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Ilie Nastase: Embodying the pure drama of tennis

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.”