As we celebrate the 50th anniversary of the US Open, we look back at the 50 champions who have left an indelible mark on this inimitable event.
The 1972 US Open men’s final was a study in contrast.
On one side of the net stood the hometown favorite – the demur, cool, almost regal No. 6 seed, Arthur Ashe, the 1968 Forest Hills champion.
On the other side was the mercurial, flamboyant, often-controversial-but-always-entertaining No. 4 seed, 26-year-old Romanian Ilie Nastase, who was looking for his first Grand Slam singles title after losing his first two major finals.
Even the clothes they wore on that sun-splashed September afternoon reflected their personalities – Ashe in traditional white; Nastase in a bright, pastel-blue shirt.
Their five-set duel was a showcase of brilliant grass-court tennis – serve-and-volley, chip the return, deft lobs, powerful overheads and spectacular baseline retrieving. After going down two-sets-to-one, Nastase appeared to be on the verge of losing the match, as he trailed 2-4 in the fourth set. All Ashe had to do was hold serve two more times to hoist the trophy.
But Nastase rallied, finding his special magic shot-making skill. He served better than his American opponent and displayed an under-appreciated tenacity to pull himself back from the brink and pull out the 3-6, 6-3, 6-7, 6-4, 6-3 win, claiming the title and the $25,000 winner’s check. It was his second five-set triumph of the tournament, having earlier survived a 7-6 scare in the final set of his second-round match against Englishman Roger Taylor.
Though probably best remembered for his on-court antics and interaction with the crowd, Nastase was a magician with his racquet, and his versatility was reflected in a career seven major titles – two singles, three doubles and two in mixed doubles. And though he grew up learning the game on the slow clay courts of Romania, by the time he played in that 1972 Forest Hills final, Nastase had become one of the sport’s best grass-court players.
The following year, Nastase won his second (and final) Grand Slam singles crown, routing Nikki Pilic in straight sets at the French Open. In 1976, he would lose to Bjorn Borg at Wimbledon in his last major final.
For his career, he was one of just five players to win more than 100 ATP titles – 58 singles, 45 doubles. He was ranked No. 1 in the world from August 1973 to June 1974. Nastase won four season-ending Masters Grand Prix crowns. He played 18 years of Davis Cup, amassing 109 wins and leading Romania to three finals. In 1991, he was inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame.
50 Fact: Nastase continued to play at the US Open until 1985, but he never reached another final. His best post-championship result was reaching the semifinals in 1976.