Down Memory Lane: The day John McEnroe and Ilie Nastase caused a racket at US Open
They called him the Buffoon of Bucharest. Mister Nasty. Rent-a-Row. And one of the most accomplished players in world tennis history.
As millions currently watch the disciplined and professional handling of the 2010 US Open at Flushing Meadows, New York, to old-timers it seems like only yesterday — yet it’s 31 years since this ultra-modern stadium staged one of sport’s most bizarre events.
Twenty months earlier the Open was switched from the West Side Club at Forest Hills, a landmark for visitors en route from the airport to Manhattan.
Flushing Meadows was geared for the Match of the Century, a second-round clash between Ilie Nastase, a 33 year old Romanian with film star looks, volatile temper and tantrums, and 19-year-old New York rookie John McEnroe, later to be known as The Brat.
Tension and expectancy gripped everyone. In fact, a spectator held up a banner proclaiming: “This match has been rated R. Anyone under 17 not admitted without parent or guardian.”
Those prepared for uproar were not disappointed. Nastase, nearing the end of a brilliant career in which he won seven Grand Slam titles — two in singles, US and French, three men’s doubles, two mixed doubles — was a master in the art of heckling.
He could curse and swear in six different languages.
On the other hand, McEnroe possessed incredible talent with an already big ego and the arrogance of youth.
Match the pair and you had a high-octane fuel waiting to ignite.
The tennis Code of Conduct is rigidly enforced nowadays when misdemeanours occur. Back in 1979 it carried little weight, especially when Nastase was around.
Rebuked by an umpire, he said: “Don’t call me Nastase. I am Mr Nastase!”
What a colourful character or perhaps a nasty piece of work. What a player, however, either on the baseline or serve-and-volley.
Nastase, one of the best never to win Wimbledon, used every trick in the book to irritate McEnroe, arguing at line calls, hurling insults.
McEnroe, his Irish blood surging through the veins, produced verbal assaults, too.
Nastase was eventually defaulted with the score at 3-1, after refusing to continue serving and the umpire went through the ritual before calling game, set and match.
Spectators became irate, hurling garbage, beer cans and plastic cups onto the court.
Eventually New York police stepped, quelled things down and the match continued, McEnroe eventually winning in four sets en route to collecting the first of his four US Open titles by defeating Vitas Gerulaitis.
Nastase, noted for his sorcery with the racket and ability to entertain with his antics and mimicry, retired in 1985 to reside in New York with his American wife.
McEnroe is still on the circuit but as a TV and radio commentator — arguably the best in the business.
A class act.
Finally, his latest quip in a recent interview: “I didn’t report the lost credit card to police.
“That’s because whoever is using it has spent less than my wife!”