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 prot�g�s' 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.