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Book Review : Tennis Pro Takes Second Swing at Novel

October 09, 1987|ELAINE KENDALL

The Net by Ilie Nastase (St. Martin's Press Inc.: $16.95, 288 pp.)

Without looking much beyond center court for his setting and plot, or further than the mirror for his hero, tennis champion Ilie Nastase has written a successor to his first novel "Break Point." The second serve is subtler and more predictable, relying less on speed and power and more on craft for its effect. Even the characters in "The Net" are a more amenable crowd, obviously mellowed by time.

Istvan Horwat, Hungarian-born, top-ranked tennis star, is watching himself slide inexorably from supernova to all-time great, a depressing prospect for any professional athlete. The tours have begun to seem more grueling, the opponents ever younger, the perks less thrilling at 32 than they were at 20. To an outsider, his life still seems the epitome of glamour--the Paris apartment, the succession of gorgeous mistresses, the snazzy cars and the devoted Vietnamese houseman--but the ordeals and the delights are precariously balanced and the scales could tip any minute.

Just a Few Digits

A pensive fellow, Horwat is painfully aware that more than a few digits separate the first seed from the fifth. Lately he's been suffering from a recurrent nightmare in which the tennis net recedes into the distance, then ensnares and drowns him in its meshes. He doesn't need a psychiatrist to interpret the symbolism; it's abundantly clear.

These days, he slides gingerly out of his circular bed, sidestepping the swimming-pool-size bathtub and heading straight for the steaming shower stall; an ordinary mortal aching from yesterday's workout.

Accident Changes Life

On the day the novel opens, Horwat awakens to a stark reality far worse than his Freudian dreams. His boyhood friend and long-time doubles partner, Marton Kotany, has been killed in a plane crash while traveling with his American wife to a tournament in Barcelona. Their 10-year-old daughter, Natasha, is now alone in the world except for her paternal grandparents in Hungary.

At the funeral Mass for the crash victims, Horwat quickly finds the child, accompanied by the mother of a classmate at her English boarding school. Overcome by affection and sorrow, he escorts her back to England by car and boat to save her the anguish of a flight. The rapport between the bachelor celebrity and the bereaved child is immediate and Horwat impulsively makes himself her legal guardian.

As might be expected, the daughter of an American beauty and a Hungarian champion is not only winsome but a natural athlete. The joys of surrogate fatherhood help to compensate Horwat for his declining career, and he's soon modifying his flamboyant life style to suit his new image as responsible citizen.

Facing His Feelings

The mistresses not only have longer tenure but the types themselves change; international playgirls giving way to equally stunning but more appropriate role models for the adolescent Natty. As Natty grows up, she rapidly outshines them all and by the time she's 18, Horwat must face the fact that his feelings for his ward can no longer be accurately described as paternal. He's a slow study. Her attitude toward him has not been filial for at least two years.

A Few Surprises

Though this plot presents few surprises, the relationship between Natty and Horwat is managed with considerable finesse. Placed in the context of international tennis competition, the vacant spaces filled with dramatic vignettes of the game and its more vivid personalities, the story becomes engaging for exactly the same reasons we watch replays of sporting events. The outcome may already be known but it's still fun to see the top pros in action.

Nastase has always instinctively known how to involve and divert the fans, and there is clearly some transference from the court to the page. While "Break Point" overtly exploited the seamier and more sensational side of tennis, "The Net" shows a willingness to venture beyond the narrow conventions of the sports story.

One novel could have been a fluke; two represent a genuine commitment. At 32, when a tennis champion needs an extra day to recover from jet lag and starts scanning the junior rankings with anxiety, world-class writers are just beginning to warm up.

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