Between the angry clown Ilie Nastase and the well-mannered intellectual Arthur Ashe, meetings were always interesting. Until one day, when the American decided to pack his things and leave the court, exasperated by the antics of his opponent. While the ATP World Tour Finals have just started, we decided to go back on this match of the first round of the 1975 Swedish edition. Between bunch of flowers and racist attacks.
The roses were white, red, pink and even yellow. This bouquet, it was a florist from Stockholm, "one of the most beautiful girls I've ever seen in my life," according to Ilie Nastase, that made it. It was December 1975, and if the Romanian legend of the seventies went to see a Swedish flower girl, it wasn't to spoil his wife but to accompany a present filled with his apologies. What did he do? The previous night, he exasperated his opponent, Arthur Ashe, during the first group match of the 1975 Masters in Sweden. Another verbal provocation of the Romanian that pushed the American to abandon, which is extremely rare in the history of tennis. And it wasn't their first hitch. In the early 1970s, during a doubles match refereed by Jacques Dorfman, he heard, in a moment of tension, Nastase call Ashe a “black nigga”. “It was a game between us and there was nothing racist” later said the Romanian to defend himself. “Whenever I was making fun of his colour, he would answer: 'It makes me laugh, but you're the only one who can call me that.'" In fact, in private, the two men were good friends. "Ashe was very different from other players, said Nastase. “He was involved in politics, he fought against apartheid, he was a brilliant man. He was the only one reading books before games. He always asked me questions about life, politics in Romania - we could have real conversations, not just talking about tennis." Hence his analysis about the case: "The scandal would never have been as big if it had not involved Arthur Ashe, probably the greatest gentleman I have known in my career."
«Are you ready Mister Ashe?»
The scandal started for a ball that was never played. Specifically two balls of 5 games to 1 for Arthur Ashe, on the Romanian's service. Distracted, the native of Richmond first took an ace. Nastase then took the opportunity to tease him: "Are you ready Mister Ashe?" At the time of taking the ball to serve, Nastase stopped and repeated the sentence. Three times. At some point, it lost its comic virtues and alliteration became cagey. The audience, stunned, let these words resonate on the court Kungliga Tennishallen of Stockholm. "It was total chaos on the court, the public remained circumspect. Nobody knew what to do," remembers Nastase. This was too much for Ashe, who suddenly decided to pack his things and leave the court. At the risk of being disqualified? "I don't care, I'd rather be disqualified than lose my self-esteem," he replied. At first, the tournament organizers thought of degrading both players, but finally declared Ashe winner. A decision taken late at night, after hours of deliberation and a crazy pressure exerted by the American Players Association president, influential member on the tour. "Normally I would have won this match because the regulation would automatically disqualify a player who left the court at the middle of a match. But officials wanted to put an end once and for all to my actions with a symbolic sanction", says Nastase.
Bunch of flowers and fingers in the nose
It was the following year, in 1976, that the Code of Conduct for players was enacted. The number of disqualifications, until then marginal, exploded. In the book Balls diary, the umpire Jacques Dorfmann devoted a chapter to the administrative revolution: "In the 1970s, tennis, like other sports, was becoming more professional, folklore had to end. Fingers in the nose, umpire who used to shout 'foul' instead of 'out', etc. One year, I had a senior magistrate among my linesmen. Some people reported to have seen him sleep during one of Borg's match. This couldn't last. All this ended what could have be seen as amateurism." Before naming the (ideal) guilty player, the one through whom the scandal happened: "A player like Nastase is probably no stranger to the arrival of the code of conduct and its evolution (...) I am not against code of conduct, but I often put aside. It helps establishing safeguards, but it doesn't solve anything. When you see Nastase opening the fridge under the umpire's chair and distributing drinks to everyone in the audience, what can you do about it?" Waiting to be closely watched by all the Umpires of the world, it was time for Nastase to make amends. After buying the flowers, he decided to go meet Ashe at the restaurant where both players were going since the beginning of the competition. Ashe was having dinner alone, head in his plate. His executioner moved slowly, nervous, his head hidden behind the floral wreath. "When I arrived at his table, he turned to me and saw the flowers, he looked at me, smiled and laughed like an idiot. I knew I was forgiven."