‘Nasty’ Serves Up Punchy Portrait of ’70s Tennis Bad Boy Ilie Nastase Who Helped Define Era

There’s a scene early in the documentary “Nasty,” a rollicking portrait of the ’70s Romanian tennis bad boy Ilie Năstase, where the Grand Slam champion’s mentor and longtime doubles partner Ion Țiriac recalls teaching Năstase how to ski. The young prodigy was a fast study — perhaps too fast.

“He skied down perfectly,” says Țiriac, “except he ran into the fence because I hadn’t taught him to stop.”

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You’d be hard-pressed to find a better metaphor for the free-wheeling, fast-living Năstase, a “wild child,” “rock star” and “insolent, elegant, angry, whimsical bon vivant” who makes a fitting subject for the documentary, which was directed by Tudor Giurgiu, Cristian Pascariu and Tudor D. Popescu. A co-production between HBO Documentaries Europe and Romania’s Libra Films, the film has a special screening at the Cannes Film Festival on May 23 and will drop across Europe on Max the following day.

Arriving on the scene at a time when tennis was shedding its buttoned-up image, the eccentric, petulant, foul-mouthed Năstase paved the way for mavericks of the game like John McEnroe and Jimmy Connors, leaving an indelible mark while helping transform tennis into a TV-ready sport. He also knew how to handle himself on the court, racking up more than 100 titles on the ATP tour while also becoming the first world No. 1 player in the history of the ATP rankings.

Speaking to Variety ahead of Cannes, Năstase confesses he was “lucky” to play in a different era, when his antics both on and off the court — which earned him the nickname “Nasty” — spurred controversy but were generally tolerated in those more permissible times. “Today, it would be impossible to do what I was doing then,” he says.

Using a treasure trove of footage sourced from tennis tournaments, federations, public broadcasters and private archives around the globe, the filmmakers colorfully re-create the spirit of the time, taking audiences from the courts of Wimbledon and Roland Garros to clubs like Studio 54.

During his playing years, Năstase was a notorious prankster who seemed as determined to get a rise out of his opponents as to best them on the court. He was a divisive presence at every tournament, even as his name lit up the marquee. Spectators showered him with boos as often as they celebrated his remarkable talent.

Yet when the directors asked those who knew him best to dish dirt on Năstase years later, they instead responded with glowing praise. “I said to them, ‘OK, now we’re building a statue for Mr. Năstase, tell me what you didn’t like about him,” says Giurgiu. “And they told me, ‘It’s Ilie, and his generosity and his great qualities were far more important [than his bad behavior].’”

In fairness, not everyone would agree, and “Nasty” doesn’t shy away from some of the controversies that the former tennis great has courted in recent years. In 2017, Năstase sparked an angry backlash after making racist comments about then-pregnant Serena Williams’ unborn child; he was later sanctioned after a profanity-laced tirade he delivered as captain of the Romanian national team during a showdown with Great Britain.

Năstase apologized for his remarks about Williams, posting on Facebook that he was “fully aware that nothing can truly excuse my statements.” Yet speaking to Variety, the 77-year-old seems to have few misgivings about the life he’s lived. “You have such a great career and life that a few regrets don’t mean anything,” he says. “That’s part of life.”

It’s a philosophy Năstase perhaps best summed up during the film, when he mischievously says into the camera: “Being number one, while being naughty and enjoying life: Is there anything more beautiful than that?”

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