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Kickin' back: He's still Ilie after all these years

By KEITH NIEBUHR, Times Staff Writer
Published September 18, 2005

After a recent doubles match in the seniors division at the U.S. Open, Ilie Nastase was mobbed by fans a few feet from his courtside chair. Some wanted autographs. Others pulled out cameras and snapped away. Even today, Nastase, 59, remains among the game's most popular players. Known during his prime as the Bucharest Buffoon and Nasty Nastase, the Romanian star was both gifted and mystifying. During his career, he won more than 100 pro titles in singles (57) and doubles (5l), including the 1972 U.S. Open, where he beat Arthur Ashe in a memorable five-set final. Nastase was one of tennis' great entertainers and delighted fans with his antics and mimicry. At times, however, he infuriated them with poor behavior. His career was marred by fines and suspensions, yet off the court he was friendly and relatively easygoing. Of his behavior, Nastase once said, "I am a little crazy, but I try to be a good boy." Today, he lives in Romania. He recently kicked back with Times staff writer Keith Niebuhr at the USTA National Tennis Center in New York.

What's so special about the Open that keeps you coming back?

I like tennis, and I like to stay in touch with tennis. I don't come to really play. It's good to see the game.

As a player, what was your favorite major, or even your favorite event?

When you're a player, you just want to play the tournaments and win every match. You don't really have a favorite, you just play.

Was there anyone you took more satisfaction out of beating?

No.

So they were all the same?

I don't have somebody that I hold it against that made me happier than beating other guys. But if it's a major, you might enjoy it a bit more then in a small tournament.

Are you amazed at all that after all these years people still love to come out and watch you play?

(Laughing) Oh, I think it's mostly old people. Not many young people. So it's normal. I'm happy they come to watch.

You're one of the people who receives a lot of credit for bringing fans to the game in the 1970s. How much satisfaction do you get from that?

A lot. It was people like me. Like (Jimmy) Connors. Like (John) McEnroe. Like (Bjorn) Borg. Like (Rod) Laver. Now, these other guys contribute, too. I hope there will be more interest for tennis in the future.

Which players are the most fun for you to watch today?

(Roger) Federer.

Why?

He said it in the French Open or maybe it was Wimbledon, he said he plays the old style. He doesn't just hit the ball hard. He's an all-around player.

I'm wondering, which moments in your career really stand out?

For me, it was when I came over from Romania and played tournaments. I was a little late. I was 20. I came out late and had to catch up with other boys, you know.

You and Connors were close at one time. What's one thing about him that most people might not know?

He's the only professional I know that was really professional about tennis all the time. When he was practicing, he was practicing like a tennis match.

You're saying he went full throttle in practice, too?

Yes. That's why he could never practice with me.

Was Jimmy your best friend back in the day?

Well, I played with Jimmy for six years and I played with (Ion) Tiriac. I had great times with both of them. With both, I won major tournaments.

Were you as nasty as people say or is that myth?

I don't know. Like McEnroe I was nasty on the tennis court, but that's different.

What do you want people to remember about you?

That I was a good tennis player. Like you said before ... that I was somebody who helped promote the game.

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