Ilie Năstase: The Man Known as “The Bad Boy of Tennis”

The tennis court was Ilie Năstase’s stage, and no one entertained fans like the gifted Romanian. There wasn’t a shot he couldn’t master in a well-rounded all-court game that was rooted on the baseline when the situation merited or transformed into a spectacular serve-and-volley clinic when that tactic was warranted. Fans were captivated and enthralled by his wit and flamboyance on court. He was loose and funny and amusing and unpredictable. What Meadowlark Lemon was to basketball as the sport’s “Clown Prince,” Ilie Năstase was to tennis, affectionately known as the “Bucharest Buffoon.”

Năstase won seven major championships, two in singles, three in men’s doubles, and two in mixed doubles. He earned four Masters Grand Prix season ending titles (1971, 1972, 1973, 1975) and seven Championship Series titles from 1970 to 1973. He rose to the world’s No. 1 ranked position in August 1973 and didn’t relinquish the coveted spot until June 1974. From 1970 to 1977 he was ranked in the World Top 10 eight times. Năstase’s 18 years spent playing Davis Cup for his native Romania brought his country worldwide notoriety that tourism advertising campaigns couldn’t afford to buy. In the process, he created a level of winning in Davis Cup play that has been unmatched.

Năstase won 780 singles matches

Năstase won 780 singles matches, eighth best in history and compiled a 780-305 record. He tacked on 45 doubles titles and compiled a 479-208 record. When he won the 1973 French Open singles championship he didn’t lose a set, one of only three players in history to claim that distinction in a major, and the first at Roland Garros. Năstase was always a threat to win any championship at any time. He was a semifinalist 132 times, placing him in that category’s top ten, and he was particularly adept on clay courts where he won 338 matches. The 1973 tour season was Năstase’s finest; he won 15 of 31 championships, fourth best in history. He also won 13 titles in 1972, which ranks among the ten best in history. His 118 wins in 1973 ranks second all-time, only bested by the 134 won by Guillermo Vilas in 1977.

Năstase played professionally for nearly two decades, starting in 1966 as an amateur touring with sidekick Ion Țiriac. The pair advanced to the finals of the 1966 French Championships, but were defeated by Americans Clark Graebner and Dennis Ralston in three sets. The duo won in Paris in 1970, with straight set victory over Arthur Ashe and Charlie Pasarell. His singles success began methodically with a spattering of noteworthy tour victories in 1970 and 1971. He captured the Italian Open in 1970 over Jan Kodeš, 6-3, 1-6, 6-3, 8-6, and had an impressive five-set victory over Rod Laver at the Wembley Championships in 1971. Năstase reached the 1971 French Open final, where Kodeš ousted him in four sets, but his game was rounding into its classic form.

In July 1972, Năstase made the first of two finalist appearances at Wimbledon, losing to Stan Smith in a match he said was the best of his career, despite the 4-6, 6-3, 6-3, 4-6, 7-5 outcome. His second final appearance at the All England Club came in 1976 against the incomparable Björn Borg, and he suffered a 6-4, 6-2, 9-7 defeat.

Năstase captured his first of two major singles championships at the 1972 US Open, coming back from 2-4 down in the fourth set to defeat hometown favorite Arthur Ashe, 3-6, 6-3, 6-7, 6-4, 6-3. Then, in 1973 he demolished Manuel Orantesat the Italian Open, 6-1, 6-1, 6-1, and he won his second major at the French Open, easily defeating unseeded Yugoslavian Nikola Pilić, 6-3, 6-3, 6-0. That year he teamed with Jimmy Connors to win the Wimbledon Gentlemen’s Doubles title. He and Connors joined forces to win the 1975 US Open, and in mixed doubles action Năstase won Wimbledon in 1970 and 1972, both times alongside Rosie Casals.

A fixture of the Romanian Davis Cup team, Năstase played 18 years between 1966 and 1985, leading his country to finals three times, and holding every record for a player from Romania including most totals wins (109), most ties played (52), and most years played (18).

Năstase played World Team Tennis for Hawaii in 1976 and Los Angeles in 1977 and 1978. He led Los Angeles to the WTT title as player-coach in 1978.

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