"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."