Here we go again. For most tennis enthusiasts, hearing of another Ilie Nastase "incident" is like listening to a broken record.
On the third day of Wimbledon, Nastase got nasty again. He orchestrated a 10-minute interruption of his match with Andrew Pattison immediately after a service break, which put him behind two sets to one, and 3-4 in the fourth set.
Nastase called for the referee and clowned around. Meanwhile, Pattison grew angry, lost his concentration and the match, then refused the postmatch handshake, saying "There's no other player who comes remotely close to Nastase in his behavior. I don't know how he gets away with it. He's one of the biggest superstars, so no tournament wants to default him."
What should the Wimbledon referee do with Nastase?It's not as simple a question as it seems.
It's a little like a U.S. Supreme Court Justice being asked to pass judgment on a South Moluccan dissident. What would Justice Powell know about the Moluccans? Very little. What does referee Fred Hoyles, who spends most of the year on his farm in Lincolnshire, know about Ilie Nastase Less still.
Off-court, Nastase is a friend of mine. My wife, Jeanne Marie, and I had dinner with Ilie and his wife, Dominique, last night. While Hoyles does not know Nastase, I do.
On court, Nastase is for me an adversary in the true sense of the term. While I normally do not like to change my own moral code to suit my opponent, I often find myself forced to adjust to Ilie.
Fred McNair, one of the Washington area's best pro players, remarked recently that "Allowances must be made for Nastase. The man is a genius, and that must be taken into account."
I don't fully agree. Nastase once audibly called me "Nigger" during a match in Hawaii. That was certainly uncalled for, and caused public outrage, but I know that he did not mean it as the vile racial epithet it sounds. To him, it was no worse than an old Brooklyn fan yelling "You're a bum" to one of his dodgers.
Nastase is blessed with a Latin flair and temperament, and has almost the artistry of Michelangelo. No one dances on a tennis court like Nastase. No one has his touch. No one else dares to drop-shot an opponent who is at the net. No other player has the chutzpah to look tradition in the face and spit.
Hoyles must use discretion because of the ambiguity of an important but imperfect rule in tennis: "Play must be continuous."
The inability of the powers to define the bounds of this rule has caused more problems than any other in the transition from the amateur to the professional eras in tennis.
Wimbledon, like Britain's "unwritten constitution" and monarchy, is part of tradition. Respect for these institutions need not be reinforced by written laws. It is assumed. So it has always been with the rules of tennis, which were codified to loosely govern a game played by gentlemen.
But Nastase and the competitors came here to play tennis, not genuflect to tradition. And they would like the "play shall be continuous" rule defined once and for all, along with penalties for its infraction.
Nastase first asked for the referee in the Pattison match for a justifiable reason: There was not a full completment of linesmen present. The umpire refused Nastase's requests.
In the fourt set, with Pattison only two service games away from victory, Nastase had little to lose. At this juncture, "play shall be continuous" meant nothing to him. He stalled. He fiddled while Wimbledon burned. Finally, the umpire, under a barrage of abuse from Nastase, summoned the referee, who took 10 minutes to appear.
Did Nastase break the rules? The point is subject to interpretation.
Here at Wimbledon, "play shall be continuous" means there is no rest between the third and fourth set of a men's match or the second and third sets of a women's match. In Italy and France, a player is given a 10-minute rest.
In some very hot places, like New Delhi or Washington, D.C., in July, players might get 90 seconds to change ends at odd games, while indoors we get only 60 seconds.
But how much time do you get between points? Only World Championship Tennis and World Team Tennis have addressed themselves to this question, and they have the least trouble dealing with a "Nasty."
Nastase was created by default by the tennis establishment because it has refused to (1) set a time limit between points and between games, (2) arm officials with a punishment less drastic than disqualification - "point penalties," which would dock the player a point or game for each offense, and (3) professionalize officiating, creating a traveling group of umpires who know the rules and can deal with personalities like Nastase's without letting incidents get out of hand.
Is that too much to ask?
Probably, considering how the game is run now. One cannot enforce rules that are not in existence. If Justice Powell were the Wimbledon referee, he would certainly say Nastase is not "innocent." But innocence is a moral question. Guilt is a legal matter.
And in my opinion, Nastase is not guilty.