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Mr. Nasty: Part 3

Steve Tignor

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Nastase obliterated whatever restraints remained in tennis from the "amateur" days.

Ilie Nastase lacked the drive to win that powered Borg, Connors, and all other great tennis champions. He could be bored by straight forward success, and he often courted failure.

But his performances were unique. For better or worse, they obliterated whatever restraints remained in tennis from its amateur days and brought the game up to date with the culture at large. Nastase found the outer limits of what tennis fans and players could handle, and he has no descendants or imitators in the more rigidly professionalized tennis world of today.

As with any child, plenty of Nastase was puerile: moonings and middle fingers were a given. Plenty was offensive: he once called Arthur Ashe a "bloody nigger" on national TV, and referred to the doubles team of Harold Solomon and Eddie Dibbs as 'Jew boys." (Nastase was later surprised to learn that Dibbs was Lebanese.)

But he was an equal-opportunity offender. When he spotted a South African, he would greet him with a cheery, "Hi racist." There was also plenty about Nastase the person that, like his play, was creative and original and even touching. No account of him would be complete without at least a partial list of his more memorable antics.

At a tournament in Louisville in 1975, it was required that doubles teams wear matching clothes. Nastase, who was playing with Ashe, showed up for one of their matches in blackface.

In the late '70s, Nastase played Borg in a meaningless indoor event. Nastase was on the way down. Borg was at his invincible peak.

The Swede won the first set handily, but Nastase began to come back in the second set. After each point that he won, he would stop, stand perfectly still, and stare questioningly at Borg's coach, Lennart Bergelin, as if to ask, "What happened to your Mr. Perfect .on that one?" Even the Ice Borg eventually cracked up.

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Steve Tignor is one of the most experienced, well known and respected authors, reporters, and commentators on professional tennis, present and past. A senior writer for Tennis magazine, he is also a columnist for and He is based in Brooklyn, New York.


High Strung is the untold story of the golden age of tennis, focusing the legendary rivalry between John McEnroe and Bjorn Borg and the 1981 U.S. Open final. As the brilliant excerpts published on Tennisplayer covering the life and career of Ilie Nastase show, however, it is much more, as Steve's vignettes bring to life the other stars of this great bygone era, including Jimmy Connors, Vitas Gerulaitis, and Ivan Lendl among others.

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