Ilie Nastase: Embodying the pure drama of tennis

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Born to perform: Nastase was one of sport's greatest entertainers.

He was perceived as tennis’ ultimate bad boy but when you’re as supremely talented as Ilie Nastase, all the on-court tantrums and the off-court incidents can be overshadowed by one majestic topspin lob.

The Romanian former world No1 was a virtuoso performer and although he had an unmatched feel for the game, pulling off astonishing shots from every corner of the court, his many fights with his own demons meant that he retired from tennis with only two Grand Slam singles titles (1972 US Open and 1973 French Open), with five more in doubles and mixed doubles.

It may seem a career unfulfilled, but Nastase insists it was one he enjoyed thoroughly.

Tennis has come a long way since the early ‘70s of Nastase and as many agree that we are currently witnessing the all-time best era in the history of tennis, some believe the sport lacks the explosive personalities like the Romanian, who before everything else brought pure entertainment to the sport.

Nastase however finds it pointless to compare eras.

“I think the differences can be seen across all sports, not just tennis,” Nastase told Sport360° on the sidelines of the Doha GOALS forum.

“Thirty or forty years ago, you can’t compare that to the coaches players have today, the managers… they have nutritionists now, it’s more professional for sure, it’s more physical… but it’s not fair to compare. The only thing I can say is that I had a great time in my time and I hope they feel the same way now.

“But at the time that’s what I felt I could do, entertaining the crowd, but probably now it would be impossible to do what I did then. Because they can’t joke around with the serious way they are playing now.

“Probably there’ll be more money in the sport in the future and players might get even more serious. If people are offering the money, the players will play, what can you do? You can’t refuse the money.”

Nastase was invited to Doha GOALS as a long-time member of the Laureus World Sports Academy, which allows him to give back to the sport that has given him plenty.

“The concept of Doha GOALS is a good one,” he says. “I think sport should be a priority, maybe in many other countries sport isn’t a priority and if it’s not a priority then there is no priority for health. And that’s a big problem.”

During the years that he played, there were no official ATP tournaments in the Gulf region but the 67-year-old got a feel of the Qatar Open when he took part in an exhibition a couple of years back alongside Mansour Bahrami, John McEnroe and Bjorn Borg.

The Gulf region has been hosting professional tennis events for a good two decades now but we are yet to see a champion rise from this part of the world.

“I think you need an academy, good coaches that can work throughout the whole year, not just during the one-week tournament,” says Nastase. “Kids today they watch on TV and they want to become Federer, Djokovic, Nadal but you need also people to teach them how to become like that.”

The region may still have some work to do in order to produce the next tennis champion, but in terms of hosting big events, Nastase can sense that Qatar is ready and that scheduling shouldn’t be an issue.

He says: “Look at the World Cup, it’s already coming here. They seem prepared here. I don’t think other countries are this prepared. I was in Brazil three, four months ago and they don’t seem prepared for what’s happening really soon. Here, everything is in place, they just need to organise and host the World Cup now.

“I don’t know how the summer is here but when you want to become a world champion I think you can play anywhere, in the water, in the sun, it’s the same conditions for everybody.”

Switching back to tennis, Nastase says he enjoys today’s game and is a particular fan of Wimbledon champion Andy Murray.

Despite the Scot’s historic victory at the All England Club six months ago, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic managed to steal the limelight in the second half of the season, particularly in the absence of an injured Murray.

And as all eyes are focused on the world’s top two heading into Australia next month, Nastase insists it’s unwise to exclude Murray from the equation.

“Murray is there,” said the Romanian. “He’s the only one probably who has beaten both (Nadal and Djokovic). He’s a good player. I like him because he places himself before the ball comes to him, he plays with a lot of intuition, so he’s playing easy, he doesn’t look like he’s putting an effort when he plays. That’s the kind of player I like.

"Before, I used to like Martina Hingis very much, and Roger Federer, they know how to place themselves before the ball comes.”

He also thinks people should stop worrying about Federer’s career and hold off on the calls for retirement.

When asked whether he thinks the Swiss ace still has a good season in him heading into 2014, Nastase said: “It’s up to him, it depends how well rested he is.

"Of course the challenge now is much bigger for him, there’s Murray, Nadal and Djokovic but then again Federer can play until he’s 50, I don’t care. I think he won everything and he has nothing to prove so he can stop whenever he wants to stop.”

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ATP season review: How did the ‘Big Four’ fare in 2013?

Simon Foster 16/12/2013
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Dominant duo: Djokovic (l) & Nadal (r) were 2013's biggest winners.

Rafael Nadal defied the career obituary writers with his stunning renaissance in 2013 as he and fellow major winners Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray cut struggling Roger Federer adrift.

Nadal was sport's comeback man of the year, collecting 10 titles from 14 finals, including a landmark eighth French Open, a second US Open which took his career majors tally to 13, and a record 26th Masters.

He ended the season with 75 wins against just seven losses and another $14.5 million banked to take his career earnings past the $60 million mark.

It was a rebirth that got off to a faltering start when the Spaniard, who had been out of action for seven months, reappeared at the modest Chilean venue of Vina del Mar in February. His run to the final was ended by Horacio Zeballos, ensuring the journeyman Argentine a rare mention in despatches.

But from then on, Rafa was rolling. He swept to Masters titles in Indian Wells, Madrid and Rome with his defeat in the final of the Monte Carlo Masters at the hands of Djokovic, which denied him a ninth successive triumph in the principality, an unexpected blip.

The 27-year-old then beat compatriot David Ferrer in the final of the French Open to become the first man to win eight Roland Garros crowns.

On the way to another Paris triumph, he had stared down Djokovic in a classic semi-final duel, fighting back from 2-4 down in the deciding set.

Nadal's bittersweet relationship with Wimbledon took another twist two weeks later when the 2008 and 2010 champion crashed to defeat on the first day to Steve Darcis, the world 135 from Belgium.

Was that a sign all the old physical frailities were about to conspire once again against him? Not really.

He took a time-out, headed off to North America, captured the Masters in Montreal and Cincinnati before claiming his second US Open title with a four-set win over Djokovic.

By November, Nadal had wrapped-up the year-ending world number one spot for a third time.

"It's very special what happened this year. For me, the emotions of this year after a tough time have been fantastic," said Nadal, shrugging off his ATP World Tour Finals loss to Djokovic in London.

Djokovic started 2013 with a fourth Australian Open title, then lost the Wimbledon final to a history-making Murray and the US Open championship match to Nadal.

He ended it as ATP World Tour Finals champion on a 24-match winning streak and announced he would be marrying long-time girlfriend Jelena Ristic.

Four of the Serb's seven titles in 2013 came in the season's closing weeks, although defeat in the Davis Cup final at the hands of the Czech Republic darkened the mood.

Murray missed the latter part of the season after undergoing surgery on a long-standing back problem in September.

But by then his work was done. On an emotional July afternoon, the 26-year-old brushed aside an under-powered Djokovic to become the first British man to win Wimbledon since Fred Perry in 1936.

Murray credited coach Ivan Lendl with his success, a second Grand Slam title to add to his breakthrough 2012 win in New York.

"He believed in me when a lot of people didn't," said Murray.

It was a year to forget for Federer, the record-setting 17-time major winner whose decline appears to be irreversible. He failed to reach a Grand Slam final for the first time since 2002 and won only a solitary title in Halle as his ranking slumped to seventh in the world — his lowest placing for 11 years.

His second round defeat at Wimbledon at the hands of Sergiy Stakhovsky, the world number 116, was his worst defeat at the All England Club in 11 years and ended his run of 36 consecutive Grand Slam quarter-final appearances.

The 32-year-old then suffered his earliest US Open exit for a decade when Tommy Robredo, who had lost all 10 previous meetings with him, beat him in straight sets in the fourth round.

But the Swiss star, who ended the season at six in the world, has no intention of quitting.

"This is what I used to do as a little boy. It's something that always is there in your DNA," Federer said.

The year also witnessed a series of epic encounters. The pick was Djokovic's five-hour win over Stanislas Wawrinka in the Australian Open fourth round which was achieved 12-10 in the final set after the Swiss, one of 2013's most improved players, had raced to a 6-1, 5-2 lead.

Doping issues proved a headache with Viktor Troicki and Marin Cilic handed suspensions. Troicki is serving a 12-month ban for failing to supply a blood sample on demand at the Monte Carlo Masters in April when he claimed he was too ill while Cilic served a four-month suspension after testing for banned stimulant nikethamide at the Munich Open in May.

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Davis Cup up next for World Tour Finals champ Djokovic

4/12/2013
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Novak Djokovic has set his sights on following his successful defence of the ATP World Tour Finals by leading Serbia to glory in the Davis Cup final.

Djokovic won the prestigious season-ending Tour Finals for the third time with a dominant 6-3, 6-4 victory over world number one Rafael Nadal at the O2 Arena in London.

The 26-year-old has played some of the best tennis of his life since losing the US Open final against Nadal in September and Monday's win was his 22nd successive match victory – a run that has brought him titles in Beijing, Shanghai, Paris and now London.

But, although Djokovic could be forgiven for wanting a well-earned holiday after such an intense period, the world number two has no time to rest on his laurels because he will now fly to home to Belgrade to prepare for the Davis Cup final clash against holders Czech Republic, which starts on Friday.

Serbia last won the Davis Cup in 2010 and Djokovic would dearly love to repeat that triumph.

"It's a fact that it's been a very long season for me and I'm exhausted in every way. But God knows if we're going to have as a country another opportunity like this to win a Davis Cup title at home," Djokovic said.

"We have very tough opponents, the defending champions, but the Davis Cup is the only team competition in our sport that brings the best possible energy and willpower in me.

"I'm going to do my best to recover the next three days and get ready for that one."

Once Djokovic has finished with his national service, he will finally be able to put his feet up and reflect on a year that brought him joy and despair in equal measure.

After winning the Australian Open for the fourth time in January, he suffered a frustrating semi-final loss to Nadal at the French Open – the one Grand Slam title he has never won.

That was followed by a Wimbledon final defeat against Andy Murray and another painful loss at Nadal's hands in the US Open that eventually led to the Spaniard replacing Djokovic at the top of the world rankings.

To a less mentally tough character, those setbacks could have been devastating, but for Djokovic they have simply provided the motivation for his late-season resurgence.

"Next to the run that I had in 2011, this is definitely the second best I've had," Djokovic said. "For me, the most positive thing is the fact that I managed to regroup after a few big losses to Nadal, especially at Roland Garros and the US Open final.

"After that I needed to take things slowly and analyse what I did wrong in the matches against him, to understand what I need to do in order to win against him.

"I've worked harder and become an even more skillful player. I've worked on a few things in my game and serve.

"I think the results are showing that we had a great improvement in the last two and a half months."

Nadal will finish the year as the world number one, but Djokovic has won their last two encounters and he is confident of recapturing his position as the sport's preeminent force in 2014.

"The year-end number one is deservedly in Nadal's hands because he had two Grand Slam wins, the best season out of all players, the most titles," Djokovic said.

"Even though I had an incredible two and a half months since the US Open final, he was the most successful player.

"The only thing I'm not as satisfied about is the fact that I lost the three big matches in the three Grand Slams.

"This can serve as a great platform for 2014 season. I'm extra motivated and inspired to work on my game and get ready for the Australian Open" in January, he said.

* For breaking news, follow us on @Sport_360 or find us on Facebook.

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