It’s the face. When they talk about Ion Tiriac, they always talk about the face. He first entered tennis at the dawn of the Open Era, a Romanian former ice hockey player blowing into the sport like a searing, malevolent wind out of the mysterious and threatening Communist east.
Tiriac celebrates his 77th birthday next week, and that face has changed considerably since the days when the obsidian Zapata mustache, the corkscrewing locks, and swarthy, pockmarked visage formed the perfect image for a once-innocent game gone to the dark, professional side.
Today he is famous for many other things. Among them, the Grand Slam doubles title he won with Ilie Nastase at the French Open in 1970. The champions he created, Guillermo Vilas and Boris Becker. The extraordinary success he’s had promoting a string of high-profile tournaments, including this week’s Madrid Open. In 2007, he cracked the Forbes billionaire list, placing No. 840 with a paltry $1.1 billion.
Tiriac is not only the most intriguing man to spawn from tennis; he’s also the most successful. Not that he’s forgotten his roots. As he says, pondering the question of why he still bothers to remain involved in the sport, “For me and others like me [other Eastern Europeans who lived under the communist thumb], tennis was water in the desert. In my time, 99.9 percent of the people in my part of the world did not have the same privilege as I, to travel, to be an athlete, to see the world, to come home again. Tennis made me free.”
In 2009, he got each of the tours to shuffle their crowded schedules to accommodate his new top-tier, dual-gender event in Madrid, which came complete with models for ball boys and ball girls. Naturally, some suspected that he wanted to go further and turn the event into a fifth Grand Slam. “Everybody say, ‘Look at that crazy Tiriac, he wants to do another Grand Slam,’” he says. “No! I respect the Grand Slams, let them do the same as they have been doing for another 100 years. But in my perfect world, the best events in the world would have just the best players in the world. That means, to me, a 32 draw. I don’t know how many cars are in the Indianapolis 500, but in Formula I you have 24 cars and 24 drivers, not 128.”
One reason he would like to see reduced draws is that he believes that if you’re going to pit the best against the best, today’s players need a rest day between matches, which doesn’t happen at top events outside of the Slams.
Tiriac is a realist; to many, he may be too clear-eyed and coldblooded to be trusted. Yet his track record as a coach and promoter is outstanding. Today, his face is less of a threatening mask than an artifact on which the history of the Open era is etched in deep furrows. There’s a sadness that has always radiated from Tiriac; perhaps that helps explain why he’s made significant efforts to improve life for his fellow Romanians. In more recent years, happy news has come from his country with Simona Halep's success.
In 2010 Tiriac said, “My tournament has become the biggest social event in Madrid. I have a spectacular stadium. I have only one problem, which is that tennis is not ready for a new world, Tiriac-style.” He unveiled blue clay courts at his event in 2012, but that was met with much criticism and switched back to red. The Madrid Open’s stadium, the La Caja Magica, was an attempt at modernism that has been widely panned.
Tiriac’s efforts to reshape the way tennis is presented can also be interpreted as his way of thanking the game that gave him freedom, but the keepers of the tennis flame are no less prone to sentiment than Tiriac himself. It’s a pity, because when it comes to entrepreneurial expertise, his record is unmatched. He’s been as successful as he’s been controversial and compelling. Don’t let the picture fool you. He’s not just another pretty face.