ATP Heritage

Ilie Nastase, The First No. 1

The Romanian is one of the sport's most gifted players

April 23, 2020
Ilie Nastase became the first No. 1 in the PIF ATP Rankings on 23 August 1973.
AFP via Getty Images
Ilie Nastase became the first No. 1 in the PIF ATP Rankings on 23 August 1973. By James Buddell

As a part of a series highlighting all players to reach World No. 1, looks back on the career of Ilie Nastase. View Full List

First week at No. 1: 23 August 1973
Total weeks at No. 1: 40
Year-End No. 1: 1973

As World No. 1
Temperamental and talented Nastase was the first No. 1 in the PIF ATP Rankings, when the ATP established the new world ranking system on 23 August 1973. Nicknamed ‘Nasty’, the right-hander once said, “The player who wants to conquer the summit cannot afford to be kind... He must want to kill". The Romanian spent 40 straight weeks in top spot until 3 June 1974, when he was replaced by John Newcombe of Australia, and was a member of the Top 10 until February 1978.

Grand Slam highlights
Nastase reached five major singles finals, winning the 1972 US Open title over Arthur Ashe in five sets and over Nikki Pilic at 1973 Roland Garros, when he became the first man to lift the trophy in Paris without losing a set. Two years earlier, he lost to Jan Kodes in the 1971 final.

His narrow 7-5 fifth-set loss to the fellow Army lieutenant Stan Smith in the 1972 Wimbledon final showcased the best of Nastase. Three-time former champion Fred Perry had told the Romanian before the start of The Championships, “If you can beat yourself, you can win Wimbledon.” Nastase also lost to Bjorn Borg in the 1976 final, at the start of the Swede’s five straight Wimbledon triumphs. He made his Grand Slam championship debut at Roland Garros in 1968 and his final appearance at the 1985 US Open.

Nitto ATP Finals highlights
His record was spectacular, winning on four occasions in 1971-73 and 1975, and he was runner-up to Guillermo Vilas in five sets in 1974. He compiled a 22-3 match record (.888). Only Roger Federer (six), Pete Sampras, Ivan Lendl and Novak Djokovic (five) have won more titles in the 50-year history of the season-ending championship (1970-2019).

Arguably, the most controversial moment came when the elite event was held in Stockholm in 1975, when Nastase’s clowning around during a round-robin match proved to be too much for Arthur Ashe. It led to the first double disqualification. Ashe led 1-6, 7-5, 4-1 and 40/15, when he walked off court because of Nastase’s antics. Walking onto court, referee Horst Klosterkemper said, “I had made up my mind to disqualify him (Nastase). But I had no chance because Arthur Ashe left the court.” A committee, 24 hours later, awarded the victory to Ashe. Needing to win two matches to qualify for the semi-finals, Nastase knuckled down and went on to beat Borg in the final. He never qualified for the season-ending championships again.

Tour highlights
Nastase, an all-court player, considered one of the fastest players on the 1970s circuit, announced himself on the world tennis scene in 1966 when he partnered fellow Romanian Ion Tiriac to the Roland Garros doubles final. But it wasn’t until 1970 that he came to the fore as a singles competitor, winning his first of two Internazionali BNL d'Italia trophies. In 1973, the year he won 16 singles tournaments and was the undisputed World No. 1, with a 118-17 record (59-3 on clay), he lost just three games to Manual Orantes in the Rome final. Nastase reached four straight Rolex Monte-Carlo Masters finals between 1971 and 1974, winning on four occasions. With Tiriac, they won the 1970 Roland Garros doubles title and contested the 1969, 1971 and 1972 Davis Cup finals. He also won the 1973 Wimbledon and 1975 US Open doubles title with Jimmy Connors, who would become the third player to rise to No. 1 in the history of the PIF ATP Rankings on 29 July 1974. In 1976, Nastase became the first European to exceed $1 million in career prize money.

Overall ATP Match Win-Loss Record: 866-321
Overall ATP Titles/Finals Record: 62-39

Biggest Rivalries
At his peak, few got the better of a focused Nastase, but his matches against Stan Smith (11-10), Tom Okker (10-11) and Guillermo Vilas (7-5) stand out for their intensity. He also had winning records against Jimmy Connors (16-12), Jan Kodes (16-8), Manuel Orantes (16-7) and Adriano Panatta (15-6).

Ashe once described Nastase as a “walking paradox”, an incredibly gifted and devoted athlete “who somehow can lose from 5-2 and 40/0; it is impossible to fathom him.” It was because of Nastase’s behaviour at the 1975 season-ending championships that Ashe and the sport’s governing bodies voted to implement Open tennis’ first formal code of conduct. His first wife, Dominique Grazia, explained, “I married two men. There is the man I see at home, and that other man I see on the court. I live the two parts — the good and the bad. It is the special thing about Ilie… you either love him or hate him. You see there is no middle with Ilie.”

Certainly, there have been few tennis players as quick around the court, as entertaining, though so mystifying. Bud Collins, the late journalist and broadcaster, once said, “When his concentration held together, he was an artist creating with great originality and panache.” Tiriac commented, “He is scared to lose, he is scared to win, he is scared of everything.” What’s certain is that when Nastase’s mind matched his talent for a six-year period between 1970 and 1976, he was among the world’s best players.

Memorable Moments
Although Nastase was good-natured, likeable and friendly off-court, on 3 October 1977, he controversially used a double-strung racquet against Vilas, riding a 46-match winning streak, in the Aix-en-Provence final. The racquet, known for creating a large amount of spin and unpredictable bounces, was subsequently banned by the ITF the following week, but not before Vilas walked off the court having lost the first two sets. “I am completely disconcerted and discouraged by the trajectory of those balls,” said Vilas. “You understand that Nastase, plus the racquet, that's just too much.”

Two years later, aged 33, Nastase began to stall and argue when he played John McEnroe in the 1979 US Open second round. With McEnroe serving at 2-1, 15/0 in the fourth set, Nastase began to argue about a line call and he sat in a linesman’s chair, refusing to play. The umpire, who had previously docked Nastase a point in third set, docked Nastase a game, so McEnroe led 3-1 in the fourth set. Cue pandemonium, with the crowd throwing beer cans and cups on the court. The match was eventually restarted with the chair umpire being replaced by the US Open referee.

Nastase on Nastase
“Everybody is not the same. Everybody’s personality is his own. Arthur Ashe is Arthur Ashe and I am me. I don’t try to make trouble; what happens outside comes from inside and I pay for it — fines, defaults, all those things… I was always rather nasty. I was willing to be friends with the Devil, just to cross the bridge.”

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