Before becoming the funniest, craziest or most irritating player in history, depending on how you see it, Ilie Nastase was winning all his matches smoothly and without problems of any kind. The day everything changed? The final of the Nice tournament (which starts this week), in 1971, against the Czechoslovak Jan Kodes. Memories.
"Nice is a paradise for every tennis players." A mix of sun, British culture and gorgeous clay courts, Nice is the city of Suzanne Lenglen's first love. It is here that, in the early twentieth century, the "Divine" discovered tennis while spending the winters there on holiday with her family. The story even says that it was after watching the Briton came to play spring tournaments on the French Riviera that her father had the crazy idea to make of her a champion. The Romanian legend of the seventies, Ilie Nastase also tasted the charm of the Riviera’s "capital". But his local memories are made of wooden floors, strikes and dead balls. "When I was living in Monaco, Prince Albert was often asking me to go out bowling with him late at night in Nice, further down the coast, remembers the legend in his autobiography. We were very good friends. I used to call him Albert or colonel Bebert, because he was speaking with a slight stutter." It was the early 1970s, and Nastase, just 25 years old, already loved hanging out with his friends, one-night lovers and Champagne Rosé. Yet on the courts, he was one of the most dreaded players of the tour. Feared for his complete game, but not yet for his temperament, his running gag and charisma. Patience. “It took me some time to become a great player because it took me some time to get angry. Maybe out of timidity, he explained in his book. But when I started to get angry, I started to play well. And when I was playing well, I could beat anyone. I’m perhaps the only person in the world who's happy to have spent most of his life angry.”
« Nobody cared about me yet »
After an excellent beginning of the year in 1971, which definitively placed him amongst the greatest of world tennis, Nastase went to Nice early April to prepare Roland Garros. The first few rounds were a formality. Everybody thought that he was going to win. In the final, the Romanian was playing against the man who would later become his greatest enemy in number of oppositions: Jan Kodes, Czechoslovak, great clay court player who was proudly bearing a (tiny) moustache. The match started. Led 5-2 in the first two sets, Nastase managed to come back in the game successfully every time. His trick? Pushing, for the first time in his career, an opponent to the nervous breakdown. At the end of an exhausting rally, he interrupted the game to attack a ball boy. The reason? Despite Nastase's instructions, a man who couldn't stand playing his second service with the same foul ball as the first, the child had just rushed to the net to bring him the jinx. Enough to lose a few minutes. On important points, he had no hesitation to slow down the game, complain all the time, mock the crowd and test the mental strength of his opponent. Which worked out quite well for him: while he was winning 7 games to 6 in the second set, Kodes missed a sixth ball set and walked away to take his jacket. "I'm leaving," he yelled at the umpire. It took the intervention of a relative to dissuade him. But his heart wasn't into it anymore. Kodes had "lost it" and therefore lost the match 10-8 11-9 and 6-1 in the third set. "It is absolutely appalling that a player as talented as Nastase uses such methods, he said after the match. We're here to play tennis, not to make movies." Same story with the press, which talked of some "discomfort" and an "unacceptable" behaviour. Self-righteous, the tournament winner talked about it years later in his autobiography: "In truth, even if I still had an immature behaviour, it didn't attract me that much trouble at this stage of my career, maybe because my game was improving and I wasn't feeling any pressure. Also, I was not yet a 'big name'. I had already won a few titles, yes, but nobody really cared about me yet."
« Some kind of amateurism »
If the words of journalists and tennis observers could sometimes be harsh, Nastase was lucky: nowadays, this kind of antics would certainly have been punished with a disqualification. But other times, other morals. In 1971, few umpires had already excluded a player for his behaviour. A task made difficult by the absence of specific rules in this regard. It was at this time that the idea of a code of conduct started to grow in the minds of the American umpires association, with the introduction of a graduated sanctions system: a first warning, then a penalty point, a penalty game and ultimately disqualification. In the book Carnet de Balles, Jacques Dorfmann, former umpire at Roland Garros devoted a chapter to this vagueness: "In the 1970s, tennis, like other sports, was becoming more professional, folklore had to end. Fingers in the nose, umpires who screamed 'foul' instead of 'out', etc. One year, I had a senior judge amongst my linesmen. Some said that they saw him sleep during one of Borg's match. This couldn't last. All this ended what looked like some kind of amateurism." Before designating the ideal culprit: "A foreign player like Nastase is undoubtedly no stranger to the arrival of the code of conduct and its evolution (...) I am not against the code of conduct, but I often put it aside. It helps establishing safeguards, but it doesn't solve anything. When you see Nastase opening the fridge below the chair of the umpire and distributing drinks to everyone in the audience, what can you possibly do?» Jan Kodes never knew how to deal with the antics of his great rival. A few weeks after this Nice adventure, he lost again against the Romanian in the final of Roland Garros. A match of anthology, in which Ilie treated his public of a great fight at the net with his opponent. Fair play, and maybe even amused, Kodes was then asked to remove the clay on the shirt of his opponent with a towel. The public couldn't stop laughing. An entertainer was born. "I'm the one who is the most annoyed, the most distracted. I play with the same ball as my opponent, but I also do a lot of things that interfere with my game: I also have to relax, to focus, to win points, to talk with the umpire, to laugh, etc. It’s not easy to do all this when you have the best players in the world in front of you, Nastase wrote in his memoirs. At the time, there were no rules. We lived in a sort of anarchy. The code of conduct started to be truly applied from the end of 1975. I didn't think that I would have so many years of freedom in front of me...”