79 US Open: McEnroe vs Nastase, chaos on court
In the second round at the 1979 US Open, I faced Ilie Nastase. Nasty, who had won the tournament in 1972, was thirty-three and long past his prime, but he hadn’t mellowed with age – if anything, he was crazier than ever. And the big New York crowd at the Open always got him going.
Our night match drew a big crowd, eager to see Super Brat face down the aging enfant terrible of tennis. Frank Hammond was officiating the match. Of all the umpires out there, Frank – fat, bald, and dark-mustached, with a deep voice and a no-nonsense manner – was one of the few I liked. I always thought of him as a player’s umpire: he knew everyone by name, he treated you like a person.
Frank was known as an umpire who could control the crowd and the players in a difficult match, but that night he didn’t have a chance. There was a lot of drinking going on in the stands, and Nasty was on his worst behavior – stalling, arguing, cursing the officials, and generally trying to provoke me into going off the rails. Remarkably – and all too unusually – I kept it together. By the third set, Frank had had it: he lost his composure and ranted away at Nasty, docking him a penalty point. The crowd decided then and there that Frank couldn’t do anything right.
I was rattled myself, but then, at one set all and down a break, I began to pull it together, and won the third set 6-3. I was serving at 2-1, 15-love in the fourth set, when Nasty began arguing about another line call. He sat down in a linesman’s chair and refused to play. Frank literally begged him to go on, but Nasty wouldn’t stand up. It was clear that Nastase knew he was going to lose, and was simply looking to prolong everyone’s agony. ‘Game penalty, Nastase‘, Frank said. ‘McEnroe leads, three games to one‘.
Nasty stood up from the chair with his hands on his hips, screaming such vile obscenities at Frank that Frank, after further pleading, defaulted him. Now the crowd really went nuts, thowing paper cups and beer cans onto the court.
Mike Blanchard, the tournament referee, then came onto the court, and talked with Nasty and me. Figuring I was going to win anyway, and wanting to avoid a riot, I agreed to play on. Blanchard told the crowd that if things didn’t quiet down, the match would be discontinued.
Still, as soon as Frank tried to start play again, the crowd started chanting ‘Two to one, two to one‘ – the score before the game penalty. The chanting got louder and louder. I had never seen such pandemonium in a tennis match, and never would again, even in our wildest South American Davis Cup ties. Finally, Bill Talbert, the tournament director, decided to take Frank out of the match and put Blanchard in the chair. I felt terrible for Frank as he climbed down and walked off the court, the crowd pelting him with garbage. He had lost all credibility. What I found out only later was that the match had essentially destroyed his career. When the ATP decided to hire a group of full-time traveling officials, they didn’t choose Frank.
Once Frank was out off the court, I knew the air had gone out of Nasty, and ran out the rest of the match easily. Even the crowd seemed spent now. It was finally over at twelve thirty in the morning. Afte the match, I was somewhat astonished when Nastase came up to me and said ‘Hey, let’s go to dinner‘. Here was another lesson: business and pleasure must always be separated. ‘Sure‘, I said.