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.