An interview with Ilie Nastase
by David Cox
"As long as I can get angry, then I play well. If I play well, I can beat anybody. I am happy because I am getting angry." So opined two-time Grand Slam champion Ilie Nastase during his playing peak in the mid 1970s.
One of tennis' most renowned pantomime villains, the often volatile Nastase was the original bad boy of the game, his on-court tirades causing the genteels of the All England Club to splutter into their Pimms, years before John McEnroe emerged onto the scene.
Like McEnroe, at his peak Nastase was capable of an almost mystical brand of tennis and his creativity and determination to entertain made him one of the players to watch in an era when touch, volleying ability and speed were the cornerstones of the game. However while the fans admired the genius of the man from Bucharest, there was a darker side to Nastase and despite twice reaching the Wimbledon final and holding the world number one ranking, he has never been invited to become a member of the All England Club.
Quick-witted and good-looking, Nastase also gained himself a reputation as the most abrasive personality in the game, incurring numerous fines and suspensions as well as attracting widespread condemnation for walking off court during matches.
However nowadays, the Romanian has mellowed into one of tennis' elder statesmen and along with his former Davis Cup team-mate Ion Tiriac, he has done much to try and encourage the growth of the sport in his homeland. Romanian tennis has fallen on hard times and since Nastase retired back in 1985, none of his countrymen have come close to matching his achievements. Andrei Pavel reached 13 in the world and won a Masters Series title back in 2001 but was never a serious contender in the slams.
"I was president of the Romanian Tennis Federation for 13 years but now I have moved on," Nastase told me during our interview. "Our country needs a national academy to grow the sport and I tried to achieve this when I was president but it was hard as I had financial difficulties trying to purchase a building and land. It looks like I have someone willing to help now so we will see."
Currently, Romania have just two players in the world's top 200 and with Adrian Crivoi and Victor Hanescu spending the majority of their time competing in the twilight zones of the challenger circuit, Nastase is hoping that instead, the high profile exploits of those at the very top of the game can help fuel the passions of the younger generations.
"I think it's a big four these days, you have to include Murray," he says. "All he needs is one major win and then he can get confidence. At that level it's all about confidence. Look at Djokovic now. Just the other day it was Nadal who was the dominant one but now he's lost to Djokovic three times in major finals. Of course he has the game to beat him, but Djokovic has got in his head. And before that, of course once Federer won Wimbledon in 2003, he was unstoppable for many years. Even for Federer now, he hasn't won a Grand Slam for a couple of years (since the 2010 Australian Open) but I'm sure he has more major titles in him. If he wins Wimbledon we will see. At the moment Djokovic is winning everywhere because he has more confidence than the others."
I particularly wanted to hear Nastase's thoughts on Murray as there are some fascinating similarities between the two. Murray burst onto the tour seven years ago, playing a brand of tennis which would have been perfectly suited to the old-school demands of wooden rackets with his emphasis on speed, touch, guile and different spins. We may be firmly entrenched in the 'power era' of tennis but Murray's soft hands and penchant for outrageous lobs and drop shots, are reminiscent of Nastase's magical shot-making back in his pomp.
"Murray's ability to read the game, his intuitive sense of what the opponent will do next is his best asset," Nastase explains. "He's one of the players I most like to watch on the tour just because he can make the game look so effortless."
Murray's chances of ending Britain's fabled major drought which stretches all the way back to Fred Perry in the 1930s, have been thwarted by the presence of three of the greatest players of all time, leading many to wonder how many major titles he might already have, had he been born into a bygone era. The arguments regarding the greatest player of all time are a favourite source of discussion for both fans and journalists alike but like many of the game's past greats, Nastase believes it is foolish to try and draw comparisons between eras for any sport.
"I don't believe you can compare eras," he says. "It's not right. Like in football, Pele was the best in his time. So was Maradona, and now Messi. Things change, it's a totally different game now to how it was in their day and we can't expect to look back and be fair. In tennis, I played with Borg, Laver and Ashe. My finest match was against Stan Smith back in the 1972 Wimbledon final. I lost but I was very proud with the quality of tennis that I played. But I can't say that any of these players were better or not as good as say Federer. So much has changed - the rackets, the courts, the balls. And of course there are guys like Henman, a fantastic player on grass but very unlucky. People in the UK really underrate Henman, they say he was no good but he was a fantastic player. How many Wimbledon titles could he have won if Sampras hadn't been there ? How many he might have won in a different era, we really can't say."
One thing is for certain, tennis today is more intense than it's ever been before and the world's leading players have been extremely active over the past year in calling for a reduced schedule and more prize money, citing comparisons with golf, among other sports. And while I believe they have a point (the prize money available in the lower echelons of the game is so minimal that only players inside the top 150 have any chance of taking home a profit at the end of the year), Nastase is quick to disagree.
"I think when players complain about the amount they are being paid, they need to remember that the people who started professional tennis (the 'Open Era' began in the late 1960s) did not make any money," he exclaims. "The likes of [Rod] Laver and [Ken] Rosewall deserved to make money and sacrificed a lot for the benefit of future eras but they were the ones who lost out. So players today don't have any reason to complain."
"And with the schedule, I don't think it is too much. The players who win 70 or more matches a season like Nadal or Djokovic might feel so but they don't have to play exhibitions and the other stuff they do when they are not competing. They have to compete for 14 weeks of the year (these mandatory events count for around a third of the season), maybe slightly more if you include Davis Cup and six weeks of smaller tournaments, but if they didn't play these tournaments, they would be playing exhibitions. In my era, it was common for all players to compete in singles, doubles and mixed doubles and we played for 31 weeks of the year ! Of course it is more demanding for players today, there is more travel involved and the depth in the game is so much greater, of course I recognise this but I still feel that the number of mandatory tournaments each year is certainly not too much."