Last week a Romanian customs official somberly greeted an American visitor at the Bucharest airport. The foreigner, trying to bring some life to this grim encounter, asked lightly, "Hey, who's gonna win the Davis Cup?"
"You are," said the official, not looking up. "We no good anymore."
What a difference a dozen years make. In 1972 Romania was very good indeed. The year before, it had narrowly lost in the challenge round to the U.S. in Charlotte, N.C. But in '72 the same Romanian team of Ion Tiriac and the great Ilie Nastase had the Americans where they wanted them—on red clay in Bucharest, where the citizenry was gripped with Cup fever. Moreover, rumors were rampant that Black September, the Palestinian terrorist group that had murdered 11 Israeli athletes, coaches and referees at the Munich Olympics two months before, planned to strike against the U.S. team's two Jewish members, Harold Solomon and Brian Gottfried. The American players rode private elevators to their rooms in the Intercontinental Hotel and were ordered to keep away from windows. A military escort accompanied them to and from the courts. The Americans pulled out a 3-2 victory, but not without having to overcome egregious line calls and grossly unsportsmanlike conduct by Nastase and Tiriac.
Last week's matches contained none of the drama or partiality of '72 and, as the customs man said, Romania no good anymore. This year the two countries met in the first—not the final—round and, as expected, the U.S. won 5-0. To be sure, the American camp wasn't entirely tension free. There were the jokes about being bugged, and at a briefing at the American embassy the players were told that Romanians always looked serious because they suspected every third person of being some sort of agent. As if to convince the Americans that that was true, on Friday, the first day of play, the Intercontinental's cable channel offered two spy flicks and a horror movie called Someone Behind the Door. Still, on the whole, the U.S. players were calm and confident. At their Thursday practice John McEnroe had said to Jimmy Connors, "These guys can stay with us for a few games, but that's it."
He was right. In the opener Connors defeated Florin Segarceanu, 22, who's ranked No. 88 in the world, in straight sets, and then McEnroe did the same to Nastase. On Saturday, Mac teamed with Peter Fleming to clinch the tie. With McEnroe and Fleming, the U.S. usually has three points locked up, but a little insurance is always nice—and will probably be needed in July, when the U.S. faces Argentina, which eliminated America from Cup competition last year. This year's indemnity is Connors. For a variety of reasons, including spats with team captains and money to be made elsewhere, Connors has played Davis Cup infrequently and not very effectively. Now Jimbo's making nationalistic pronouncements, like "Hearing 'Game, United States' is better than hearing 'Game, Connors.' " Just two of tennis' jewels, the French Open title and the Davis Cup, have eluded Connors, and at 31 he has a realistic chance of achieving only the latter. He's seeking a twilight that has grace and style, and to that end he played very well in Bucharest.
Though Nastase dropped all three of his matches, he was anything but a loser last week. Indeed, he was the star, but his best action was not at the Sports and Culture Palace. Realize, though, that at 37, and having fallen to No. 176 on the computer, Nastase's aim wasn't to rekindle memories of '72, when he was runner-up at Wimbledon and won Forest Hills. What he wanted was to regain his place in the hearts of his countrymen. The warmth elicited by an athlete growing older buys much forgiveness. "I must behave at home," he said, and when he wasn't playing he behaved marvelously.
When McEnroe and his friend Stella Hall arrived at the Bucharest airport, flowers were awaiting them—thanks to Nastase, even though there's little love lost between him and McEnroe. At the draw at the Hotel Bucaresti on Thursday, Nastase was effervescent. He patted U.S. team captain Arthur Ashe on the head and affectionately called him "Negroni," his longtime nickname for Ashe. Ashe smiled. He even goaded Patti Connors into picking the first pairing from a Romanian vase. Immediately after the draw, a Romanian reporter cornered Jimbo, and Nastase served as an interpreter. Following Connors' interview, Nastase accommodated as many reporters and tennis officials as he could. It's a measure of his fame that when the Romanian reporters finished questioning him, they asked for his autograph.
Finally free, he and a small entourage departed the hotel in a van. As the van proceeded through gray Bucharest, Nastase acted as tour guide. He knew a bit about the architecture of this castle and that university and said, "It's a nice place. Over there's an arch. The same guy who made the one in Paris made it here. It's a nice city." Nastase isn't of this city anymore. His primary residence is the Hamptons, a Miami condo development where he's the touring pro. This summer, with actors John Heard and Raul Julia and former U.S. Davis Cupper Gene Scott, he plans to open a Manhattan saloon—Nasty's, of course.
The tour came to an end in front of an elegant house, which Nastase bought just before facing the U.S. in '72. "We need more furniture," said Nastase. "But what for? I'm home maybe a month a year. I come home at Christmas. And now, for the Davis Cup."
He went to the kitchen, where his tiny, 80-year-old mother was preparing lunch for everyone. She was happy to help, because this was a big week for her. Nastase's father died a year ago, and it was nice to have Ilie home. Cousins and nephews scurried about, but she was obviously pleased with the bustle that surrounded her son.
That night an American couple living in Bucharest gave a party in honor of the U.S. team. Scores of Americans, including the U.S. ambassador, mingled at a stately mansion. All afternoon members of the U.S. squad had spoken of the fete without enthusiasm, and, indeed, none of them showed. But Nastase did. He stayed only briefly but was clearly the hit of the party. That would soon change. In their chauvinism, Nastase's new American friends would hoot and taunt him throughout the weekend. Nasty in turn, and very much in character, would flip them the bird and show them what they could do with their rackets, if they happened to have them along.
In truth, Nastase had only one problem: He had to play tennis. He used to be lightning afoot and have exquisite timing. No longer. Rather than patiently taking his opponent apart with crafty racket work, as he once did, Nastase, with a spare tire around his middle, now must end points quickly. Against McEnroe he hit 13 aces but was late getting to shots and his strokes were hurried.
Afterward McEnroe said this about Nastase: "I tell you what he should do. He shouldn't play events like this. He should get in shape, work at his game a little bit, and I guarantee he'd be in the top 30 in the world. Then he wouldn't have to pull all the crap he does. He's making a fool of himself, and he's not winning. What could be worse than that?"
Not having Nastase playing at all, because he did give his countrymen haunting glimpses of his illustrious past. Go back to the first set of his match with McEnroe, with Mac serving at 5-2. On the second point, he came to net, having driven Nastase deep off court to Nasty's forehand side. Running as well as he could, racket outstretched, Nastase knew without looking that McEnroe stood court-center, so when he flicked his wrist, the ball zipped crosscourt over the net, an inch inside the sideline. The crowd went wild, and the cheering settled into a rhythmic clapping that the umpire finally silenced. Clapping, of course, speaks no language, but it seemed to say in Romanian, "We remember, Ilie."
Mom was ready with some home cooking.
Connors triumphantly returned to the U.S. team, and Nastase showed he's quicker now with his fingers than his feet.