They met by chance, and because of the sound (thwack!) created when a ball is struck in that special way. Fast Eddie Felson was sitting at the bar nursing a bourbon when he heard the sound. He turned around and, eyes aglow with recognition, said, "Kid's got a sledgehammer of a break." Soon enough the kid was the most feared pool player of them all, and Fast Eddie was cleansed, rejuvenated and thwacking the balls pretty good himself. "I'm back," he said just before the camera freeze-framed his face at the climax of The Color of Money.
Real life doesn't always parallel cinema art, but in this case it is close enough. Three years after Ion Tiriac first beheld young Boris Becker swatting a tennis ball at the Monte Carlo Country Club—did Fast Ionny hear the kid's sledgehammer serve (boom!) before he saw it?—Becker is chasing his third successive championship at Wimbledon, while Tiriac straddles the tennis globe as...what, exactly? If not an Oscar winner, how about coach, agent, manager? Friend, promoter, entrepreneur? Guru, trainer, adviser, tactician, disciplinarian, father, mother, doctor, lawyer, Romanian chief? Count, counter (of the money in all its colors), maybe the Hustler himself? Producer, director, script supervisor? Butcher, baker, candlestick maker?
"The truth is I am also writer," says Tiriac. "I am not Shakespeare or Hemingway, but I have written stories on tennis that were brilliant. I go step-by-step, predict how Becker will be best in world. They think I am Orwell. But come on, is no challenge. Me writing about tennis is like baker baking bread."
Ion (say Yon) Tiriac, 48, is some of those things to some people, the rest to others. In West Germany he is der Blitzableiter, the lightning rod that keeps the evil spirits from the 19-year-old Becker. The point is, Tiriac is back, although tennis's Renaissance man never went far away. Indeed, it is tempting to refer to Tiriac as one of the game's great hangers-on—"the ultimate survivor," his friend Arthur Ashe says—though the man has not hung on to anything so much as he has grabbed life by the throat.
June 21, 1987
From the city of Brasov in the Balkans—yes, Transylvania, whence his nickname, Count Dracula—Tiriac is now ensconced high above the Mediterranean in a penthouse apartment from which he can survey not only most of Monaco but most of tennis as well. The Count of Monte Carlo a bewildering enigma? Mere samplings of sermons from the Count continue to be worth their weight in organized press conferences. Here is Tiriac on Becker's recent troubles on clay: "He completely lost his timing. The fatigue could be explained, but an ennui of the spirit has been noted. It is necessary to retake these analyses." Tiriac on his own future play: "Only in tournaments for inductees to the Hall of the Dead." What, no scoops? Keep in mind that Bild of West Germany, with one of the largest daily circulations in Europe (5½ million), is paying Tiriac/Becker a million marks ($550,000) a year for this stuff. Exclusive.
An impoverished childhood has marked Tiriac for life. His father died when Tiriac was 11; his mother worked in the local truck factory in Brasov. Young Ion celebrated his 13th birthday by shoving a whole baguette into his mouth rather than share it with his family. He has felt pangs of guilt ever since. Yet the man now owns a $121,000 Ferrari Testarossa, and a $250,000 Mercedes ("The most expensive car in the world," says Tiriac) is soon to join his fleet of automobiles on several continents, a fleet large enough to embarrass your neighborhood Arab sheikh.
Well into his third decade of making a living at the highest level of world-class tennis, Tiriac describes himself as "the greatest player who couldn't play." Before that he was a good enough ice hockey defenseman to play for Romania in the 1964 Olympics. "We were at top of B group, couldn't even beat United States," he says. Ouch. He began playing tennis seriously at 17, and three years later made his country's Davis Cup squad. He and his Romanian compatriot Ilie Nastase led their team to three Davis Cup finals (1969, '71 and '72), but in each case they were beaten by the U.S. Although Tiriac never won a major singles title, he twice made the Top 10 and shared one French Open doubles championship (1970) and a couple of Italian Open doubles crowns with Nastase.
Tiriac has gained far more notoriety in his (mostly) post-playing years as a kind of adviso-entre-coach-ager for the likes of Nastase, Manuel Orantes, Adriano Panatta, Guillermo Vilas, Henri Leconte and Becker. In the group trophy case of this crew are two Wimbledon championships, two Australian Opens, three U.S. Opens, three French Opens and six Masters titles. "Look it up, I win a bunch of majors," Tiriac says in the familiar idiom of the old-time boxing manager.
Is the face familiar now? Not only did Tiriac create the role of the one-on-one, personalized tennis coach—the late Aussie mentor Harry Hopman directed whole teams; Lennart Bergelin, who popularized the aide-de-camp position with Bjorn Borg, postdated Tiriac/Nastase by several years—but he also whipped that fabulous face into new paroxysms of malevolence, giving him an aura unmatched in any sport. So Don King killed a man? Big deal. Dare we even imagine what horrid acts this dangerous dude Tiriac did in his past?
Smile is not one of them. "Nobody has ever seen Tiriac's teeth," Wojtek Fibak once said.
Tiriac stories are legend on the tour. Some may even be true. He ate whole champagne glasses. (Bet somebody noticed his teeth then.) He greeted friends and enemies alike with head butts. While playing hockey for Romania in Leningrad, he broke his stick in two and challenged the entire stadium. "Is old Romanian proverb: Better your mother cry than my mother cry," he says. Down match point, a shaken opponent once blooped a sitter to Tiriac, who instead of putting the ball away caught it. "Is so pitiful, I can't take this point," Tiriac said, after which the poor fellow lost the match anyway and was psyched out for life.
While playing club tennis in Milan during the mid-'60s, Tiriac's daily breakfast included six steaks, four bowls of pasta and a dozen eggs at the Santa Lucia restaurant. After failing to get a line call changed in Miami, he not only quit playing himself but took the rest of the Boston Lobsters off the court with him, forfeiting a World Team Tennis match. When his then wife, Erica, was harassed in Bucharest by a group of nine men, one of whom pinched her bottom, Tiriac jumped on his motorcycle and rode into the middle of the pack. "I don't think I kill anyone," he said. "At least they all seemed to get up and run away." And in Monte Carlo last month he introduced his own line of Puma rackets and sneakers by throwing a black-tie dinner party at the spectacular Hermitage Hotel, to which he had 35 pounds of caviar delivered from Paris. "I eat leftover caviar by hand," he says, "with baked potato, like peasants."
In no particular order, Tiriac was the first man to play against a woman in a sanctioned tournament (one Abigail Maynard, in 1975), the first player to be defaulted from a Davis Cup match for stalling, the first to be fined by World Team Tennis, the first to be suspended by the International Tennis Federation, the first to be caught taking an appearance-money guarantee (for Vilas), the first to make Stan Smith lose his temper. "I invented, more or less, myself. I am a major," Tiriac says.
"Ion has become his own aura," says his 28-year-old girlfriend and business associate, Heather MacLachlan.
Moreover, Tiriac may have gotten more air time on televised tennis events over the years than Jimmy Connors, Chris Evert and Bud Collins combined. The infatuated cameras gravitate to him as if to an Indy 500 smash up, lured by that terrifying glower, which is ringed by an evil swarm of curls, a mustache and lord knows what other facial hair, and bathed in a foreboding cloud of cigarette smoke. Would you buy a used shiv from this man?
So don't call Tiriac a hanger-on or address him as Tiri Baby the way his friends do unless you're willing to experience a glare that Dennis Van Der Meer, the tennis instructor and Tiriac contemporary, says "goes past your eyes, through your brain and out the other side." And if the glare doesn't get you, the luxuriant whiskers might. "I don't know when I start mustache," Tiriac says. "I just know it was before [John] Newcombe. It is so much part of self, if I shave, it would be like going without my hands."
Did Helen of Troy get any more mileage out of her face than Tiriac, whose visage has launched a thousand adjectives? The most notable Tiriac description was penned by John McPhee, in his book Wimbledon, A Celebration, after he spotted Tiriac playing singles at the All England Club in 1971. In that tournament Tiriac and Nastase, perhaps the best doubles team in the world, were unseeded. Furious, they did the obvious thing—withdrew. The pair was entering the final stages of fussin', feudin' and breaking up forever as a competitive unit, so Tiriac wasn't in the most joyful mood. (Is he ever?)
"Tiriac hates Wimbledon," McPhee wrote. "Tiriac is mad as hell.... Tiriac is of middle height. His legs are unprepossessing. He has a barrel chest. His body is encased in a rug of hair. Off court, he wears cargo-net shirts. His head is covered with medusan wires. Above his mouth is a mustache that somehow suggests that this man has been to places most people do not imagine exist. By turns, he glowers at the crowd, glares at the officials, glares at God in the sky.... All the merchants of Mesopotamia could not equal Tiriac's shrug.... Tiriac does not in any way resemble a tennis player. He appears to be a panatela ad, a triple agent from Alexandria, a used-car salesman from central Marrakech.... Tiriac has the air of a man who is about to close a deal in a back room behind a back room."
And this was 13 years before Tiriac began negotiating state-of-the-mart king's ransoms for his ward, Becker. How prescient McPhee's narrative was about the man who has become, in effect, the gypsy godfather of tennis's back rooms. Any five bozos off the turnip truck could have cashed in on a Becker after he won Wimbledon in 1985. The dominant tennis management firms, IMG, ProServ and Advantage International, had been waiting—salivating really—for years for the moment when West Germany, with the wealthiest sponsorship companies in Europe and the largest national tennis federation in the world, would produce a potential champion. The trick was to pick the right player and get to him first.
At the 1984 French Open, Tiriac found himself sitting next to Mark McCormack, IMG's majordomo, watching the junior finals between Becker and Mark Kratzman of Australia. Kratzman won, and McCormack immediately signed him up. Kratzman is now ranked No: 172 in the world. Among tennis agents, the biggest shock of that tournament was not Ivan Lendl's rallying two sets down to beat John McEnroe in the men's final but Tiriac's closing the contract with the toddler-brute, Becker. In fact, the deal was all but done before Paris, Tiriac having parlayed his hands-on, direct-dial approach into a warm relationship with the phenom and his family six weeks earlier, during the Monte Carlo Open.
"How can a man have such a mustache?" Becker remembers thinking upon their first meeting. "But Ion was sympathetic, sensitive, the opposite of how he looks. Everything about him was opposite. Ion was closer to the real thing—a human being rather than a company. He said exactly what is going to happen. And it has."
Did Tiriac show up in Becker's hometown of Leimen in a white Rolls-Royce, as has been widely reported? "I don't drive Rolls. I drive Ferrari," Tiriac says.
To impress the kid?
"I don't need to impress children," he says.
To assure Herr and Frau Becker of an overwhelming flood of German marks?
"I have heard that and thousand other stories. If a man shows up in black hat to take son away from you forever, would promises mean anything? This is all s——."
Black hat? Who said anything about a black hat? To understand the Count's imagery, it is helpful to realize how sincerely Tiriac regards himself as the "black sheep" and "the easiest target" of the tennis establishment. His self-cultivated mystery-man persona keeps everyone off guard and at a distance. Moreover, as Mrs. Ilie Nastase, the ravishing Alexandra, points out, "Ion's also Romanian. You know what that means. Like Ilie—weird. No chance to figure him out. Good luck getting a straight answer out of either of them. Both of these guys are as slippery as they come."
As unorthodox as Tiriac was as a player—he featured the awkward scoop-shovel forehand long before Pam Shriver popularized the unsightly stroke—he is a natural at assessing the talent of others. He won matches more with his head than with his racket, and he has relayed his exhausting work ethic to each of his charges.
"Ilie was too flaky," says Ray Moore, the former president of the ATP, the players' union. "He had no direction. He wouldn't have had near his success without Ion." Vilas was just another run-all-day South American baseliner who had choked his headband off (blowing a two-sets-to-one, 5-1 lead to Orantes) in the 1975 U.S. Open semis before Tiriac took over. Two years later, the Count had coached Vilas to a 50-match winning streak as well as to the French and U.S. titles, one of the finest seasons for any player in the modern era. Becker was hardly a sure thing. The 16-year-old wunderkind was ranked 174 in the world when Tiriac signed him up in '84, a full year and several tons of baby flab away from his breakthrough in London.
"Everyone think it so easy to find these guys, build them, stay with them, make champions," says Tiriac. "Oh boy. I always say whoever invent a mental hospital to accommodate tennis make a million dollars."
A shrewd gamesman as a player—"I do everything to play with other guy's brain," he says—Tiriac was not above the occasional ugly shenanigan, which usually emerged in the heat of Davis Cup battle. "If ever a guy tried to use psychology on the court, it was Tiri," says Ashe. "But like all Eastern European team athletes, he was trained that whatever he could get away with was fair. And if the other guy didn't stop him, it wasn't cheating. Like water polo guys gouging people under the water. That's the way Tiri played tennis."
Nonetheless, Tiriac's performance in the 1972 U.S.-Romania challenge round in Bucharest—stalling, questioning calls, berating linesmen, inciting the crowd, pushing the referee—overstepped all bounds and remains a classic in boorishness. "I always gave Ion his due as a player who fought hard and never quit," says Stan Smith, who beat Tiriac for the deciding point. "But I told him I lost all respect for him as a person that weekend."
During the negotiations for the playing site for that Davis Cup final, Tiriac emerged as an off-court force in tennis. Because of confusing changes in Davis Cup rules, the U.S. was supposed to be on home ground in the final, but Romania protested, so emergency meetings were held. When the smoke had cleared—Tiriac was Romanian tennis back then; Nastase just played the game—Bucharest had been chosen as the site. What had Tiriac done in the back room? "I make United States proposal they cannot refuse," he says. "I say Romania play in Bucharest or Romania does not play."
Time marches on. Today, believe it or not, Tiriac is considered the game's most respected coach-manager and one of its fairest-dealing power brokers, in spite of a 1984 ruling by the Men's International Pro Council that found Vilas/Tiriac guilty of accepting $60,000 in appearance money from tournament officials in Rotterdam. The council suspended Vilas, to make their point, and then immediately lifted the suspension. "They rule that Vilas is slightly pregnant," Tiriac says. "What a farce."
At the beginning of the Connors reign in the early '70s, many believed that the tutorial skills of Pancho Segura were critical to Jimbo's success. Tiriac has become the equal of Segura in his ability to transmit tactics to his pupils. "He always builds on their strengths," says Ashe. "He makes them believe that they are the best in the world in at least one aspect of the game and to use that as a force, as intimidation. It was Nastase's speed, Vilas's stamina—he convinced Guillermo that nobody could stay out there with him all day—and Becker's power. Listen to him build his guy up sometime."
Says Tiriac: "I tell Boris the game so easy when one is strongest guy in it. Serve and volley and that's it. Trouble is, he wants to do too many other things. Take [Miloslav] Mecir. Everybody worry about Mecir. So steady. So hard to read. So scaaaary. I tell Boris to beat Mecir is easy. Simply don't let the ball bounce. Just hit it in air. Volley, volley, volley. You kill this guy. He is finished."
Early on, Tiriac flattened out Becker's second serve and shifted his feet on the delivery (the kid was imitating the McEnroe curling corkscrew stance). During Becker's first Wimbledon final in '85, observers were convinced that after Kevin Curren passed Boom Boom with a few down-the-line forehands, Tiriac somehow hand-signaled Becker into fudging to his left (or backhand side) at the net. Thus the world was introduced to Becker's lunging, parallel-to-the-court volley that bloodied up the greensward.
The first time Becker faced Ivan Lendl, at the U.S. Clay Courts in Indianapolis in 1985, Lendl confused him by receiving serve some five yards behind the baseline. "That's the kind of thing Tiriac would pick right up on," says Ashe. "That screwed up Becker's spatial perceptions. He wouldn't know what that meant, but Tiriac clued him in." Becker beat Lendl in three of five matches last year. Moreover, two weeks before Wimbledon, his combined record against the top 7 in the world is 22-13, the best of the lot.
Tiriac's eye for the prime cut seldom has been blurred. Even his misses have been near-hits, those protègès' underachievement due primarily to lack of discipline. Panatta, the stylish, glamorous Roman, could have been a Nastase with power—he swept the Italian and French titles in 1976 and took eventual-winner Connors to five sets at the U.S. Open in 1978—were it not for his passion for la dolce vita. Leconte, the Frenchman with a goofy temperament, sometimes looks and plays like Lew Hoad and Rod Laver rolled into one. "Ion was telling me about Leconte long before anyone knew he existed," says tennis promoter Massimo (Max) Camilletti. "Henri's still his alltime, off-the-wall best pick."
"Don't talk to me about Leconte," says Tiriac, who parted ways with the galling Gaul after discovering Becker. "If Vilas was the President, Leconte was the Idiot. Every player I had contained a special magic. But this [Leconte] was the guy if anyone was, still the best, fastest hands in the game. But the French federation threw him out when he was 16, he was so crazy. [Leconte claims he quit.] I make the selection. I was not that wrong. I had great relations with the guy. Still do. But now, just keep him away from me.
"Look, every human being lives his own life," continues Tiriac. "Every day comes just once, and they must make the choice for themselves. Definitely there are players who say, I am happy being Number 4,' and you have to respect that. Panatta could have been one of great players, but he wanted to take three, four months off each year. I say, 'Thank you very much, I don't want to be your enemy, goodbye.'
"My position with Boris is different than with Vilas. I was parent, helper, confessor, trainer, coach, shrink, administrator, everything with Vilas. It is possible he became too reliant, but it is the only way it could have worked. The man needed this support. Maybe he would have been better off being more independent; it is difficult to judge. But after the war there are always too many generals. Anyway, he became a distinguished champion and gentleman. I am more in the background with Becker—in the boardrooms, on the phone 32 hours a day. [Günther] Bosch [Becker's longtime coach] did a lot of this other stuff, but now he is gone, and I am back out on the court. It is what I like the best, except Boris is too strong-headed for my taste. He has to realize the need for a coach, and I'm not sure he does. But he can be great—just the right amount of craziness and sanity to handle the pressure and expectations. If he can't do that, he doesn't deserve to be Number 1.
"Boris was very suspicious at the beginning," Tiriac goes on. "It took time, but we finally understand each other. He knows the good and bad of me. What is the bad? Probably that I have no gray. Only black and white. But I am the shield for him. The blacker I get, the whiter Boris becomes."
The Becker family is "overjoyed at the arrangement," according to Karl-Heinz, the patriarch, "and grateful especially that Tiriac plays the bogeyman to supply protection to our son." Tennis economists have given up tabulating the gargantuan figures engendered for Becker by Tiriac. (Or is it the other way around?) Suffice it to say that the player's contracts with Deutsche Bank, Coca-Cola, Philips electronics, Puma, et al., are possibly the richest in sports history.
Tiriac's handling of Becker is universally applauded as a breath of fresh air following, as one former Wimbledon champion puts it, "the unholy terroristic triumvirate of Jimbo, Mac and Lend!." Doing deals has become as important—and as fun—as correcting footwork. Tiriac's personal touch is the essence of both his business and coaching style. "I always handle players myself, only me," he says. "I have no competition in this department. The others [the big agencies] go by numbers. I go by feelings, convictions. I am handling humans, not machines. I am the boutique, not the department store. I don't delegate."
But Tiriac's empire, T-V Enterprises—the initials stand for Tiriac and Vilas, who is still a friendly business partner—also includes tennis clubs and real estate holdings. Worth an estimated $6 million, T-V Enterprises has grown so much that Tiriac has established a home office in New York and has hired associates in London, Munich and Monte Carlo.
With characteristic tennis-agent panache, the Count is heavily into conflicts of interest, having scored a major coup by landing the promotional rights to the Sweden-West Germany Davis Cup final in Munich in December 1985. The tennis establishment again was waiting for him to fall on his face, but Tiriac got strong backing from Sheraton hotels, Deutsche Bank, Lufthansa, Volvo and assorted other heavy hitters. He imported lobsters from Boston, oysters from France and even his beloved caviar. Tiri put on a show. "It was the best organized Davis Cup final I've ever seen," says NBC's Collins.
Although Becker became an immediate hero in West Germany, the country took a while to warm to Tiriac, the oh-so-visible Svengali raking in the cash. A shady-looking character, and from the deep, dark Balkans to boot. Ugh. "The country is only about 30 years behind the time," says Tiriac. "They have hard time knowing sport is business now. They think in tens, not hundreds or thousands. They think we're insane to expect to make money from tennis. Then when we do it, they say it is too much, not acceptable. I don't care. Slowly, slowly, they understand. I was obnoxious cutthroat going in. By end of [the 1985] Davis Cup they want to make me minister of finance."
"Ion demands perfection. He's very difficult to work for," says Heather MacLachlan, the Canadian whom Tiriac spirited away from IMG and who now runs T-V Enterprises out of a town house in Manhattan. "But he's also very fair. I have the freedom to make some decisions—as long as I make no mistakes. He doesn't care how I get things done, just so it's flawlessly."
Tiriac wanted the name of the new financial branch of his firm to include the words elite and company. "I told him company is for truckers," says MacLachlan. "We're calling it Elite Management Group. But now Ion's worried that's too close to IMG. He says, 'Heather, think international, not Canadian. Not land of the penguins.' For some reason he thinks Canada has a lot of penguins."
Tiriac's ex-wife, Erica—the pinchee whose honor he defended with a motorcycle—was a Romanian team handball player. Then, in 1974 in Paris, Tiriac met a model named Mikette von Issenberg and telephoned her every day for six months. Their five-year liaison produced a son, Alexander Ion (Ion Ion), now 10, who lives in his father's condo in Monte Carlo. A few years ago Tiriac brought his sister, Rodica, out of Romania to help raise the boy.
Ion Ion has traveled the world—Paris, Barcelona, Disneyland—with Big Ion, but now he enjoys nothing more than basketball practice at his parochial grade school and correcting his father's French, one of the seven languages Tiriac can use in the players' lounge. As peripatetic as the progenitor's career has become, Rodica and MacLachlan (when she is there) seem to provide the Tiriac men with a solid family foundation. Romanian holidays are celebrated with gusto, the first day of spring bringing out the traditional family pins and special cakes. For Christmas, Tiriac took MacLachlan and Ion Ion skiing in Courchevel, France, with the Nastase family.
Ion Ion is a chip off the old Tiriac block, all right. "The other day he ask me for 10 autographs," says Becker. "Then I see him selling them to his friends."
During a photo shoot at the condo, Easter eggs and baskets were scattered about. A telescope on the balcony was trained alternately on a Navy vessel at sea and the beach below. A Mona-can housekeeper served a sumptuous lunch, at which the dieting Tiriac only nibbled. "You must appreciate ducks," a reporter said to Tiriac, gesturing at the framed pictures of mallards decorating the apartment.
"I appreciate eating ducks," growled the Count.
The mask comes down again. "It's all a facade," says MacLachlan. "Ion is so different from what he appears, not so much emotional as sensitive."
Tiriac was once one of the tour's major womanizers, albeit a discreet one, yet he always deemed women and tennis an unacceptable mix. From his players Tiriac has always demanded total loyalty and mutual trust. Vilas likened their years together to a marriage, and when they ended their player-coach relationship, says Tiriac, "it was like divorcing someone you still love." Though the Argentine had enough distaff followers to rival Warren Beatty, when he was at the top of his game he kept his distance from the fairer sex. He was probably the only player to accept Tiriac's dictum of total control.
After their marriages, both Panatta and Leconte lost their commitment to Tiriac. Now Tiriac contemplates the potential problems posed by Becker's romance with Benedicte Courtin, 22, the daughter of Monaco's chief of police for foreign residents. Courtin lingers around practice long enough to do running exercises with the world champion. "You are a man. There are never problems with women, right?" Tiriac sneers to nobody in particular.
"No problem," says Becker with a laugh. "Ion should look at it this way: no parking tickets."
The Tiriac-Nastase breakup was clinched in 1972, when, instead of practicing for the upcoming Davis Cup final, which Tiriac hoped would be his last hurrah as a player, Nastase was chasing his first wife-to-be, Dominique Grazia, through much of the Western world. When Nastase failed miserably in the Cup, Tiriac was enraged. The men have long since made their peace, but the split was harrowing for both. They didn't speak for four years.
"Managers didn't exist then, and I wanted to stay crazy," Nastase says. "I was messy, disorganized. I couldn't take all that control. But, yes, he helped me so much. I wanted him at all my matches."
"We were cold for time being," says Tiriac, "but the mistake was mine. I got too angry at a character whose behavior I always knew about and had to accept. He was big part of my life whether I liked it or not. This guy is great human being, heart as big as elephant. I see him give jacket off back to man who needs it. He brought charisma and excitement and changed this game forever from sport to entertainment. But I bet you my life, if I had managed him he would have been 10 times better off. For all he did, Nastase should have been a power in tennis."
Instead, look which one has become a power. The penthouse, the cars, the $1,000 suits, the audiences bestowed only on those most fortunate, the face. "Probably the most recognizable face in tennis," MacLachlan says. "You know he'll never shave that scruff off, either. He doesn't dare lose the threatening look. At least he's cut his hair shorter. He doesn't look like some beast out of the woods anymore."
Even when he was the mangy beast from Brasov, Tiriac was preparing for his postplaying career. He was always the first to figure exchange rates in each country. "All the time, Ion loved doing business," says his old pal Camilletti. "He was very commercially oriented, trading his rackets for meals in the old days. When endorsements came along, he had a feel for the market. He always enjoyed discussing the negotiating process—were long-term or short-term contracts preferable, who was worth such and such, what was the number?"
"Ion has an amazing self-confidence," MacLachlan says. "An inborn sense of self-worth. He believes in his products and himself, and that he deserves this success and the good life."
In his early days as an agent Tiriac was back in the woods. Without any real grasp of the precise and appropriate numbers, he asked companies and clients for the moon. That wasn't the quickest route to credibility, but he learned. Says a friend and rival, Bob Kain of IMG: "Now Ion sets his marks in reality."
Or somewhere yet to be determined. No gray? Just black and white? The longer one ponders the career of this fascinating, hirsute creature, this Romanian neocapitalist, the more multifaceted it becomes. Already Tiriac has provided the game's finest artist/clown with a sense of direction, pummeled a clay-court poet to the longest men's winning streak in history and ridden a pink-cheeked teenager to the stars and back. Who can know where the next orchard could be blooming and just what tennis's mystery planter might pick from it?