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Steve Flink: Ion Tiriac heading where he belongs

5/7/2013 1:00:00 PM

by Steve Flink

I have been watching tennis for nearly five decades, and reporting on the game for forty riveting years. In that time, I have witnessed a wide range of towering champions, observed players of all sizes, styles and shapes, seen countless people walk through the corridors of the sport and alter the landscape immeasurably. But I have never encountered anyone who even remotely resembles Ion Tiriac. He has been the single most original individual of my lifetime in the game, a multi-faceted contributor to tennis, a man of varying talents with an uncluttered vision of who he is and what he wants to accomplish. Above and beyond that, he has been an irreplaceable character.

On July 13th in Newport, Rhode Island, Tiriac will take his rightful place as a member of the class of 2013 at the International Tennis Hall of Fame. No one worth his salt would dispute that this 74-year-old Rumanian is worthy of that exalted status. Consider what he has done over his lifetime. Tiriac represented his nation in the 1964 Olympic Games as an ice hockey player. He turned his attention more fully to tennis, and played a leading role for Rumania in Davis Cup through the sixties and on into the seventies. Tiriac competed for his country ferociously in three final rounds as they lost to the U.S. in the Challenge Round in 1969 and 1971, and again at the last hurdle in 1972.

Moreover, he did well on his own, winning the French Open doubles title alongside his more gifted yet mercurial countryman Ilie Nastase in 1970, reaching the quarterfinals of the singles at Roland Garros in 1968 and nearly toppling the renowned Rod Laver, establishing himself as a formidable competitor over the years. He played World Team Tennis for the Boston Lobsters in the mid-seventies, and then turned to coaching, guiding and managing the careers of leading players including Guillermo Vilas, Henri Leconte, Boris Becker, Goran Ivanisevic and Marat Safin. On top of that, he became an outstanding tournament director, owner and promoter of events including the year-end ATP World Tour Finals and even this week’s Mutua Madrid Open in Spain.

To shorten a long narrative, Tiriac has done just about everything anyone could to raise the profile of tennis and to enliven the sport. Recently, I tracked him down by telephone and asked him to reflect on his many exploits. As usual, Tiriac spoke with candor and conviction on a wide range of topics. At the outset of the interview, I asked Tiriac to explain why tennis became his sports priority rather than hockey. He responded, “I started with ice hockey and played on the Olympic squad when I was 15, and I also played table tennis when I was young. I started tennis and at first I played tennis for six months and hockey for the other six. After the 1964 Olympics I decided to quit completely hockey to play only tennis, but I was already 24. It was a commercial decision because with tennis you could travel alone and with hockey you needed a team. At that time, 99.9 percent of Rumanians were not allowed to travel outside of the country but in tennis we were privileged because most of the time they let us travel.”

When Tiriac collided with the redoubtable Laver in the quarterfinals of that first French Open in 1968, he took a commanding two sets to love lead over the top seed. A major upset seemed entirely possible at that juncture. But Laver recouped boldly to register a five set triumph. As Tiriac recollects, “That year and the year after were probably my best years in tennis. We always say that clay is for tennis, grass is for cows and hard courts are for cars. We used to play 99 percent of the time on clay. I never had any talent but I was a good athlete with good legs and a little bit of a head for the game, and for that reason I could almost beat anybody or lose to anybody. Laver was a great player, no doubt about it. But for about an hour-and-a-half or two hours, I could put more balls back in the court than he could hit. But I didn’t really believe. By the fifth set I was completely wasted physically because I ran so much. He beat me, of course, but more than that I lost it.”

As Tiriac travels back in his mind to the 1969 and 1971 losses the Rumanians suffered at the hands of the Americans in the Davis Cup Finals, he asserts, “At the U.S. Open in 1969, Nastase had beaten Stan Smith. But in Cleveland at the Davis Cup and the hard courts were as fast as ice. They had a huge, home court advantage. I lost to Stan Smith in five sets and Nastase lost his match to Arthur Ashe and then in the doubles against Smith and Bob Lutz, Nastase and I had set points in two of the three sets but lost three sets to love. So we were not that bad to lose 5-0. When I stopped my match with Arthur Ashe at 2-1 in the fifth set [Tiriac was actually down two sets to love and trailed 4-0 in the fourth], the referee decided that we should not stop. I didn’t want to play anymore so they gave the match to the United States. The next day we were supposed to see the U.S. President [Richard Nixon] and that was a big deal. It was the first communist delegation to go to the White House.”

Two years later, the Rumanians travelled to Charlotte, North Carolina for the 1971 Cup Final. As Tiriac recalls, “Things were different in Carolina. We played on clay there but unfortunately Nastase was not home those three days. He was somewhere else with his head. But I was in the lead two sets to love against Frank Froehling. Being in character, I had a break of serve in the third set. Then it was two sets all and 5-4 in the fifth set and we had to stop. We continued the match the next day. The guy played two net cords and beat the crap out of me. He took 12 points and I made only three or four so unfortunately I lost that one in five sets. Believe it or not, Nastase lost to Smith on clay but we won the doubles over Smith and Erik Van Dillen--- no contest. So the Americans won. If I had won against Froehling, we would have had a great possibility. Everything would have switched around, exactly like 72’.”

That, of course, was a landmark year in tennis. Ken Rosewall ousted Rod Laver in a fifth set tie-break at the WCT Dallas Finals in an all-time classic. Smith edged Nastase 7-5 in the fifth set of the Wimbledon final in another epic. And Nastase rebounded from two sets to one and 2-4 down in the fourth set to defeat Arthur Ashe in a memorable and highly charged U.S. Open final. But in many ways nothing mattered more in 1972 than the Davis Cup Final at Bucharest between the U.S. and Rumania on red clay. The Americans eventually toppled Rumania 3-2 despite an avalanche of outrageous line calls that went against them. I was 20 years old at the time, an American going to college outside London, and I travelled to Bucharest with the British tennis writers to attend an historic meeting between nations.

It all began with an astonishing straight set win for Smith over Nastase. Tiriac –who rallied from two sets down to oust Tom Gorman in five sets— spent an inordinate amount of time between points and took advantage of the vociferous home crowd who kept chanting, “ Tir-i-ac” rhythmically and animatedly. Then Smith and Van Dillen took apart Nastase and his mentor Tiriac in straight sets as the Rumanians clearly were not communicating well. On the final day, Smith eclipsed Tiriac 6-0 in the fifth set. That was easily the most controversial of all the contests, featuring the largest number of questionable calls.

As Tiriac remembers, “Unfortunately, Nastase was very much in love with his future wife at that time and he [emotionally] disappeared. She showed up and for two weeks Nastase was not training. I was already a 33-year-old and I trained for three or four weeks until I was ready to fall down. That was the only reason I could hold up for five sets against Gorman the first day. Nastase is a great guy and an unbelievable athlete but he lost to Smith the first day without winning a set. A week later in Barcelona, Nastase beat Smith 6-1, 6-2. In the doubles [against Smith and Erik Van Dillen], we couldn’t put a ball in the court. When I played Smith the last day I fell on my hand in the fourth set. I didn’t lose because of that because Stan Smith was a great player, but when you are 33 you aren’t 23 anymore and I played something like 14 hours in three days.”

So what precisely happened to Nastase that crucial weekend in October of 1972? Says Tiriac, “You can be for Nastase or against Nastase but you are always with Nastase. Nastase brought us there for the third time to the Davis Cup Final. Unfortunately I was never at the level of Nastase as a player. He was a winner of Grand Slams and Masters titles. For me it [Bucharest 1972] was the highlight of my career.”

Tiriac was sharply criticized my many members of the media—including myself—for his conduct in Bucharest. Does he regret any of his behavior there? “Absolutely not,” he firmly replies. “There were not any rules about the time we could take between points and not any rules about a, b, or c.  They had the right to choose the general referee. I would not say we stole any points or anything but definitely [the calls] were in our favor. But in three days, the referee [Enrique Morea of Argentina] did not change one decision in favor of my team. That is accurate as well. They were a better team together but not better players because Nastase was better than any of them.”

Does Tiriac believe the scrutiny he received in the press was unfair? He answers, “I believe so because they are looking from only one side of the coin and not on both sides. I deserve some criticism, yes, but how much criticism I don’t know. On the other hand, there was nothing abnormal in Bucharest. After that Davis Cup I saw Davis Cups in France and all over where the crowd was much, much worse. That is Davis Cup. I believe that 1972 Davis Cup between the U.S. and Rumania changed the history of Davis Cup. The Davis Cup became very, very popular since then. It changed around the world.”

Not many realized that in 2002—on the 30th Anniversary of that historic Davis Cup duel in Bucharest—Tiriac arranged for a special reenactment of sorts, inviting Smith and Gorman back to play against himself and Nastase. It was a warm gesture, a moment appreciated by the Americans. Smith told me a few years ago what transpired. He said, “For about two years after that 1972 Davis Cup, I didn’t talk to Ion at all. I took it pretty hard. But then Gorman and I went back in 2002 to play on those same courts. I played a set against Nastase. Then Tiriac and Gorman played. Tiriac and Nastase played Gorman and myself for a while before we switched partners for the last couple of games. They did a great job promoting it and they had fireworks and a choir singing our national anthem and then theirs. They gave us a gift and made a video of our careers in that stadium.”

But it was what happened afterwards that left a lasting impression on Smith, who is now President of the International Tennis Hall of Fame. As he recalls, “I was going to Athens for something related to the Olympics. Tiriac told me he really appreciated my coming to Bucharest. He said he really didn’t think Gorman and I would come. He then asked me where I was going and I told him I was flying to Vienna and would wait there for a couple of hours before flying to Athens. I told him it would take about five hours. Then Tiriac told me I should take his jet. I said that would be great. Then he came back and told me I was all set, and asked if I wanted coffee or tea. He asked if I would like a stewardess and I said I would appreciate that. I got in the car the next day and went past the airport to a little terminal in a small building called ‘Tiriac Airways’. I had a good flight to Athens that took about an hour in a nice jet. I wrote Ion a note and said I really appreciated what he did and I would never forget his gesture of goodwill.”

For his part, Tiriac is entirely self-effacing about his fundamental decency toward Smith. Expressing his feelings about the way it was back in 1972 and why he was so generous thirty years later, Tiriac says, “Those days were different. We never had it like today with everybody travelling with seven people and having a witch doctor or a psychoanalyst or whatever it is. We fought on the court but the next day we were eating together and so on. So after 30 years each of us went different ways. Stan Smith needed to make a trip so he used the plane. There is nothing sophisticated about that.”

I pointed out that Smith deeply appreciated the decency of what Tiriac did in 2002. “I say thank you with pleasure, “Tiriac says. “ It was not a big thing for me. He thanked me probably three times. If you have the possibility to do something like that, then why not do it?”

Leaving that topic aside, Tiriac has more to say about his old friend Nastase. Did Nastase achieve less than he should have? Tiriac answers, “Nastase was an artist and the most introverted and shy human being that I saw in my life. But the moment he stepped in that court he transformed himself. If anybody in the world deserves a monument at Wimbledon, the U.S. Open or Roland Garros, it is Nastase. He changed the tennis world from a marquee country club sport to the sport of the people. Maybe 50 percent of those 20,000 people who came to the U.S. Open to see him play McEnroe were coming to hate him, and maybe 50 percent loved him, but the 20,000 were there. He is one of the biggest mega-stars that tennis has ever produced.”

Nastase was a player of infinite possibilities, a supreme shotmaker, and a genius with incomparable flair. Guillermo Vilas was a workaholic who had to struggle enormously for everything he achieved. But Vilas managed to win all of the majors except for Wimbledon. In 1977, with Tiriac by his side as an indispensable coach, Vilas had his finest campaign. He won 17 tournaments and two majors, taking the French and U.S. Opens, reaching his career zenith with a come from behind, four set triumph over Jimmy Connors in the final at Forest Hills.

“I worked with Vilas after I was finished with World Team Tennis,” says Tiriac. “I took a full time job with Vilas as mother, father, coach, manager and everything else. I built up his game as much as I could. The only black sheep for him was Bjorn Borg. Borg could get one more ball back over the net when he played Vilas. In 1977, Vilas was by far the best tennis player in the world. Remember that he lost only one match between Roland Garros in June and the Masters in December, and that was at Wimbledon [in the third round against the American Billy Martin]. I don’t think any other player can match that. In my book Vilas was the best player of all time for the talent that he had. Almost nothing. Limited. The dedication that he had every single day—at minimum training six hours—is something you have to respect. Vilas was that kind of player.”

The most impressive thing about Tiriac as a coach/player manager/authority figure is how versatile he was. He delivered for Vilas, bolstered Becker, enhanced the productiveness of the left-handed Frenchman Leconte, helped the likes of Ivanisevic and Safin. No matter who the player or what the personality or playing style, Tiriac had the answers. He says of Becker, “I took a baby of 14, 15, 16, 17 and he was No. 1, No. 2 and No. 3 and that was my personal satisfaction. I could work with Becker 70 years after Germany didn’t have a guy ranked in the top 35 and I said this kid can do it, even if he is German. The Germans said, ‘No. no, no’ because they thought a German is not going to do it. But I saw in Becker exactly what he was going to become: an unbelievable power player, a very intelligent guy, very controversial and very introverted. I didn’t coach Becker but I coached the coach [Bob Brett] to coach the player.”

Addressing his other charges, Tiriac adds, “Each of them was completely different. It was a dream to see Leconte playing tennis but his family life was more important to him when he was 20 or 21 so he made a choice. Safin won the U.S. Open at 20 against Sampras three sets to love in the final. They said to Mr. Sampras if he were playing Safin again what would he do different, and he said he would not play. A bigger compliment than that you cannot get. Safin was I believe the nicest guy, very articulate and a good looking Russian. What more do you want from life? Ivanisevic had huge talent, a great player who only won one Grand Slam. He deserved three Wimbledons at least but then again it is not only the strokes or the talent or the dedication on the court. It is also the emotion and how much you give out and how much you have to keep in. Where is the balance? A hard worker like Vilas was not easy to find. Becker, Safin, Ivanisevic and Leconte were all big talents.”

Clearly, Tiriac was an outstanding coach, advisor and manager for a cluster of prodigious players. But he has been no less accomplished and capable as a tournament director, promoter and owner of events. What does he consider the finest work he has done in that capacity? Tiriac replies, “I believe the best events I ever did in my life were The Masters in Hannover, Germany because I had to start from scratch every year,  build 15,000 seats, build 200 boutiques, build everything. I had a great, great friend and partner there that became the Chancellor of Germany. Gerhard Schroder was a man of his word and he helped us to make it one of the best sports events in the world. Madrid I don’t myself. I am just the owner of the event and other people do it but it is a carbon copy of the events we have done. If you give me tomorrow morning the U.S. Open to do, I don’t know how. I cannot sell hamburgers and hotdogs. You get 80 percent of the money from 20 percent of the people and 20 percent of the money from 80 percent of the people. That is what makes an event.”

A year ago in Madrid, Tiriac was instrumental in bringing blue clay to the event. The visibility of the ball on television was substantially improved for viewers, but there were major complaints from the players about the slipperiness of the courts, most importantly from Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic. Both superstars threatened not to return to Madrid this year if the blue clay was not removed. Red clay is back this year. Tiriac says, “Before the tournament last year, the courts were okay. After that the water from only one meter below started coming up and they had to press the courts more and more and they became very slippery. But it had nothing to do with the blue. These people worked for five years on the blue. And it is nothing new. Twenty eight to thirty years ago I did blue courts in Stuttgart and two years after that the U.S. Open copied me. I still believe blue is much better than red. You can see the ball much better on television. Unfortunately these two gentlemen [Djokovic and Nadal] got a little bit mixed up. Losing early was unfortunate for them. Unfortunately, this year the ATP decided to go with red. You don’t have any rule that the court has to be red. You see in the U.S. that grey or green courts are admissible. I am sure that in the future it is going to be blue.”

Speaking of the future, how does Tiriac imagine the great players of days gone by—Laver, Borg, McEnroe--- faring against the best of today like Djokovic, Nadal and Federer? “You cannot compare,” he says. “Those eras are over. The small wood racket was twice as heavy as the racket is today. The athlete has changed. They are much bigger. The court has become shorter because the players are attacking every single ball as hard as they can. The times of Nastase, Laver and so on playing chess on the tennis court are gone. The only way to make the game more human is to increase the size of the ball, to make it 50 percent bigger.”

Ion Tiriac is in a hurry. He must attend to other business. But before he leaves, I ask him how gratified he is to have attained Hall of Fame status. “I am honored,” he says, “because my peers have elected me. I have too many titles [honors] I probably don’t deserve. I don’t know if I deserve to be in the Hall of Fame or if I don’t deserve it, but I am honored. I am going to cherish this.”
Steve Flink has been reporting on tennis since 1974. He has been a columnist for since 2007. You can purchase Steve's latest book "The Greatest Tennis Matches of All Time" here.