“I was world number 1 by being a clown”: former tennis player Ilie Nastase is the hero of a documentary presented at the Cannes Film Festival

“I was world number 1 by being a clown”: former tennis player Ilie Nastase is the hero of a documentary presented at the Cannes Film Festival
“I was world number 1 by being a clown”: former tennis player Ilie Nastase is the hero of a documentary presented at the Cannes Film Festival

When a pair of pumps bear your name, it means you have left your mark on your era. Ilie Nastase, like Stan Smith, Michael Jordan, Chuck Taylor and Clyde Frazier, has, since 1973, been able to play with Adidas that bore his name. “Your father and grandfather must have worn them”quips the native of Bucharest.

At 77 years old, Ilie Nastase has lost none of his French. And his presence in Cannes has nothing to do with the yellow ball. Or indirectly. “Nasty”, by the young Romanian director Tudor Popescu, supported by Tudor Giurgiu and Cristian Pascariu, presented out of competition, is a documentary retracing the life and work of the brilliant tennis player nicknamed “Nasty” – “the madman” in English. The tennis star who, in the 1970s, stood out in a closed and unprofessional environment. Nastase, winner of two Grand Slams and more than 100 tournaments, was a true cultural revolution on the courts. Arrogant, unmanageable, barbaric for some. Brilliant, charming, genius for others.

The first world number 1 in the history of the ATP, a tennis ranking inaugurated in 1972, is well surrounded in the film since the exceptional archive images are joined by incredible testimonies: Jimmy Connors, Yannick Noah, Henri Leconte, Björn Borg, Stan Smith, Boris Becker, Billie Jean King but also his compatriot with whom he traveled the world in doubles, Ion Tiriac. A project similar to EPSN’s brilliant documentary series, “30 for 30”, “Nasty”, co-produced by HBO Max, is an ode to tennis of the seventies but above all to the flamboyance of Ilie Nastase.

The Romanian, the first rock star of world tennis? He refuses the term. “I only consider myself a person who broke the rules, I paid for that in fact. Between John McEnroe and I, we pushed the rules forward because we complained a lot (laughs). It is because of us that refereeing in tennis has become professional and that we have provided a lot of supervision to the players.” When we put tennis in those years into perspective, the sport is between two worlds, it shifts towards a form of professionalization.

Belmondo’s dog

And the stars of the circuit at the time were alone, without a coach or technical staff, paying for their travel as best they could and engaging in hilarious improvisations during matches.

“I remember a match at Roland-Garros against Guillermo Vilas where Jean-Paul Belmondo was in the boxes behind me with his wife and his dog. A ball arrives in his box and instead of picking it up, I take his dog and I tie him to the referee’s chair, and Bebel shouts for a moment “Nasty”, give me back my dog!” A factious character, with a very sharp sense of humor – a mixture of sarcasm, second-handedness and a very direct style – Ilie Nastase remembers everything. Names. Scores. Matches lost, won. “I was number 1 in the world by being a clown, I couldn’t do better”he says.

Icon in the country, he was the first athlete to sign a contract with Nike in 1972. Taunting with his opponents, whom he called all the names (our favorite being that of McEnroe: Macaroni), Ilie Nastase remains a formidable playmate and one of the first to dare to wear colorful outfits in a sport where white is required. “I played with Arthur Ashe in doubles, he was also the head of the players’ association, and I broke a lot of dress rules, which drove him crazy. We played in Louisville, and they criticized for wearing an outfit that doesn’t match Arthur’s. So, the next day, I come back with my face painted black and I tell the judges that now we both have the same color. In the stands, the audience was predominantly African-American, and everyone was laughing and appreciating the stupidity of the rules.”

The Romanian has tons of anecdotes. So when we tell him that we work for Nice-Matin, he takes one last one out of his pocket. “In the 1970s, I was number 1 and I had to play against a Hungarian at the Nice tournament and the referee was the Frenchman Bruno Rebeuh. We played at 11 a.m. and in the stands there were 4 people. I tell the referee I’m leaving, when I practice there are 400 people and you think I’m going to play in front of 4 people I need an audience He called the tournament director, and we. made me play at 5 p.m., the venue was full.”

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