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Cult hero No 40: Ilie Nastase

This article appeared as part of a year-long weekly series by the author in the Sunday Herald

Sir Jackie Stewart famously compared women to motor cars, but in his autobiography Ilie Nastase, Romania’s most famous sportsman, lit upon an even less romantic analogy when he likened them to showers. In his pomp Nastase tended to have a different girl every day, see. He later estimated his total number of showers at around the 9,000 mark, on hearing which his current and third wife, Amalia – whom he met at a Sting concert – declared she was happy to have conquered such a clean man.

In the 1970s women literally threw themselves at Nastase, so you can decide for yourself whether to deplore his utilitarian approach to sex, but there were other reasons for his dividing opinion. For this long-limbed, raven-haired tennis champ’s illustrious playing career was blighted by fines and disqualifications brought on his head by an inability to control his temper and a fondness for giving umpires the bird. He was, however, a good-natured sort off-court by all accounts – all the sex probably saw to that – and ever the entertainer, amusing spectators with mimicry and horseplay. And the ‘Bucharest Buffoon’ also happened to be one of the most naturally gifted players in tennis history – lightning quick, a masterful shot-maker, devastating from the baseline but equally adept at serve-and-volley.

Nastase was World No 1 for a year in 1973-74 and in a career spanning almost two decades won over 100 pro titles, including seven Grand Slams (albeit five of those were in doubles, either with Jimmy Connors or with countryman Ion Tiriac). He beat Arthur Ashe in five sets to win the US Open in 1972, won the French Open the following year without dropping a set and won the end-ofseason Masters Cup four times. After his retirement in 1985, Nastase wrote two novels and made an unsuccessful run for mayor of Bucharest. Earlier this year he followed in the footsteps of his doppleganger, that other great “swordsman” Gerard Depardieu, when the French made him a Knight of the Legion d’honneur.