LONDON — Ion Tiriac is guilty. Just look at him. The dark, bushy hair. The wild mustache. The dark, brooding eyes. The swirl of smoke always rising over his head because of an ever-present cigarette. The eyes shift left. They shift right. Tiriac is looking for an angle. Always. He knows it. Everyone in tennis knows it.
Tiriac says he isn't interested in making money. So he has negotiated the most lucrative contracts in tennis history, perhaps in sports history, for Boris Becker.
Tiriac says he has no sense of humor. His friends says he always makes them laugh.
Tiriac says he never tries to intimidate people. But sometimes he eats glass for his own amusement.
Tiriac is the most mysterious man in tennis. He loves what he does. And yet he says, "Two, three more years, and I get out."
No one believes him.
Tiriac loves to play dumb. Ask him about the fact that he speaks a half-dozen languages and he will look at you, smile and say: "I have learned to defend myself in every language. To say, 'I am innocent.' "
Ion Tiriac is never innocent.
Anyone who has been in tennis for more than 15 minutes has a Tiriac tale to tell.
"Back in the 1960s, there was a tour here in England called Dewars Cup," said Gerald Williams of the BBC. "We would go from city to city, play for a week and move on. Tiriac played. One week we were playing in an ice skating arena. Tiriac got angry during a match and slammed a ball off the roof. Some of the paneling came loose. After the match, Mr. Dewars went to Tiriac and told him, 'Ion, it will cost me 100 pounds to have that fixed.' Tiriac just looked at him. Didn't say a word.
"Now it's Sunday. The tournament is over. We're all upstairs at a post-tournament party, and workmen are taking the court apart. It's heavy. They are struggling. We look down there and all of a sudden we see Tiriac. On ice skates. He skates over, picks up a piece of the court, loads it on the truck and goes back for another. This goes on for an hour.
"A little while later he comes up to the party. He walks over to Mr. Dewars and says, 'I hope that makes up for the 100 pounds I cost you.' "
That is Tiriac. He will push and annoy and demand things. But there is also a sense of rightness about him. Does he bend rules here and there? Probably.
Would he ever do anything truly wrong or hurtful to someone else? Probably not.
"Tiriac was brought up to believe that fudging the rules is OK," said Arthur Ashe, who has known him all his adult life. "You don't cheat; that isn't done. But if you fudge things in the name of winning, that's OK."
Ashe has his own favorite Tiriac story. "In 1969, we played Romania in the Davis Cup final in Cleveland. We clinched the cup in the fourth match, and Tiriac and I went on late in the afternoon to play the last match. It meant nothing. We had already won. But we wanted to whip them clean, beat them, 4-1. Ion didn't want to lose two singles matches. I was winning, so he started stalling. He delayed and fiddled and fussed around.
"It was getting dark. He knew if we stopped, we probably wouldn't come back the next day. Then we got word during the match that the president (Nixon) had invited us all to the White House the next day. It was great for us and great for Romania, too, because their ambassador was going to get to sit down with Kissinger. Now we really couldn't come back the next day.
"Ion kept stalling and stalling. Finally, Philippe Chatrier, who was the referee, said that's enough and he defaulted him--for stalling. Probably the only time in Davis Cup history that's ever happened. A guy defaulted for stalling."
Still, Tiriac usually is not a man prone to making mistakes.
"Tiriac is the smartest guy I know," said Ilie Nastase. "People think he is crazy. But that is one thing Ion is not. Smart, yes. Crazy, no."
Tiriac grew up in the small Romanian town of Brasnv. His father worked in the mayor's office and his family lived near the local sports complex. Ion Tiriac played every sport imaginable, excelling at hockey and soccer. At 15, he was a member of the Romanian national hockey team. A year later, he began playing tennis. Two years later, he was on the Davis Cup team.
He never was a great tennis player. "What I did as a player I did with hard work and with my head," he said. "I was never a natural."
But he was a natural organizer. In the 1960s, players had to take care of themselves on the road. Tiriac became the organizer for his clique, arranging for travel, scheduling practices, making dinner plans. Late in his career, he began unofficially managing Nastase, who needed someone to organize his life. In 1976, he went to work for Guillermo Vilas, who had always been talented, but never a big winner.
Together, Tiriac and Vilas traveled the world, and Tiriac helped Vilas reach his potential. In 1977, Vilas won the French and U.S. opens. Tiriac was by his side constantly.