Like an old Broadway favorite that has been running for years -- one that remains entertaining even though some of the lines and scenes and gags are as familiar as old slippers -- Ilie Nastase at age 34 is still an attraction with a racket in this hand.
He has more marquee value than practically anyone else in tennis, even though he is no longer a serious factor in major tournaments.
Now ranked as only the 93rd best-player in the world, the mercurial Romanian -- once better known as the "rambunctious Romaniac" -- makes far more money losing his temper in Tiparillo commercials than on the courts these days. But he can't bear the thought of giving up the glamor and globe-trotting life of "the circuit." It is in his blood, sure as wanderlust is in a gypsy's.
Nastase has lost some of his once-exquisite athletic skills.A step has gone from the formerly uncanny blend of speed and anticipation. He seldom puts away a volley. The extraordinary touch and reflexes are sometimes there when he needs them, but his is a chancy thing now.
But he remains a consummate showman and incorrigible showoff -- usually childlike and delightful, occasionally surly and unthinkably boorish. He craves and needs the limelight just as an old vaudevillian needs a last curtain call, or a 42nd Street fix.
Today, on a searing dog day afternoon at the U.S. Open -- "The kind of day Al Pacino might choose to hold up a bank in Brooklyn," winked the man from The New York Times -- Nastase was the life and comic relief of the tournament he won in 1972, when he was on the threshold of becoming briefly the best and most exciting player in the game.
His inconsequential first-round match against French veteran Patrice Dominguez, which Nastase won, 6-4, 6-1, 4-6, 6-2, did not occupy center stage. It was relegated to Court 3 at the National Tennis Center by schedule makers who don't seem to realize that, apart from the handful of Bjorn Borgs and John McEnroes and Jimmy Connorses and Chris Evert Lloyds and Tracy Austins who have a realistic chance of winning the world's major titles, Nastase is still the best drawing card in tennis.
Nastase was manifestly unhappy about being sentenced to the boondocks, but he made himself the center of attention. He alternately played inspired tennis, loafed, clowned, hammed it up with courtside spectators, argued with linesmen, lost his temper, and toyed more playfully than disdainfully with his outclassed opponent. In short, he was himself. Sometimes Nasty, but never dull.
People came to watch him today. They overflowed the 1,100-seat bleachers on Court 3, cramming every conceivable vantage point, proving how foolish the schedulemakers were. It was as if they had booked George Burns off-Boradway and put a high school glee club in the Shubert.
There were fewer than 100 spectators -- yes, you could count them -- in the 19,000-seat stadium at the start of Viginia Ruzici's 6-0, 6-3 victory over Nina Bohm there. The main arena was never one-quarter full as Brian Gottfried dispatched David Carter, 6-7, 6-2, 6-1, 6-3. Only a small portion of the afternoon crowd of 14,775 witnessed Bernie Mitton's exciting 6-3, 6-2, 4-3, 2-6, 7-5 upset of No. 12 seed Jose-Luis Clerc, which was good theater in a strictly sporting sense.
The adjacent 7,000-seat grandstand court was similarly far from full as Italian Gianni Ocleppo won by default over No. 6 seed Gene Mayer, who aggravated a pulled hamstring after winning the first two sets easily and pulled out while trailing, 2-4, in the forth. And when Sylvania Hanika beat Mary Lou Piatek, 6-4, 7-5, and Butch Walts thumped Brad Drewett, 6-4, 6-2, 4-6, 6-4.
Do those sound like feature matches for the "show courts"? Not when Nastase is performing elsewhere.
More spectators than could possibly see were huddled together in a sweaty human wall around Court 3. Kids and adults lay on their stomachs in the grass and dust at the ends of the court, peering under the canvas backstop. The exit ramps from the stadium, which provide a bird's-eye view of some outside courts, were packed several rows deep. Fans lined the railing atop the stadium on the side overlooking Nastase's court, turning their backs on Ruzici-Bohm and Gottfried-Carter to get a glimpse of the erstwhile champion, the eternal clown prince.
Even after a couple of the brightest current stars came out at night -- two-time Wimbledon champion Martina Navratilova struggling to a 6-4, 4-6, 6-2 victory over hard-hitting 19-year-old Swede Lena Sandin, and three-time Open champ Jimmy Connors routing UCLA junior Marcel Freeman (who ball-boyed in Connors' 1976 Open victory), 6-2, 6-2, 6-2, in the floodlit stadium matches -- the day belonged to Nasty.
Nastase was fined $750 by Grand Prix Supervisor Dick Roberson after the match for obscene gestures and bashing a ball at a linesman. But, significantly, he received only one warning and was never docked a penalty point during the match by umpire George Lord, who seemed to enjoy the Nasty show. "I couldn't bring myself to penalize him," the umpire explained.
Nastase's zest for the jet-set tennis life has cost him his marriage to his Belgian-born wife Dominique, the gentle beauty who for eight years tried, often futilely, to stabilize a neurotic existence.
Nikki wanted a quiet life with daughter Nathalie on Nastase's idyllic country estate in Bazoches-sur-Betz, France, 70 miles from Paris.She said that Ilie was bored there, unhappy away from the celebrity bustle of tennis, and their diverse choice of life styles became an irreconcilable difference. They split and she filed for divorce this spring.
In London he posed with an 80-year-old Romanian woman, introducing her gleefully as 'my new girlfriend." Page One. Today he had a stunning blond on his arm, and a tournament official sighed: "I had an argument with him before the match. He had three girls with him instead of one, and wanted a couple of extra tickets."
Bambino, his massive cornerman and bodyguard, is still around. He was conspicuous today in yellow T-shirt, long blue sweat pants, black cutoffs and reflector sunglasses. Lest you miss a crewcut, barrel-chested and big-bellied 250-pound hulk dressed that way, he is the one whose menacing grin reveals a missing front tooth.
When he left the court after winning Nastase was mobbed by autograph-seekers and well-wishers. He looked like the Pied Piper. "Can I have your neckerchief?" asked one lad, and Nastase took it off, wrang out the sweat and gave it to him. The wrist bands went next. "Can I have your watch?" asked one youngster, pointing to Nasty's $6,000 gold Rolex. If he had obliged everyone, he would have been naked by the time he reached the locker room.
Nastase doesn't want to give any of this up. Many of his contemporaries have retired; he is sinking rapidly in the rankings, but he plays on -- the entertainer ever in search of a stage, even if he is the preliminary act now.
"I just want to play. I still like the game . . . It's not easy now because I lose, but I have to get used to that," he said. "Next I play Solly" (No. 7-seed Harold Solomon, a 6-2, 6-4, 6-4 victor over jan Norback today) and that is a tough second round. I think we can have a good match, but I don't know if I can win. Maybe if we play at night, when it is cooler."
He says his only regret is that he never won Wimbledon. Other than that, despite the many storms, he has loved the tennis life. He has had fun, and given the fans some fun, and that makes him very special in a big business sport that sometimes takes iself too seriously.