Clayton Murzello: Nastiness can't pass off as humour
Ilie Nastase during his playing days at Wimbledon in the 1980s. Pic/Mid-Day Archives
After seeing off American Eliot Teltscher in the Round of 32 clash at Wimbledon in 1977, Romania's Ilie Nastase got surrounded by a large enough legion of teenage fans to worry the security force at the All England Club. Nastase handled the commotion well, humoured his admirers and there was no damage to the barriers. Nastase later entered the tea-room and asked one of his fellow tennis stalwarts: "Why do all these little girls like me? I'm 31, married and very ugly." (Sourced from Bjorn Borg's book, 'My Life and Game')
Forty years later, the same little girls could well be hating their 1977 hero after what he said about Serena Williams' unborn child ('Let's see what colour it has. Chocolate with milk?'). Amidst some serious criticism for an extremely ill-advised, insensitive and idiotic comment, Nastase now insists his comment was not racial. He then makes it worse by enlightening the world about what is racial and what is not.
"If I said she would have an ugly, black baby, that would have been racist," he was quoted as saying to a Romanian website. He also tries his luck at determining what news is important and unimportant: "Why write a news story like this? Just to have a scandal? There are many more important things going on."
The former US and French Open champion, who reached the Wimbledon final in 1972 and 1976, probably thinks his insensitivity should get washed down, just like his favourite cuisine does with a glass of red wine.
This may have worked in another era, not now, and a 70-year-old should have got it by now. Many of his contemporaries may agree that the motormouth Romanian got away with his past antics, done in the guise of humour.
He revealed in his autobiography, 'Mr Nastase', that he used to call Arthur Ashe, the late American tennis legend, Negroni. He explained that it did not mean 'nigger' but a little well-dressed black kid in Romanian and Ashe is quoted as saying, "I like that, but only you can call me that." Nastase also revealed that Ashe could take his teasing, like when he said, "You two look cute, you look like salt and pepper," when he saw Ashe and his Canadian girlfriend together in the 1970s, or before a game at the bar, where he said, "Tomorrow night, I do things to you that will make you turn white. Then you will be a white Negroni." Ashe, according to Nastase, "laughed, because he knew what I was like."
Well, the same Ashe wrote in his memoirs, 'Days of Grace', that Nastase once called him a nigger on court and although he didn't hear it himself, he was told about it. During the Masters tournament at Sweden in 1975, Ashe staged a walkout because Nastase's taunting was too much to bear. Nastase was sorry about what happened and presented Ashe a bouquet of roses at the end of the tournament, which he won. Nastase got away, but he didn't when he played Vijay Amritraj in a 'taped-for-television' tournament in Maryland, as revealed by Amritraj in his 1990 autobiography. Nastase went on with his tantrums as Amritraj led 2-1 in the third set and the World Championship Tennis (WCT) Executive Director Mike Davies' ears couldn't take it anymore.
Wrote Amritraj: "Davies marched on to court, wound the net in front of a startled crowd and two startled tennis players and turned to me and said, 'The match is over. You win' and then looking across at Nastase, added, 'and you lose.' Being nice to Nasty didn't always work, however. If he was particularly wound up, nothing could stop him mouthing off at line judges and umpires and there were numerous occasions when he should have been penalised far more harshly than he was. WCT Executive Director Davies did not like what he was hearing. On court, in the heat of battle, there was no way you could make Nasty nice. Nor, conversely, was there any way you could turn me into a tantrum-throwing lunatic. I claim no credit for that. It is just the way we are."
Nastase is a character which the sporting world needs, without his racist utterances, of course. When Billie Jean King was fighting for equal pay for women, Nastase told her that her demands should be for more money and not just equal pay. He would joke with her, "You just need to give the reasons why you think you should be paid more. You're more feminine, you have better legs."
His friends love him, some friends like compatriot Nadia Comaneci still do, but find, and quite rightly so, his comments on Serena's child unacceptable.
Ion Tiriac, another sporting great from Romania, said about him: "Nastase doesn't have two lungs, he has two hearts." He has to show those two hearts by being sorry about this episode. Nastase is being silly by not apologising for the Serena comment and Tiriac should call for those "two hearts" to show.
"What I realise now is that, however bad things are, with time you forget. It's unbelievable how much a human being can take. How much you can forgive, how much you can forget," Nastase wrote in his book. Unfortunately for him, this incident is not going to be easily forgiven or forgotten.
mid-day's group sports editor Clayton Murzello is a purist with an open stance. He tweets @ClaytonMurzello
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