Wimbledon creme de la creme - 1972 Smith v Nastase Final
Forty years ago at Wimbledon, one of the memorable Men’s Finals took place between two players who were almost polar opposites: Stan Smith and Ilie Nastase.
Wimbledon finals have not always produced great spectacles: for fans, it is the icing on the cake at the end of the fortnight when they do. Too often, the final disappoints. In recent decades, however, the Borg v McEnroe final of 1980 and the Nadal v Federer final of 2008 stand out as truly memorable. Interestingly, both these finals also pitted opposites against one another: the ice cool Borg against the mercurial McEnroe and the ebullient Nadal against the sleek and streamlined Federer. As well as the sheer display of talent, it is this ‘Yin and Yang’ quality that made these contests so appealing.
Smith and Nastase could not have been more contrasting individuals. Smith was the former US soldier, tall, blond and straight-backed – the classic cool, clean hero. Nastase was from Communist Romania, dark, brooding, temperamental and a great fan of the ladies (and they him). Smith played a traditional serve/volley game making use of his 6 ft 4 ins. frame, while Nastase was the magical stroke player from the baseline, able to pull off some of the most brilliant passing shots in the game. Smith was the umpire’s dream, while Nastase had quite a troubled relationship with umpires. Public support for both was fairly evenly divided. The stage was set for a titanic struggle of opposites.
The previous year, Smith had lost the final to John Newcombe in four sets. Nastase, yet to make a mark at Wimbledon, had much success in the Davis Cup for Romania with his playing partner, Ion Tiriac. In the middle of the Cold War too, it was compelling (if a little facile) to see the contest between the two as a playing out of the great East-West conflict. Also during that summer, another East-West conflict against the backdrop of the Cold War took place with the Fisher/Spassky chess contests in Reykjavik. Such encounters made for good copy at the time.
Smith’s passage to the final involved him defeating two players from the Eastern bloc, Russia’s Alex Metreveli in the quarter-final and Czech Jan Kodes in the semis. Nastase’s run was a bit more challenging with a win over Jimmy Connors in the quarters and against Spain’s Manuel Orantes in the semis.
During the final on that day in early July 1972, we were blessed with one of the finest displays of competitive tennis ever at the Championships. Smith displayed all his renowned power and solidity, while Nastase conjured up countless examples of the most exciting artistry and Houdini-like escapism. Regularly during the match, Nastase would end up on the turf having dived spectacularly to reach a shot.
Smith lost the first set but rebounded to win the next two. Nastase equalled the match by winning the fourth. The final set saw some of the best tennis: Nastase’s electrifying passing shots being countered by Smith’s strong game in the air. Smith finally won the set 7-5 and with it, the Championship, allowing himself the uncharacteristically spontaneous gesture of jumping the net to shake hands with his opponent. Smith’s win was popular with the tennis establishment (his overall bearing fitting in with what a tennis player was expected to conform to at the time). Nastase appealed to a constituency which became more evident in the McEnroe era, an audience linked with popular culture and generally unimpressed by tennis traditions. Who you supported at the time tended to delineate where you stood on that fault line.
Also in that year at Wimbledon, Billie-Jean King beat Evonne Goolagong 6-3, 6-3 in the Ladies’ Final. The Australian Men’s Final was won by Ken Rosewall, the small, plucky Australian said to have been the best player never to have won Wimbledon. The Australian Ladies’ was won by Virginia Wade, winner of the 1968 US Open (in the first year of Open tennis). The French Championships Singles were won by Andres Gimeno of Spain and Billie-Jean King respectively. In September, both US Open Singles events were won by Nastase and King respectively.
A young Swede by the name of Bjorn Borg won the Wimbledon Boy’s Singles that year, beating British hopeful, Buster Mottram in the final.
The United States beat Romania in the Davis Cup Final 3-2 in October of that year. Stan Smith saw off Ilie Nastase in the first singles rubber, a much easier contest for Smith than their epic encounter at Wimbledon earlier in the year.
What went on the rest of the sporting world in 1972?
1972 was the year of Munich Olympics, memorable for both good and bad reasons. The world reeled in shock at the hostage-taking and brutal killings of Israeli athletes by Middle Eastern terrorists in the Olympic compound. On a more positive front, it was the year of Olga Korbut, Valery Borzov, Mark Spitz, Mary Peters, Dave Wottle and the US/Soviet Union basketball final. Particularly notable was Spitz’s winning of 7 swimming gold medals, a record that lasted until 2008 when it was finally broken by Michael Phelps.
That year, Don Revie’s Leeds United beat Arsenal 1-0 in the FA Cup Final. Lee Trevino beat Jack Nicklaus by one stroke in the Open Championships at Muirfield and the 5-Nations Rugby Union Championships failed to be completed due to political factors arising from the situation in Northern Ireland.
General Events of 1972
1972 was the year of the launch of the first hand-held calculator, a first tentative step towards the digital age.
Ted Heath was Prime Minister and the public became familiar with his yacht, Morning Cloud and his penchant for musical conducting. It was the year the Government declared an emergency due to the miner’s strike leading eventually to the 3-day week.
US President, Richard Nixon, made his historic visit to China and in the same year, signed the first SALT (ballistic missile) Treaty with Soviet leader, Leonid Brezhnev.
President Idi Amin expelled 50,000 Asians with UK passports from Uganda, who eventually came to settle in Britain. Key members of Germany’s Baader-Meinhof gang were arrested and incarcerated in Stammheim prison. Bobby Fischer became the first US Word Chess champion by beating Russia grandmaster, Boris Spassky in Reykjavik. In November, Nixon beat George McGovern in a landslide to win a second presidential term – before revelations over the Watergate scandal eventually forced him to resign in 1974.
The most popular films of 1972 were: The Godfather, The Poseidon Adventure, What’s Up Doc?, Deep Throat and Cabaret - all films that have stood the test of time, either as DVDs or as regular additions to current day TV schedules
The top hit singles of the year were: Without You by Harry Nilsson; Telegram Sam by T Rex; Hot Butter by Popcorn (who else?!); Metal Guru by T. Rex and Heart of Gold by Neil Young
1972 saw the debut of John Craven’s Newsround, Are You Being Served, Mastermind, MASH, the Waltons and Emmerdale Farm.
Tennis players Michael Chang and Pat Rafter were born in 1972. Other sportsmen born in that year were: rugby player Matt Dawson and footballers Rivaldo and Luis Figo. Major celebrities to have been born in 1972 were: Liam Gallagher, Gwynneth Paltrow, Ben Affleck, Cameron Diaz, Eminem and Jude Law.
Notable deaths in that year were: Harry Truman, J Edgar Hoover, Maurice Chevalier, Margaret Rutherford and the Duke of Windsor (formerly Edward VIII).
1972 is a long time ago, evident in the vast technological and societal changes that have taken place over the period. It was a time of wooden racquets, compulsory white attire at all events (not just Wimbledon), white tennis balls at Wimbledon, Dan Maskell’s authoritative tones, Robinson’s Barley water under the umpire’s chair and no Hawkeye. Much has changed since. Can the 2012 Men’s Final deliver the same magical contest as the Smith/Nastase Final of 1972? There are players of the calibre to do it: let’s wait and see.
Paul McElhinney June 2012
Date published :
28 Jun 2012 - 08:56:15