Aidan Smith: Nastase’s not funny any more, just a bit sad

Ilie Nastase, fur coat over his arm, arrives at Turnhouse Airport in 1975 where an air hostess asks him for his autograph. Picture: Jack Crombie
Ilie Nastase, fur coat over his arm, arrives at Turnhouse Airport in 1975 where an air hostess asks him for his autograph. Picture: Jack Crombie
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Oh to be back in the 1970s, a grim era but also a glorious one. You and I, though, are allowed to get nostalgic for three-day weeks, glam-rock, rubbish piled high in the streets, prog-rock, homework by candlelight and the general beigeness of life. Ilie Nastase shouldn’t be doing this.

His 1970s were of course different from ours and therefore his pining for the past will be, too. For you and me, the height of decadence was Black Forest gateau. For the original bad boy of tennis it might have been partying with James Hunt in St Moritz, wing-dinging with Mick and Bianca Jagger in Antigua or hanging out with Roger Moore somewhere equally exotic, the actor by then having moved into the role of the world’s favourite over-sexed undercover agent. But there was some crossover. By demanding the room number of an attractive woman, Nastase was behaving just like a mid-ranking company manager when “That’s me away to the boring old conference, luv, see you on Friday” was the cue for three nights of full-on leching in an out-of-town hotel.

Only trouble is, Nastase is still behaving like this. There may have been a jokey aspect to his chatting up of Anne Keothavong, but this was missing when he then called the Great Britain Fed Cup captain and Johanna Konta “f*****g bitches”. What a silly old Romanian mountain goat he’s become, rubbishing all the love we once had for him.

I can’t help wondering what my mother would think of him now. Like every Indian club-twirler in her branch of the Women’s League of Health & Beauty, indeed what seemed like every housewife in the land, she used to fancy Nastase rotten when he was flicking his oily hair and flashing his forehand across the Centre Court at Wimbledon.

When kids’ tea was late on to the table we knew why: Nasty was strutting his stuff and Mum couldn’t be disturbed from watching him humiliate his opponent who was maybe an American frat-boy with a short, back and sides and mechanical technique. When people get nostalgic for those wooden-racquet artistes of yore they usually mean Nastase who came with the added fatalistic glamour of never having won Wimbledon and indeed he never did.

In between his two losing finals at SW19, Nastase graced Edinburgh. Well, he did eventually. The 1975 Dewar Cup was a shambles of a tennis tournament of the kind the city would repeat in later decades. While Nastase played on the grass courts of suburban Craiglockhart a few times, this was indoors at Meadowbank in November. The chance to see Arthur Ashe, Jimmy Connors, Jan Kodes, Virginia Wade, Evonne Cawley and our man Ilie, all for £2 a ticket, sounded too good to be true, and it was.

“A day of almost total chaos,” was how The Scotsman reported the stars’ no-show, at least at the tournament’s beginning when the capital’s tennis fans saw precisely zero play. Were the big names on a three-day week as well? The men had been competing at a grand prix event in Stockholm, the women in Paris. The players’ union had told them they were under no obligation to take part in the Dewar Cup’s opening day, which meant the tournament’s advertising was a bit of a fib, prompting threats of legal action from Disgruntled, Edinburgh 10 and the spectator sat next to him, Severely Inconvenienced.

In the style of Harry Carpenter’s “rain commentary”, hailed by TV critic Clive James as the model for those moments when a presenter has to “fill” because nothing is happening, The Scotsman did it’s best to keep updating the situation: “Ashe had arrived in London. Connors was still playing in Stockholm. Where was Kodes? No one knew. And what about Nastase? He had lost his passport in a Stockholm nightclub the evening before and was last seen trying to retrace his steps in an effort to find it.”

Classic Nasty. And when he said he was heading out to a discotheque, even though it was half past 11 in the morning, were the Edinburgh organisers really that confident of him showing up at their event? But show he did, in a floor-length fur coat we just knew wasn’t fake. Stopping only to sign autographs for the air hostesses – and maybe to ask: “Will you be flying me back to Bucharest? Do you know my city? It would be an honour to show you round in the morning” – he headed straight for the brutalist arena and thrilled Meadowbank with trick shots and clown antics.

He despatched a volley with a ball in his mouth. He played another wearing his hat. Then he put the hat on the nearest linesman’s head. “Only the irrepressible Nasty could get away with it,” said The Scotsman. When the official called a shot out, Nastase threw the man a “dark gypsy look”.

You could use that description in 1975, but now? You certainly can’t say the baby of Serena Williams, pictured, due in August, will be “chocolate with milk”, as Nastase has done. Nowadays he can’t get away with anything, or any of the things which saw him hailed as a “character”, which now seem beyond the pale and beyond the baseline of acceptable behaviour, necessitating a Hawkeye-type parp every time he acts incongruously, outrageously, like it’s still 1975. But then he probably thinks the world has become stultifyingly boring and that it’s his job, if not his calling, to help save us from political correctness.

The Edinburgh escapade has echoes of a favourite Nastase yarn, this one from Paris but still involving nightclubs and lateness. Partnering Vitas Gerulaitis in the doubles at Roland Garros, the pair mis-read the time of their match and overslept after partying, requiring them to jog to the stadium in a desperate attempt to sober up and slurp coffee at the change of ends. On these occasions no one got hurt, or was offended. He entertained hugely and was celebrated as the supreme rascal. But he can’t wear that coat anymore. It’s made of dead animals, it looks ridiculous.

Nastase, the great tennis stylist, now comes across like a version of the preposterous roue from TV’s The Fast Show: “Me, the 13th Duke of Wybourne. In a ball-girls’ halls-of-residence? At three o’clock in the morning? With my reputation?” It’s not funny, though, just a bit sad.