Tennis has been transformed over the last five decades by TV, money, technology, equipment, fashion and politics. But through all of that, the players have remained at the heart of the game. As part of our golden anniversary celebration of the Open era, Tennis.com presents its list of 50 best players—the Top 25 men and the Top 25 women—of the last 50 years. You'll be able to view the entire list in the March/April issue of TENNIS Magazine.
(Note: Only singles results were considered; any player who won a major title during the Open era had his or her entire career evaluated; all statistics are through the 2018 Australian Open.)
19. Ilie Nastase
Years played: 1965–1985
Major titles: 2 (1973 French Open, 1972 US Open)
“Nasty” he was called, and Nasty he remains, as evidenced by his behavior at a Romanian Fed Cup tie in 2017, which was boorish enough to earn him a four-year suspension from the ITF. Like him or not, though, no history of the Open era would be complete—or nearly as loony—without this most temperamental and talented of 1970s stars.
The son of a tennis-club custodian in Bucharest, Nastase grew up surrounded by courts and balls and racquets. He didn’t learn the sport so much as internalize it, and few have ever played with such an effortless blend of all-court artistry and athleticism. To his opponents, his game, with its speedy forays to net and feathery displays of touch, was as “nasty” as his personality.
Proficient on all surfaces, Nastase won the French Open and US Open, reached two Wimbledon finals, and was the first player to be ranked No. 1 by the ATP’s new computer in 1973. He also won the tour’s year-end championships four times and led Romania to its first Davis Cup final.
Underneath the smooth-stroking exterior, though, Nastase was a bundle of raw, easily triggered nerves. Infuriating opponents, abusing umpires, amusing audiences, and trailing mayhem in his wake, he was the reason the Code of Conduct was created; before the arrival of the “Bucharest Buffoon,” this gentleman’s game had never needed to put its regulations in writing.
Still, Nastase’s dark charisma, and the notoriety it generated, drew new fans and helped set off the tennis boom. Whether these fans were awed by his shots or appalled by his stunts, they couldn’t turn away from the Nasty Show.
Defining Moment: Peak Nastase, or Nadir Nastase, depending on how you look at it, came at the 1979 US Open, when he met his match in madness, John McEnroe, in the darkest of all night matches. An out-classed Nasty brought the match to a standstill, and the crowd to a beer-fueled rage, with his stalling and umpire-badgering. When it was finally over, he asked McEnroe if he wanted to go out for dinner. All Mac could do was accept.
Watch: Ilie Nastase reflects on his career