Originally Posted by carpedm
Each era has one or two players that are somehow a cut about the rest of the tour, that premiere talent that everyone feared. In the 90’s that guy was named Michael Stich ( and to a lesser extent Marcelo Rios ). In the millennium, it was Marat Safin. Someone told me back in the 50’s, it was Lew Hoad.
This guy is a complete talent, gifted with many ways to finish a point and able to beat anyone player at any given moment. They also probably didn’t win as much as they should have; there’s a certain amount of tragedy with their career. But he’s also a player’s player, a guy that other people who really play the game want to watch. There’s beauty in their strokes and a fierceness with their play. And the granddaddy of them all was this nutty guy from Romania named Ilie Nastase.
Although he only won a handful of slam titles, Nastase did win nearly 60 official tour titles and according wikipedia another 30-ish along the way. So he did win his fair share especially from the early 70’s when some slams meant less than some other titles on tour. He also sat number one in the ranking for a protracted amount of time and he was prolific in doubles. So can’t really cry for Ilie, his trophy case is sagging like the best of ‘em. And yet he still probably should’ve won more.
But here’s a fun thing: I got my hands on McEnroe’s first professional tournament, the 1978 Forest Hills clay court event. He made it to the semifinals and lost to you know who. It was a bizarre experience seeing the two of them: Ilie in his veteran 30’s and Mac in his youthful teens. Both were not in their prime and yet you could see glimpses of greatness that once was or about to be.
McEnroe had yet to develop his game. His strokes were about half of what they would be, he volley was not yet refined and his serve - that which would soon become the biggest weapon in tennis - had yet to invented. In many ways he was weapon-less and yet he was still McEnroe. He was smart. He was clever. And he had a burning need to win, you can see it early on.
On the other side of the net was Nastase; speedy, with a Jedi-sense around the court and an ability to make any shot look easy. I can’t comment on who he was at his best, but you have to think if this is what they guy was like in end of his career, you have to think he was gangbusters in the middle. And you had to concede this was clearly the second half of Nastase’s career - Mac played him pretty tightly the first few times they had played previously and the fiery left-hander would not concede a match to the Romanian after that day. But Ilie beginning his twilight was still a sight to see.
Firstly, Nastase was fast. Insanely fast. It wasn’t just that he could move to a spot quickly, he seemed to recognize where he needed to be instantly and then move to where he was needed in a flash. It’s a combination of footspeed and anticipation that belongs to people named Mecir, McEnroe and Federer. It’s mercurial. It’s without effort. And it’s a pleasure to see.
His entire game is built on his movement around the court. It allows him to take make the shots that he can make. It allows him to hit hard or soft or with backwards spins because his legs allow him to cover spots his antics left open. Essentially, his speed allows him to be Nastase. After that, he hit the serve, the volley, the backhand, the forehand and the overhead about as well as anyone else. And he did it from all parts of the court in a complete game. Name a corner and I can tell you, Ilie was comfortable in it.
But what of that x-factor? What of that unknown attunement with the tennis gods that allowed Nastase to see what he could see? Whatever it was, Ilie had it in spades. He possessed that sense that I have only seen in four other players - Rios when he paid attention, McEnroe particularly in 1984, Federer and Hingis when she was interested. Somehow they seemed to know where the ball was going seemingly before you even hit it off your racket. It’s beguiling.
To see Nastase do it to McEnroe doing that Forest Hills match was downright backwards. There’s plenty of Youtube showing Mac in 84 carving up people before they even know they’re being carved, and here’s this cartoonish Iron-curtain relic picking the most deceptive player’s shots before they leave his strings. People can through Mac. Or they run him down. But what they don’t do it out-Mac him.
So this Nastase guy, he was really something.