MORE THAN ANYTHING, ILIE NASTASE hates to lose. The baddest in a long line of bad boys in professional tennis, the Rumanian, nicknamed Nasty, won 57 titles in his 26-year career but was best known for his foul mouth and on-court tantrums. So it's no surprise that when Nastase's feathers get ruffled in his latest line of work—running for mayor of his childhood home of Bucharest—he lashes out at political opponents who claim they're going to ace the retired tennis star come the June 2 election. "I tell them they are ugly, lining their own pockets with money and don't have a clue about how to fill a pothole, much less fix the city's most serious problems," Nastase says.

Potential voters seem to agree. Recent polls show Nastase, 49, leading his two rivals. "He is regarded as a national hero returning home," says Alfred Moses, U.S. ambassador to Rumania. "And he is popular because people believe he will bring in change." Nastase's decision to switch rackets came as a bit of a surprise—even to himself. Last December he was barreling down a main drag in Bucharest in his dark blue Renault Safrane when he cratered in a monstrous pothole. "The car wasn't badly damaged, I didn't get hurt, and I didn't get angry," he says. "I just wondered how things could be this pathetic in the capital of the country of my birth."

A few days later, as a member of the party that took power after the fall of Communist despot Nicolae Ceau?escu in 1989, he announced his candidacy as a Social Democrat. Should Nastase succeed, winning a four-year term and becoming Bucharest's second popularly elected mayor since the end of Communist rule, he will be severely tested. Services such as garbage collection in the city of 2.5 million have collapsed, crime is up, and the streets and air are filthy. The political system thrives on bribery, says Vladimir Tismaneanu, a Rumanian scholar at the University of Maryland. "Bucharest is really in deep trouble." Speaking of his former doubles partner, fellow countryman Ion Tiriac told a local paper, "If he would run for mayor of New York or Paris, I think he should be put in a cell somewhere. But after the last five years in Bucharest, he might just be the man."

Little in Nastase's past suggests a taste for politics. His late father, Gheorghe, was a bank teller, his mother, Elena, a homemaker. He and his four older siblings lived in a house owned by his father's bank on the grounds of a sports club. Though Nastase preferred soccer to tennis, his brother Costel, now 63, who also went pro, tugged him onto the court when he was 8, and an uncle bribed him with jelly beans to improve his game.

The jelly beans paid off in 1959, when the 12-year-old won the Rumanian national boys' title. In 1972 he beat Arthur Ashe to win the U.S. Open, and he was the world's No. 1 ranked player for 40 weeks in 1973 and 1974. Though he was frequently censured for poor sportsmanship—kicking chairs, slamming balls into the ground and cursing judges—his catlike quickness, flashy game and court antics proved popular with fans. "This is a great player," Ashe said after his Open defeat. "When he tightens up his court manners, he'll be even better."

Nastase, who retired from the tour in 1985, was equally flamboyant off the court. In 1972 he married Dominique Grazia, a former Franco-Belgian model with whom he had a daughter, Nathalie, now 21 and studying photography in Paris. Over the years he acquired homes in Bucharest, Paris, Monaco, Miami and New York City. Nastase split with Dominique in 1982 and in 1984 married Alexandra King, a stunning 5'10" American, then a model and part-time actress on soaps. "Girls still flock to him," jokes Alexandra, 44. "I go to the gym every day to make sure he keeps his eye on me."

Alexandra, who, with their two children, Nicholas, 8, and Charlotte, 6, lives in an elegant Manhattan apartment, was a bit taken aback when Ilie announced his candidacy. "It sort of came out of nowhere," says Alexandra (who is studying Rumanian and looks forward to joining her husband full-time in Bucharest if he wins). As the daughter of a retired U.S. Foreign Service officer, "I can operate in official circles," she says. "I think I'll be an asset."

Lacking conventional qualifications, Nastase vows to bring in expert consultants and revitalize the economy through foreign investment. "I will privatize the garbage service, get income by selling some of the city-owned land and be very flexible for people who want to invest," says the former champ, who amassed his fortune through winnings (more than $2 million), endorsements (Pepsi and Adidas) and local holdings in businesses as diverse as shipyards and breweries.

Meanwhile, Nastase is stumping like a seasoned pol, pumping hands at factories and marketplaces. And the election appears his to lose. "He's the populist choice," says Tismaneanu. "He's famous, admired, he comes from the Western world. He's made it."

ROB HOWE
JOEL STRATTE-McCLURE in Bucharest, MARY ESSELMAN in Washington and RON ARIAS in New York City

  • Contributors:
  • Joel Stratte-McClure,
  • Mary Esselman,
  • Ron Arias.