of Andy Warhol, and to add Margaret Trudeau (but not Bianca Jagger) to his little black book, but claims he was never interested in chemical recreation.
“In Romania there was no drugs. I remember the day when Vitas came to the Borg wedding [north of Bucharest]. He told me after he passed customs with another friend from New York that he had some cocaine with him. I just said to him: ‘Vitas, you better throw it away because in Romania they can put you in jail for 100 years.’ So he threw the thing away. Ceausescu was very hard on drugs, and on homosexuals. Romania was a very clean country. I didn’t know drugs until I came to America.”
What did you think?
“I did not understand, and I never wanted to try. I think it was in 1966, it was my first time in America, with [his mentor, Ion] Tiriac, we were in this guy’s apartment, and we had a nice dinner, and we wake up at six in the morning, and they were still around the table. And there was cocaine there. We took our bags and left. We didn’t understand. Once you try it, maybe you like it, but once you like it you are dead. It finishes you.
“For me it didn’t do anything. I was happy. Why should I try?”

Only now - with his life between hard covers and his attention diverted to a new wife and ten month-old daughter - does Nastase see his life in context.
“When you play you think it lasts forever. You think it’s great. And then you don’t even think about it.
“I didn’t realise until I stopped playing how good things were for me. Of course, I was number one, but I didn’t go around saying it. You don’t have time to enjoy it because your head is going to another tournament. But I appreciate it much more now. When people come up to me and recognise me, I appreciate it. There are other players, much better than me, they don’t recognise anymore. [Ivan] Lendl is disappeared, even [Jimmy] Connors. They were better players than me, so I am lucky.”
He still plays, because he likes to keep in touch with the tennis world. When he does, he plays: “like I am 57. Not like the number one in the world. If I think like that I will never play. That would be ridiculous, to go from number one to what I am today. But I’m thinking: ‘I am 57, and I am playing’. I think I’m the best 57 year-old player in the world.”
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