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Tennis' Count Dracula Is Saved by New Blood : Ion Tiriac Is Glowering in the Limelight Once Again, Thanks to Becker's Success

February 25, 1986|RICHARD HOFFER | Times Staff Writer

LA QUINTA — The shaggy malevolence of Ion Tiriac, one of tennis' first bad boys and still the game's lone iconoclast, is somewhat overrated.

"Uh, he may not talk to you," the publicist reports. And if he does? "Well, that would be the worst-case scenario."

In fact, when approached, his famous stare dissolves in the desert sun and he becomes merely shaggy. His conversation is forthcoming and, if not quite the stuff of comedy routines, certainly more pleasant than his past press would lead you to believe.

Was he just having a good day? Is the tennis press not quite so unflinching? Or has he merely been mellowed by the millions of dollars that are offered him daily, just for being Boris Becker's manager.

Because he is, in fact, the luckiest man in the world these days. Imagine: Not long ago, his career as a player was over and his new career as a manager was in something of a shambles, and his hopes were riding on a German tennis prodigy who looked, well, maybe fat. By no means was this prodigy the best tennis player in the world. He wasn't even the best in the juniors. But this red-haired Germanic lug was, basically, Ion Tiriac's stable. It was all he had.

And then, at 17, this tennis player wins Wimbledon and his future, as they say, is ahead of him. All Ion Tiriac has to do, which he has so far done shrewdly and in an independent way that has outraged the tennis Establishment, is collect ransom for the boy everybody wants back. And it's Carl Sagan money were talking about: Beelions and beelions .

So now Ion Tiriac is the luckiest man in the world, which is not enough to make him smile, of course. "Nobody's ever seen his teeth," Wojtek Fibak once said. But it presumably suppresses, somewhat, his appetite for sportswriters.

"We all mellow," explains Charlie Pasarell, a tennis playing contemporary of Tiriac who is now tournament director at La Quinta Hotel, home this week to Becker and the Pilot Pen tournament.

In saying so, Pasarell seems apologetic for his old friend's possible loss of legend. This mellowing, perhaps, is sad to see; where is the man who once ate a wine glass, never mind a sportswriter? "Still," says Pasarell, hopefully, "Tiri is a character, a real maverick. You have to say that."

You do have to say that. He would probably be a character in any sport, but in the bleached world of professional tennis he stands out like, say, Count Dracula at a meeting of morticians. Of course, as he comes from Romania and sports one of those walrus mustaches, he stands out like Count Dracula wherever he is. In fact, that's his nickname.

In his playing days, from the late '50s to 1980, he was regarded more as a controversial player than a successful player, although he somehow won a lot when you check the records.

"He was considered just an unbelievable competitor," Pasarell explains. "He never had a lot of weapons, but he had touch and control and was very intelligent."

Very foreboding, too.

"He could be very intimidating, if you took him seriously," Pasarell says. "He was not a normal guy, I will say that. And that tough-guy look, well, it was part of his style and it obviously worked on some people."

It worked well enough that the brooding Tiriac and outrageous Ilie Nastase were a doubles team of some reknown, if not curiousity. Together they won the Italian Open twice and the French once. In the process, Tiriac made quite a reputation as the McEnroe of the '70s. "I was not the quietest player on the court," he says.

Tiriac claims, in fact, though false it may be, that he was the first player ever suspended when his distracting gamesmanship in 1972 Davis Cup play earned him two weeks on the sidelines. At once he is both proud of being suspended and resentful of the authorities who suspended him. "It wasn't even my fault," he snorts, shaking his big shaggy head.

"Even as a player," he concluded, "I was always a man on my own." Of course, sometimes a man has gotta do what a woman has to do, as when he vowed to wear a dress and join the women's tour and make the easy money. But that's another story.

His story these days is Boris Becker--finding him, polishing him and now marketing him. Boris Becker, you will learn, did not simply happen. Nor, thanks to Tiriac, will he simply get rich. He's going to get unbelievably rich, Robin Leach-rich.

Tiriac, you may recall, was the man behind Guillermo Vilas. Tiriac was the dominating coach, father, manager--you name it--to Vilas and moved him through six sensational years during which Vilas never fell below No. 6 in the world. It was the kind of total-care management not then or now offered by the big companies that sign players on the tour. And it worked.

But keeping all the eggs in one basket only works so long as you keep the basket. In early 1984, the pro council found Vilas guilty of accepting appearance money and he was suspended, off the tour.

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