Ilie Nastase pounced on the past today. He cannot possess it, but he wrestled it well.
Ten years ago, when he was 26, Nastase won the U.S. Open. Six years ago, he was a semifinalist here and the runner-up at Wimbledon. Four years ago, in a first-round match here against Leo Palin, he dropped his pants. In the second round against John McEnroe, he was defaulted (and reinstated) for misdemeanors against common decency.
Time has mastered the master of outrage. Once he nearly incited crowds to riot. Today, they incited him to win. Coming into this U.S. Open, Nastase's 1982 record was 7-15. He had not won a big match since beating Guillermo Vilas in a tournament in 1981. Today, Nastase was fined $1,000 for verbal abuse of an official, and beat 10th-seeded Johan Kriek, 4-6, 7-6 (7-2), 6-7 (8-10), 6-3, 6-2. Later, he said, with an almost straight face, "He (Kriek) gets too upset with himself and loses concentration."
Still, later, in the locker room, he threw his arms around Jimmy Connors and said, "I get you now tomorrow, boy."
Connors, seeded No. 2, struggled to beat Jimmy Arias, the youngest man ever to play in the main draw, 6-4, 4-6, 6-4, 6-1. "Where's Nastase?" Connors said when it was over. "That son-of-a-gun."
Added Connors: "I've been playing him since I was 14."
Arias became the youngest man ever to play in the main draw of the Open two years ago, at age 16, when he lost to Roscoe Tanner in the second round.
He has a forehand that belies his age and his size. Wisely, Connors tried to stay away from it. But Arias broke at 5-4, 0-40, to win the second set. When he won the first two games of the third set, breaking on a wicked backhand slice return of serve, the stadium began to rock 'n' roll.
They traded breaks and Arias held to make it 4-1. But Connors won the next five games. Serving for the set, Connors saved a break point with a backhand volley winner. But then he netted a forehand (he had 36 unforced forehand errors) and it was deuce again.
Connors won the next three points, and the first four games of the final set. Arias won his respect: "He's a Reggie Ball man," Connors said. "He's a home-run hitter."
John McEnroe, the No. 1 seed, beat Vince Van Patten in the glamor match of the day, 6-3, 6-2, 6-3, and said, "There were periods where he played well, but I dominated and was controlling the match."
Everyone but McEnroe, who has won the last three Opens, seems to feel he has something to prove. "That's the American way, not my way," he said. "I have things to prove to myself and that's what counts."
Chris Evert Lloyd, the No. 2 seed, had suffered from food poisoning Friday night and asked this morning to have the match postponed (the rules require a player call the night before). She beat Kate Latham in 1 hour 19 minutes, 6-2, 6-1. Evert, who had only two hours sleep, was in a hurry to get the match over.
"It was the cheesecake that did it," she said. "I said to John (Lloyd, her husband), 'This doesn't taste like cheesecake,' " she said. "He said, 'Don't eat it.' I ate five bites and that was it."
It has been a long time since Nastase played so young, so resiliently (he had only five unforced errors, none in the last two sets). Asked if it would be fair to call him an old man, he replied spryly, "Depends for what?" he said.
He just kept coming back. In the second set, Nastase won the first five games and had two set points. Then he lost the next six games but won the tie breaker, 7-2.
Of course, Kriek could have been accused of aiding and abetting. He had 21 double faults. In the third set, he had a set point in the 10th game and double-faulted; another one made it 5-5. Another tie breaker.
Another double fault by Kriek gave Nastase an 8-7 lead and set point. But Kriek hit a forehand winner to tie at 8 and win the next two points.
The seventh game was the fourth set. Kriek served at 3-all. Six times they went to deuce. Four times Kriek had game points. Nastase won on the sixth break point. A wicked forehand return of serve gave him the advantage; another, which he inside-outed, gave him the break and ultimately the set.
So they went to the fifth set. Kriek broke immediately and held to go ahead, 2-0. But Nastase won the next six games, breaking to tie at 2 with a lovely offensive lob off a deep forehand approach by Kriek.
There was, of course, controversy. When Kriek served at break point in the sixth game, there was a belated fault call, made long after Kriek had netted a volley to end the point. The umpire called it Nastase's point and game.
Kriek walked to his chair and then began to argue, to no avail. He had a break point against Nastase at 4-2 but that, too, was to no avail. A forehand drop volley gave Nastase the upper hand. Kriek netted a return of serve and it was 5-2.
His troubles continued. He double-faulted, again, to give Nastase his first match point. On the next point, Nastase lost his cool and $1,000.
Kriek's serve was called an ace. Nastase made no effort to disguise his lack of esteem for the woman who had made the call. "It was match point," he said. "I thought the ball was out. I just said, 'Watch the line.' I said it when the plane came over so nobody could hear."
No one heard what Nastase said when Kriek made three unforced errors and the match was finally his. The sun set over the stadium, turning the sky amber, then rose, then purple. Nastase skipped his shower and headed out to a practice court to hit with his nephew, who is playing in the junior tournament here.