June 1977, the quarter-finals of Roland Garros. The Romanian Ilie Nastase is about to face off in a doubles match against the duo of Panatta and Bertolucci. Sly fox that he is, he seeks the services of a very special disruptive element to turn the game to his advantage. The first ATP World No. 1 reflects on his adventure... with a cat. Explanations…
Two Italians, an Australian and a Romanian. This is not a Belgian joke but a tennis match. It's the 1977 French Open, men's doubles quarter-final. The match opposes Bertolucci and Panatta against the pairing of Bob Hewitt and Ilie Nastase. The Italian delegation is sharp and they are the slight favourites to reach the last four. But as one could have predicted given the resume of the four men on the court, it was not the Australian who could interfere with their dreams of making it to the semi-finals but, rather, Ilie Nastase. A keen observer, he remembered before the game a meal that took place "two months before Roland Garros
": "It was a 250 tournament in Monte Carlo with Panatta and Bertolucci. We were at the restaurant, when suddenly, going down the stairs, a black cat passed in front of a car. Both told me: 'It brings bad luck.'
The unpredictable Romanian duly noted this superstition. Finding allies amongst the officials, Nastase prepared a very special pre-match tactic: "I asked Mabrouk, who had been handling the dressing rooms at Roland Garros for thirty years, to find me a black cat in in the neighbourhood. Around Roland, there are beautiful homes. And he found me a cat... But it wasn’t black enough
." Persistent, the man with 2,500 notches on his bed-post, according to a census by Maxim magazine, was determined to make it count: "So I doubled the reward. I gave him 500 francs! It was a lot back then! And he found me a cat, black this time!
The cat ran to Panatta, as if on purpose!
The pet would therefore have the privilege to play its first Grand Slam on the central court of Roland Garros, and would quickly take centre stage too. Indeed, not fully satisfied with his discovery, Nastase started to lose patience. From the very first serve, he pretended to want to change racket "I walked to my bag, opened it and took the cat out. And as it was scared he ran to Panatta. Incredible! As if on purpose!"
The audience was amused and the Italians stupefied. First, they didn't say a word, then they started complaining. The former player Jean Paul Loth, who was in the stands that day, remembers the reaction of the Italians: "The other one
(Panatta, Editor's note) was crazy, he insulted him abundantly and called him all sorts of names. Nastase, himself, couldn't stop laughing
". History will remember that the joke allowed the Australian-Romanian pair to overcome the superstitious Italians 6-0 / 6-1. Following this, the public took the Romanian agitator to their hearts. The administrators, however, were furious: "Chatrier didn't allow us to play on Centre Court ever again. He said: 'This is not serious'. I often did jokes like that. It suited with my personality, I think. It was a way to relax
". Not satisfied with his endeavours, the Bucharest native continued his antics: "One day, I put a mouse in the locker room of Arthur Ashe. He hated mice. Otherwise, I also hid my opponents' rackets a few times too
". He has a list of stories as long as your arm, but Nastase can't go into details. His phone ring, and set as the background of his smartphone? A cat. The superstitious ones are not always the ones you think.
By Dimitri Laurent