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.
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 (5� 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.