Ion Tiriac

updated 08/05/1991 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 08/05/1991 AT 01:00 AM EDT

IT'S POSSIBLE TO MISS WHATEVER ION Tiriac says first, because you may be staring at his head. For a moment it seems as large and spooky as something found on Easter Island. But then Tiriac, with his glooming and glowering, has been cultivating this look for years—the look of a man who, more in sorrow than in anger, is about to kill you. That glare helped get him where he is today: standing on a zebra-skin rug in his study in Bucharest, Romania, surrounded by his international tennis trophies and his wolf and bear pelts. In fact, like Napoleon (whose portrait hangs on the wall), Tiriac is a national hero.

"I could probably be President," he says morosely.

For 20 years this rude giant of the sports world, now 52, has been revered by many in his homeland as the man who got out, one who made the world remember there was a Romania. He didn't just scrabble his way into tennis's Top 10 in the early '70s; he made jaws drop along the way, with his head-butting hellos ("old Romanian welcome," he would growl) and exuberant dining. ("We were at a Basque restaurant in Paris," recalls onetime Davis Cup foe Arthur Ashe, "and Tiri ate a wine glass. He ate glass. I was there. And he didn't bleed.")

His playing days over, Tiriac carried his operatic macho into spoils management. In 1984 he discovered a tubby teenager named Boris Becker, ranked 174th in the world. The next year, under Tiriac's stewardship, that unseeded German butterball had won Wimbledon at age 17 and is today (despite his loss in the 1991 Wimbledon finals) ranked No. 1 in the world. Tiriac has also snagged for him the most lucrative complex of endorsement contracts in tennis history. First he signed him up with Ford, Coca-Cola and Deutsche Bank, then with a number of European sportswear and equipment firms. Last year alone, Becker earned approximately $7.2 million, including $6 million in endorsements. Tiriac's share? An estimated 30 percent of the endorsement income and 15 to 20 percent of the prize money.

That's just the cream. Tiriac is now a global entrepreneur, involved in myriad international sports promotions and a profitable smattering of real estate ventures. No wonder his countrymen sometimes stop him on the street to pump his hand or ask if he's going into politics. He isn't. Back in Romania after 10 years of self-imposed exile, he is instead looking forward to hunting.

"Romania has best hunting in Europe," he says, and points to the pelts. "I hunt all my life, from stag to pheasants to wolf. The wild boar here is 500 pounds, easy."

But Tiriac isn't just here to bag boar. Though he generally stayed away during the mad rule of Nicolae Ceausescu—even letting his Bucharest house fall into disrepair, he says, afraid of attracting attention to its contents—he has been devising relief projects for his ravaged country since the despot's overthrow in December 1989. He is building four "villages" for Romania's orphans; the first, in his hometown of Brasov, is now 30 percent complete, he says. "Kids don't have the right to suffer," says Tiriac, who has contributed his own money and says he has received an $80,000 contribution from Becker. "They don't have the fault."

He is also trying to jump start capitalism here, chiefly with the brand-new Ion Tiriac Commercial Bank, which debuted April 15. Capitalized at $15 million, it is Romania's first private lending institution; at best, it's a bare beginning. "The whole banking system in Eastern Europe is in an embryonic stage," says Tomasz Telma, an economist with PlanEcon, a Washington, D.C.—based consulting firm specializing in the region, "and Romania is way behind that. Tiriac may be able to serve some small private enterprises around Bucharest and make a nice profit, but $15 million? That's a very tiny bank."

Still, Tiriac says, he hopes to "make loans, for mills, for farms..." He is interrupted by a shadowy associate, beckoning to him from the doorway. A business call. He ducks out.

"I want to do like my father, but less," says young Ion, 14, who has been sitting quietly in a corner. "He does too much."

Tiriac's only child, Ion Alexander goes to school in Monte Carlo. His mother is Mikette von Issenberg, a model Tiriac met in Paris in 1974 and with whom he had a five-year affair. Ion is a polite kid and deceptively mild-mannered. "I'm not such a good shot with pheasants," he says, "but I'm not so bad with wolves."

Later, driving his black Mercedes around Bucharest, the elder Tiriac says, "Whatever comes out, beautiful machine, I buy. All the Ferraris, the Porsches, the Mercedes. I drive them about 100 miles each." On the road he's not fast, but he's cagey. "I learned to drive in this country," he says, furiously working the wheel. "This country has special rules." What rules? "No rules."

Now he's spinning along past another stretch of Bucharest ravaged by Ceausescu; where old, Parisian-style domes and architectural froufrou once prevailed, there is now a bleak block of unfinished, and now abandoned, concrete apartments.

"Ceausescu knocked down half the city," Tiriac says. "One day he passes by oldest tennis club in Bucharest. Notices people playing. That same afternoon, bulldozers come and tear it down. How he became what he became I don't know. But you Americans have it right: After two terms, even with Jesus Christ in office, elect someone else."

The task now, he says, is to demonstrate that this brutalized land is "a sound country to invest in. And Romanians have to learn how to manage businesses. I went to Kohl, German Chancellor, and said, 'Don't give us fish. Teach us how to fish.' "

But as Tiriac tries to woo foreign help for his country, he faces a serious obstacle: the worldwide suspicion that Romania's new government—which has a number of holdovers—is in many ways as darkly corrupt as the old. There is an opposition press now and some freedom to I ravel; still, after the first wave of excitement, many Romanians again fear that their phones are tapped or that they are being shadowed by secret police. So far the U.S. is wary too; it has not offered Romania the same trade status it has to Czechoslovakia and Poland.

This whole subject irritates Tiriac no end. "This is a 50-year-old paranoia," he insists. He calls the new government "very progressive" and the new Prime Minister, Petre Roman, "a very dynamic guy."

Tiriac doesn't think much of Romanians who oppose the new government, which becomes clear as he pilots his car through University Square. Last summer protesters were set upon here by a horde of Romanian miners armed with clubs and sledgehammers. Internationally it was the new government's worst black eye; President Ion Iliescu was widely believed to have ordered the miners in.

"It was a good thing the demonstrators were finally cleaned out of there," says Tiriac. "People are confusing democracy with anarchy. If I were President, I'd create the biggest police force in Europe. But people see police as power to oppress. So I'd change uniform. Make them red or pink. Say, 'These pink people are to defend my son crossing the street.' "

It is unclear how much Tiriac's countrymen might be dismayed by his muscular view of democracy. Some Romanians, it appears, have never trusted him anyway. "Among ordinary guys, he has always been very popular," says Michael Radelescu, a native Romanian who writes computer software and now lives in New York State. "But not so much among intellectuals. Back during the Ceausescu period, anyone like Tiriac who traveled outside the country a lot was assumed to be collaborating with the regime. Whether it was true or not, I have no idea, but it was a very common opinion." Now some Romanians object to Tiriac's friendliness with the Iliescu government. The leading opposition paper, Romania Libera, complained recently that the Prime Minister had overridden a government vote and privately doled out 14 of Bucharest's most gracious old homes to "chosen ones"—including his friend Tiriac, who got long-term leases to two.

Tiriac is prowling the property of one of these now, a lakefront house across from a compound of villas that Ceausescu once inhabited. The place is handsome—five bedrooms, 7,000 square feet—but he can't move in until renovations are completed. ("He is very stingy," says one local contractor. "A hard bargainer.") Over the sound of a jack-hammer, Tiriac shouts, "See those men? One working, two looking!"

No question, the man is a hard-knocks conservative.

"I was poor as a child," says Tiriac, back at his town house now but not exactly relaxing. Instead, he is perched on the edge of a sofa and, as usual, chain-smoking Marlboros (prized in this town). "My father died when I was 11. My mother was housewife. Very rough times then. A piece of bread, a pair of shoes, were difficult to achieve."

His ticket out was sports—first as a defenseman on Romania's 1964 Olympic hockey team, then as a tennis player. "But I started tennis too late," he says, "at 15. So I was greatest player who couldn't play."

"Tiri wielded his racket like a Ping-Pong paddle," says Arthur Ashe. "He played as if he'd learned tennis from an army manual. He was stiff, but effective."

Good enough, at any rate, to shoulder his way into the sport's top rankings. But Tiriac was most successful at doubles; he and antic fellow Romanian Ilie Nastase took two Italian Open championships and the French Open doubles title in 1970. Along the way they became at least as famous for boorishness and bad sportsmanship as for their skill. Nastase claimed that Tiriac taught him his psych-out tactics, but their styles were always different; whereas Nasty would ape and taunt opponents, Tiriac—if he felt he was losing—was more apt to sulk or sit down on the court. He once threatened to castrate a spectator and, during 1972 Davis Cup play in Bucharest, seized and shoved a referee—shocking stuff in those decorous days. "I had to take every single advantage," says Tiriac now, with a shrug. "Be more brainy."

But his partnership with Nastase was really the training ground for Tiriac's true métier, as manager-mentor—a role in tennis that he pioneered. Nastase, a brilliant player with horrible work habits, got extra mileage out of his career thanks to Tiriac's insistence on heavy workouts. Still, it was a lesson that Nastase never fully learned. ("I feel like dog trainer," Tiriac once lamented. "Just when you think dog know how to act with nice qualities, dog make puddle.")

Since then Tiriac has taken on a bare handful of players, most notably Guillermo Vilas. Starting full-lime in 1976 as Vilas's "parent, confessor, coach, shrink, everything," Tiriac galvanized the Argentine's career. But it was with Becker that Tiriac confirmed his reputation as a tennis wizard. "Becker is very stubborn," Tiriac says. "We don't disagree, but we have different opinions. I think he should play 100 percent serve and volley. He wants to be all over. But we have mutual respect."

"They're both very strong characters, both opinionated," says Canadian Heather MacLachlan, 32, Tiriac's girlfriend of eight years and managing director of one of his companies. "But Boris trusts him. He knows Ion won't manipulate him or lie to him."

In February, Tiriac took on another player, Florida's Mary Joe Fernandez, currently ranked sixth in the world. ("He talks angles to me," says Fernandez. "There's a lot of geometry.") Meanwhile he is also immersed in a blur of business deals. In Romania alone he is representing Mercedes-Benz, renovating a tennis club, perhaps starting a new television station—and giving his compatriots something to shoot for.

"I want people of Bucharest to come up to my level," says Tiriac. "So I don't see any reason to live differently here than I live in Miami, New York, Monte Carlo, Paris or Buenos Aires. It's my duty."

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