Ever since his active playing career ended 30 years ago, Ilie Nastase has engaged in a behavior I define as Cruising the Parking Lot. It’s a move right of high school – an alum, likely uncertain of his next place, returns to the scene of past glories, eager to be publicly praised by those who once looked up to him, recapture the relevance that made him significant and maybe embark on a few new adventures. Some ex-players do this with grace, seamlessly navigating the transition out of competition into corporate appearances, clinics and so on. Yannick Noah, for example, can show up late to a formal party wearing blue jeans. Not only will no one will bat an eye; Noah will see to it that they enjoy themselves.
Such is not the case for Nastase. His behavior during Fed Cup this weekend set a new low – this for a man who in his playing days created so many disruptions that new chapters of the rule book had to be written.
Serena Williams countered with a message on her Instagram account: “It disappoints me to know we live in a society where people like Ilie Nastase can make such racist comments towards myself and unborn child, and sexist comments against my peers.”
This wasn’t the first time the Williams family has been subject to rudeness from a member of the Romanian tennis community. Twenty years ago, in the middle of a US Open semifinal match, Romanian Irina Spirlea intentionally bumped into Venus during a changeover. Afterwards, Spirlea – who lost the match despite holding two match points – spoke harshly about Venus. Spirlea, by the way, has disappeared from tennis in a way few players do. While so many cruise the parking lot like Nastase, Spirlea is the equivalent of that person who graduates early and is rumored to have completely vanished.
It also wasn’t the first time Nastase had behaved poorly during a Fed Cup tie. It’s now been revealed that Nastase spoke inappropriately to Belgian captain Dominique Monami during their tie in February.
Disturbing as it to see a lack of contrition from Spirlea then and Nastase now, I’m even more perturbed at the factors that led the Romanian Tennis Federation to appoint a player of Nastase’s work habits and history of poor sportsmanship to the post of captain. Other countries ponder these positions very carefully. Candidates are evaluated closely. Do they understand the players on the team? Do they study the competition? Did anyone in Romania really think someone like Nastase cared to put in the time to thoughtfully answer any of those questions? What evidence existed to show Nastase would do the homework it took to lead a team? There is something at once cynical, lazy and crony-like about the leadership of a national organizing putting someone as unreliable in that position. Go ahead, Ilie, cruise the lot all you want. But quit trying to earn a spot in the next play. Or should that advice also be aimed at the staff who even lets him near the stage?