Andrew Ilie read it all the way. In his first-round match at the
Indian Wells (Calif.) Masters Series event on March 12, he
anticipated that his opponent, Arnaud Clement, would take a short
ball and spank it into the corner. Ilie made a mad dash and
caught up with the ball a few feet from a courtside flower bed.
Instead of throwing up a defensive lob and prolonging the point,
he lunged and sent a forehand missile around the net post that
caught a piece of the line. As Ilie celebrated, double-pumping
his fists, Clement gave a dumbfounded smile that screamed,
Never mind that Ilie lost. If the ATP tour is suffering
collectively from tennis elbow of the personality, it has an
antidote in the 25-year-old Ilie, who reached the third round of
the Hamburg Masters Series clay court event in Germany last week
before falling to seventh-seeded Lleyton Hewitt and is a dark
horse at the French Open, which gets underway in Paris next week.
Owing to his no-way-in-the-world shot making, his breezy
relationship with conventional strategy and his displays of
emotion, the 42nd-ranked Ilie is emerging as a cult hero of men's
Like a talented rock band on the verge of signing with a major
label, Ilie is also beginning to crack the public consciousness.
"I think that a lot of players wish they could be like him and
have his enthusiasm on the court," says fellow Australian pro Pat
Rafter. "When Andrew plays, the other guys drop what they're
doing to watch him."
Ilie's popularity is also burgeoning because of his signature
postmatch ritual. At the 1999 French Open he celebrated winning
back-to-back five-set matches by going one better than Brandi
Chastain and ripping his shirt to shreds. The gesture stuck, and
now he celebrates all important wins in that manner. "I don't
mean to rub it in anyone's face," Ilie says sheepishly, "but I
get so pumped up when I play and finally win, it's almost as if
I've shed a layer of skin." Symbolism, alas, comes at a price:
Ilie claims that he pays for his wardrobe himself, because he is
still looking to sign an endorsement contract with an apparel
That search could end soon. After finishing last year ranked No.
50, with earnings of $336,021, he has kicked off this year with
the best tennis of his career. In January he reached the fourth
round of the Australian Open, playing to raucous standing room
only crowds before losing to Andre Agassi, and in March he beat
Pete Sampras at the Franklin Templeton Classic in Scottsdale,
Ilie resembles John Belushi, or perhaps a club pro whose bar tab
is included as part of his compensation package. Listed at 5'11"
and 172 pounds, he is deceptively athletic. His serve can top 130
mph, and his blend of power and touch calls to mind another
Ilie--Nastase, the 1972 U.S. Open champion. Plus, his go-for-broke
style confounds opponents.
"He hits shots that you can't believe a person would attempt, let
alone make," says Agassi. "It's not easy to hit a running
backhand up the line, open stance, 25 feet behind the baseline.
It's much more enjoyable watching him than playing him."
Ilie might be nicknamed Ripper for doing an Incredible Hulk job
on his tennis whites, but he is pure Dr. David Banner off the
court. Soft-spoken and polite, he's a typical "fair dinkum"
Aussie who enjoys hanging out with "my mates" and with his
girlfriend, WTA tour player Marlene Weingartner. Two years ago
Ilie defeated Norway's Christian Ruud in straight sets. Afterward
he was told that he had committed 45 forehand errors, a ghastly
total, in the victory. Ilie smiled and responded, "What's 45
errors between friends? I only remember the good ones."
He pleads nolo contendere to the charge of playing to the crowd
but is puzzled by his reputation as tennis's showstopper. "The
game would be a lot more popular with kids if they played on
instinct, like I do," says Ilie. "Too many coaches mold kids in
their own image, telling them there's a right way and a wrong way
to do everything. You have to play for yourself and have your own
personality on the court, or tennis isn't fun."
Born in Bucharest, Ilie learned to play tennis hitting a ball off
a curved concrete wall near his home. The awkward bounces and
angles that the wall created helped Ilie fashion his imaginative
style. When he was 10, he and his parents, both engineers, fled
Communist Romania with nothing but the contents of their
suitcases. They spent a year in an Austrian refugee camp before
immigrating to Australia.
Though it took time for coaches there to recognize his
unconventional talent, Andrew rose through the junior ranks and
turned pro in 1994, at 17. Skilled on both clay and hard courts,
he cracked the top 200 as a teenager, but his career was derailed
by bulging disks in his back that sidelined him for nearly two
years. Like Rafter, he is prone to cramping. At the 1998 U.S.
Open he was in so much pain that he vomited in the lap of a line
judge--"I swear it was an accident," he says--and had to retire
from the match. "It was always something," says Ilie, who has a
home base in Melbourne. "Until lately, it was like I couldn't
catch a break."
Now that the going is finally good, he has no intention of
suppressing his passion. "Hey, tennis is an emotional game," he
says. "It's only normal to wear your heart on your sleeve."
Even when that sleeve has been rendered a dust rag.
COLOR PHOTO: BOB MARTIN Ilie (above) "hits shots that you can't believe a person would attempt, let alone make," says Agassi.