Nasty – More Than Just Tennis Review: A Backhanded Compliment

Cannes 2024

7 mins read

Nasty – More Than Just Tennis
(Romania, 104 min.)
Dir. Tudor Giurgiu, Cristian Pascariu and Tudor D. Popescu


I only half-joked that Tudor Giurgiu, Cristian Pascariu, and Tudor D. Popescu’s tennis doc would consist entirely of people at kitchen tables talking about their hatred of tennis along with casual xenophobic remarks, mirroring the “slow cinema” aesthetic that has characterized Cannes films from Romania for decades. So consider me pleased that Nasty – More Than Just Tennis, the decidedly hagiographic yet engaging film about tennis legend Ilie Năstase, is entertaining and even a bit enlightening.

Although he was first pro tennis player to be designated as ranked number one back in 1971, I must admit to being completely unaware of Năstase’s career. Unlike other superstars of the era – Jimmy Connors, Arthur Ashe, John McEnroe, Billie Jean King, all of whom make appearances in the film – the legend of this boisterous talent was just before my time, surpassed by other bad boys who would garner attention through the decade.

So while McEnroe was the ultimate asshole on the court in my youth – arguing with umpires, throwing tantrums, and generally mixing his immaculate play with an insistence on smashing rackets – the revelation here is that this mirrors what Năstase did years before. It’s like finding out your favourite song is a cover version. For students of the game, this may be old news, but for others it will be revelatory.

Of course, Năstase is celebrated for more than his highly entertaining outbursts. There are moments of particularly poetic tennis being played, absolutely superstar shots that illustrated how different the game was with wooden rackets and smaller stakes. These were the early days of prize money and competitions, where the players shared locker rooms and meals, rather than be cloistered off to their various entourages of coaches, managers, and hangers on. The film is therefore not just a portrait of a single player, but also a fine documentation of the beginning stages in the massive shift of the sport itself, from white-shirted country club elites to a newer, more aggressive, more globally relevant sport.

Năstase’s own journey is well documented, and the span of major interviewees is quite substantial. Each in their own way provides a different face of the man, from Ion Țiriac, another legendary Romanian player who helped bring Ilie to the international stage, through to modern players like Rafael Nadal. It’s impossible not to associate Năstase’s career with the Col War era in which he played, and the Davis Cup competitions take on even more impact in this context.

Năstase’s jibing at times crosses the line and even though this is presented in the film, it may not be explored enough for some viewers who want a more fulsome reckoning. The film shows how he was constant purveyor of nicknames—McEnroe admits that only Năstase could get away calling him “Macaroni”, while the moniker for African American Arthur Ashe, “Negroni,” is hardly a subtle form of racism, no matter how playfully intended. Billie Jean King speaks to knowing Năstase’s heart and intention, free from actual malice, but an incident in which he discusses Serena Williams’ unborn child and wonders whether it’d be the colour of chocolate milk is shown to have had significant pushback.

A different film would have spent more time on this, more directly interrogating its subject about these changing views, and, more importantly, getting the reaction from others affected and offended. It’s not as if it’s entirely brushed aside, but this element of his personality is certainly allowed to be downplayed, even given his own nickname of being, well, nasty.

Still, there’s much to admire about the film. It’s editing is impeccable, with the games and even the talking-head interviews injected with a pace that’s engaging while never over-the-top. Contemporary discussions are matched with tremendous archive work, and the canvas of the story mixes sport, politics, and the hedonism of the age to make a thrilling tale.

This is an extensive, perhaps definitive, portrait of Năstase and his remarkable career as a player. It’s true that the other elements are perhaps only tangentially discussed, but they’re at least not ignored entirely, and there’s certainly space for more fulsome discussions of the role of race and prejudice in the sporting world, particularly for games such as tennis.

The modern game may be faster, with nutrition regimens and high-tech rackets resulting in almost superhuman speed, but there’s something to be said about this ragtag group on the pro tour some five decades ago that took this otherwise stodgy sport and injected a heap of personality. Năstase was at the forefront of this move, and his legendary status is amply celebrated in Nasty – More Than Just Tennis, a must see for those who are already fans, yet especially for those unaware of the depth of his impact on the game.

Nasty – More Than Just Tennis premiered at the 2024 Cannes Film Festival.

Jason Gorber is a film journalist and member of the Toronto Film Critics Association. He is the Managing Editor/Chief Critic at and a regular contributor for POV Magazine, and CBC Radio. His has written for Slashfilm, Esquire, The Toronto Star, The Globe and Mail, The National Post, Screen Anarchy, HighDefDigest, Birth.Movies.Death, IndieWire and more. He has appeared on CTV NewsChannel, CP24, and many other broadcasters. He has been a jury member at the Reykjavik International Film Festival, Calgary Underground Film Festival, RiverRun Film Festival, TIFF Canada's Top 10, Reel Asian and Fantasia's New Flesh Award. Jason has been a Tomatometer-approved critic for over 20 years.

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