The Coachables

Tuesday, May 05, 2009 /by

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By Pete Bodo

In the last installment of my on-again, off-again Coaching Series, I left y'all with a mention of Ion Tiriac. Most of you know that Tiriac owns the Madrid Masters tournament which begins next week. The event exists because Tiriac knew how to work the political and mercantile levers, and pulled off a spectacular trade, dumping his borderline irrelevant indoor men's event (played in the fall) for the right to create a brand-new event, the Mutua Madrilena Madrid Open. It promises to be a blockbuster: a 56-draw, dual-gender event held in the sunshine at a  brand-new facility with the compelling name, The Magic Box.

Tiriac's Madrid event is poised to become the final dress rehearsal for Roland Garros, and unless things go terribly wrong, it will quickly become the second most meaningful clay-court event (after the French Open) on the calendar. That's not a bad swap, is it? And the advent of the new event isn't just some brilliant business move by Tiriac. Spain has become the ranking power among tennis nations, yet it's never had a major, spring, clay-court championship (sorry,  Barcelona!). That's a comment on the poor organization and administration of the ATP game. But Tiriac recognized the implications of Spain's rise to power sooner than anyone else. Madrid will not just serve as an important tune-up for Roland Garros, it will also put the French Open on notice to keep improving.

Tiriac may be a small fry in the international billionaires club, but in tennis he's a big kahuna. And it all started with coaching. In fact, Tiriac basically took up tennis as a second career, after skating in the 1964 Olympic Games as a member of Romania's ice hockey team. His interest in tennis was spurred by the advent of the Open game, but it took an exceptional bit of good luck -  and good timing -  for Tiriac to make a career out of tennis. That bit of "luck" came in the human form of a lavishly gifted and emotionally volatile youngster from Bucharest, Ilie Nastase. The timing was the advent of Open tennis in 1968.

As a player, Tiriac was heavy, slow, and saddled with bread-and-butter strokes. But he was a shrewd tactician, mentally tough, and a master of gamesmanship - qualities that helped him win a Grand Slam doubles title (Roland Garros, 1970) with more than a little help from the emerging genius, Nastase. At the time, tennis was going Open but Romania was not; the nation was still in the grip of the dictator, Nicolae Ceausescu. Among other hardships, athletes faced restrictions on their travel, especially to the west. One day I'll ask Tiriac if he wasn't quietly working for the government in those early years, keeping an eye on Nastase, whose head was easily turned by anything shiny, loud, or pretty. Defections were bad publicity for Iron Curtain nations.

Nastase and Tiriac were a powerful force in Davis Cup, reaching three finals - the last of them (1972) an epic battle with the U.S. in Bucharest (the U.S. won, under remarkably adverse conditions). By then, Tiriac had shrewdly slipped into a comfortable role as Nastase's coach. He traded on that role expertly and profitably, for the electrifying showman Nastase was a huge drawing card.  Nastase was the first "official" no.1, holding that place on the ATP computer for 40 weeks. But as Nastase's career peaked, and his fame lifted him above sanction back at home, his relationship with Tiriac deteriorated and eventually the two men went their separate ways.

In 1974, Nastase was beaten in the final of the Masters (that era's year-end championships) by a 21-year old Argentinian, Guillermo Vilas. The tournament was played on grass in Melbourne, Australia. Tiriac soon re-surfaced as the coach of Vilas, and he quickly created a new coaching model  - that of the Svengali-like mentor who enjoyed all but absolute control over a subservient protege. Vilas, a bullish 5-11 lefty, had an enormous appetite for work and a penchant for hitting with topspin. Capitalizing on those two proclivities, Tiriac turned Vilas into a superb but one-dimensional baseliner who reveled in grinding opponents into the dirt. Most of you are familiar with his record; he still ranks as a clear third (behind Rafael Nadal and Bjorn Borg) as an Open-era clay-court performer.

The Tiriac-Vilas relationship was as long, productive, and filled with father-son overtones. The two men created a company, T-V Enterprises. The main  business of the endeavor was, of course, Guillermo Vilas. But as that revenue stream began to dry up (circa 1982), Tiriac was already looking around for a new project. He found it in a strapping 16-year old redhead from Leimen, Germany: Boris Becker.

Tiriac was a great judge of talent, but he also understood that the players he was most interested in - going all the way back to Nastase - did not need a great deal of intensive coaching in the basic areas of technique or strategy. He was always more mentor than coach, and he presciently understood that in the new, Open era, winning and losing - being no. 1 or being an also-ran - was not going to be about the X's and O's. It was going to be about competitive character, preparation, an understanding of, and the ability to, read and react to any given situation.

In my last coaching post, I wrote that Robert Lansdorp believes that what most talented kids need is a "manager" - someone to basically take charge of their lives, assuming as much of the decision making as the situation demands. That's precisely the role that Tiriac pioneered.

A realist, Tiriac can be painfully blunt, and he's a master of the epigrammatic; when a reporter asked him what might have been going through Nastase's brain at one point in a big march, Tiriac shrugged and answered: "Nastase doesn't have a brain, he has a bird flying around in his head." And when I asked Tiriac if he thought Becker, who won Wimbledon at age 17, was shaped by fame, he replied, "Boris was both formed and deformed by fame." Tiriac was very successful with Nastase, Vilas and Becker. He had a hand in but less luck with Henri LeConte, Goran Ivanisevic and Marat Safin - three mercurial players who can easily be described as a Trinity of the Uncoachables.

One incident clearly stands out as definitive of what Tiriac brought to the table. It occurred at Wimbledon in 1985, in Becker's fourth-round match with Tim Mayotte. At the end of the fourth set, Becker went down heavily (did he ever go down any other way?) and aggravated his injured left ankle. Becker was clearly in distress and he wanted to quit the match. But Tiriac motioned for him to stay down on the turf and request treatment. At the time, the injury timeout rules had yet to be codified. Becker could (and probably should) have been defaulted, but the umpire did nothing. Mayotte, ever the gentleman, stood by while Becker received help and recovered sufficiently to win the match, 6-2 in the fifth.

That may not seem like a particularly brilliant bit of coaching; in fact it was only "coaching" in the most theatrical sense of the word.  But it took a brazen, cool individual to push the boundaries of the rules - especially on the hallowed grounds of Wimbledon. Without Tiriac there, Becker - he was unseeded and just 17 years old -  probably would have quit the match, denied the chance to make history as the youngest male champion and the only unseeded player ever to win Wimbledon.

It may not seem like much, but at the highest, professional level, help or guidance of the most basic or ephemeral kind is not just useful, it can spell the difference between unimagined success and bitter disappointment.Tiriac was a Manager with a capital "M." I'm surprised there haven't been more like him in the game.

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