Before becoming a top businessman and the cutting-edge organizer of the Madrid Masters Series, Ion Tiriac was a journeyman tennis player. His greatest feat: to be one of the key players of the legendary Davis Cup...

Before becoming a top businessman and the cutting-edge organizer of the Madrid Masters Series, Ion Tiriac was a journeyman tennis player. His greatest feat: to be one of the key players of the legendary Davis Cup final in 1972, Romania-USA.

His character could well be out of a novel by Rabelais. First, his mammoth body type and then, his career. Before being the boss of the Madrid Masters Series, Ion Tiriac has done almost everything in tennis, and way beyond. His life is a novel. Born in May 1939 in Brasov, near the Carpathian Mountains in the Saxon part of Transylvania, the historic home of vampires. What a symbol... In Communist post-war Romania, the future partner of Nastase was playing ice hockey, a sport in which he represented Romania at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, before turning to tennis two years later. He was twenty-seven years old and travelling the world. It was an opportunity to capitalise on his limited resources, the chance to make an unlikely career change. Coach, manager (Vilas, Becker, Leconte...) and start-up entrepreneur, Tiriac became a real businessman (with interest in real estate, cars and insurance amongst other things...) after the fall of the Ceausescu regime in 1989. Since then, his rise to the top has been inexorable: tournament organizer, chairman of the Romanian Olympic Committee, an influential apparatchik on many boards of directors and the wealthiest man in his country... When he dies, his obituary will recount that the innovative boss of the Madrid tournament had been a fixture on the international tour for many years, a dashing self-made man of post-1989 Romania and, perhaps, in footnotes, there will be a mention of the legendary final of the 1972 Davis Cup by BNP Paribas, Romania-USA. His most glorious moment, his Madeleine de Proust...   Bucharest, 13th-15th October, 1972. It was the Cold War, and the Romania of Ilie Nastase and Ion Tiriac was hosting the United States of Stan Smith and Tom Gorman. This was the first year the event was no longer taking place following the “Challenge Round” format, which saw the previous year’s winner advance directly to face a qualifying challenger, like in the America's Cup. Now, the previous year’s champions would play in all matches. To reach this stage, the Romanians had eliminated Italy (4-1), the USSR (3-2) and Australia (4-1). In contrast, the Americans had travelled for all of their matches, beating Mexico (5-0), Chile (5-0) and Spain (3-2). Nastase and Smith (yes, the Stan of Adidas shoe-fame), the figureheads of their teams, had already faced each other at Wimbledon. The American won in five sets in the final on English turf Besides this rivalry between two of the best players in the world (the ATP rankings only being created in 1973), the two countries had fought out the Davis Cup by BNP Paribas finals in 1969 and 1971, with the Americans winning both (5-0 and 3-2). The draw saw the two stars go head-to-head for the first game of the tie on the Friday. On clay Nastase was the favourite, he had grown up playing on clay courts. In a hostile environment, as the local star watched the games pass him by, Stan Smith - unwavering - swept aside the Romanian clown in three sets. Astonishment for the local supporters. They knew that this year was their year or never. Tiriac (33 years) was getting tired and there was nobody coming through to replace him. The momentum had switched sides and it is possible that Tom Gorman, the second Yankee player, was a little too relaxed, since Tiriac was hardly a danger in singles play and yet...
He was playing a high-risk tennis and wanted to save the whole country all by himself
In an insane atmosphere, the old monkey pushed the boundaries of sportsmanship, supported by a fiercely partisan crowd, and came back from the dead. He took the match in five sets to tie the contest. All Bucharest still wanted to believe at noon on the Saturday. It didn’t matter that the two icons hardly understood each other anymore. The youngest was standing on his own, taking full advantage of his new status and all the benefits it could offer. The older brother belonged to the past. Against all odds, the Romanian duo, despite having won the doubles at Roland Garros seventeen months earlier on the same ochre soil, did not fare any better than Nastase the previous day. Blame it on the by-then out-of-touch Romanian star. He was playing a high-risk tennis and wanted to save the whole country all by himself, as if he didn’t want this Davis Cup by BNP Paribas win to be associated with Tiriac. To no avail. Smith, together with Erik van Dillen, won in three sets. The audience went crazy. As if it was even possible, the crowd outdid itself the following day. Ion Tiriac survived with the energy of those who know they’re in the Last Chance Saloon. Now or never. Trailing two sets to one, the future businessman used his boundless ingenuity and mischief (with the help of hysterical fans) to put pressure on the referee and managed to level it at two sets all. He had to win to make the fifth round decisive, with Nastase a heavy favourite to beat Gorman. Tired, exhausted by a third five-set match in two days, Tiriac didn’t even get a look-in, losing the final set to love. The Bucharest public was dazed, Stan Smith was quiet and beaming, so much so that UNESCO awarded him an international fair-play prize for his detachment in the tempestuous surroundings. Ion Tiriac, the Carpathian bear with his gloomy moustache, descendant of Transylvanian vampires, would never win the Davis Cup by BNP Paribas. Much to his biographer’s great displeasure…   By Rico Rizzitelli