He referred to himself as “the best tennis player in the world who cannot play tennis.” This unvarnished self-assessment came straight from the lips of Ion Tiriac, one of the greatest strategists in the history of tennis. Tiriac, a Romanian from the old Saxon city of Brasov, was a player of marginal talent whose success had little to do with technique or physical ability. Instead Tiriac relied upon his wits and razor sharp intellect. This was a man who could speak eight languages. He put his smarts to good use in the field of tennis. His superior tactical knowledge resulted in one singles and forty-six doubles titles on the men’s pro tour, including a 1970 French Open Doubles championship with his tempestuous countryman Ilie Nastase. They had an on-again, off-again friendship reflective of their emotionally charged temperaments.
Tiriac’s post-playing career met with even greater success. He facilitated the rise of Boris Becker, coaching the German wunderkind to multiple Wimbledon titles. In the realm of sports management and business he would be wildly successful, using his many connections in Eastern Europe to make a fortune after the Iron Curtain crumbled. Tiriac is now said to be a billionaire. Yet for all of his considerable achievements, he was unable to bring about victory in the most famous match of his career, the fourth rubber of the 1972 Davis Cup Final against American Stan Smith. In one of the most infamous tennis matches ever played Tiriac lost a golden opportunity to win the Cup for his homeland of Romania. It would have been the first Davis Cup championship won by any Eastern European nation, but it was not to be, despite the best efforts of Tiriac and his countrymen to cheat, cajole and connive their way to victory.
Subversion & Secretiveness – The Romanian Challenge
The morning of Sunday, October 15th dawned cold and gray as the air hung thick over Bucharest. This heavy weather was in line with the turbulent mood of the Davis Cup Final. After two drama filled days on the slow, red clay at the Club Sportiv Progresul, the United States held a surprising 2-1 lead on Romania. To gain this lead the Americans had exhibited preternatural control. The matches had been marred by bad line calls in favor of the Romanians, an intensely partisan crowd that disrupted play and outrageous antics from Tiriac in a victorious come from behind singles win over Tom Gorman in the second match. Off the court, the Americans were confined to the twelfth floor of their hotel and were shadowed by an intense security detail throughout their stay.
There were rumors of possible threats against the lives of two Jewish players on the squad, Brian Gottfried and Harold Solomon. This was coming in the wake of the murder of 11 Israeli athletes by Palestinian terrorists at the Olympic Games in Munich earlier that summer. The tense situation was compounded by the fact that the Americans were playing in a Romania that was held in the iron grip of its leader, Nicolae Ceaucescu. Oddly enough, Romania and the United States were enjoying an uptick in relations because Ceaucescu refused to follow Soviet policies. Nevertheless, he presided over one of the most draconian police states in the communist bloc. It had long been rumored that Tiriac was a member of the Securitate, the Romanian secret police. There was always something dark and mysterious about Tiriac, as though he was up to illicit activities. It took subversion to thrive in Ceaucescu’s Romania. Telling the exact opposite of the truth was a basic survival instinct. Such dark arts came in handy on the tennis court for the less talented Tiriac.
Guile & Gamesmanship – Tiriac Inside The Head
As the final day of competition dawned the Americans needed only one more victory to defend their title. The first match between Smith and Tiriac would decide everything. If Tiriac could manage to pull off an upset, then Nastase would be heavily favored to defeat Gorman in the final match. Tiriac had many things going for him. His constant stalling, arguing and subversive gamesmanship had been integral to his victory over Gorman. At one point in that match he sat down on a linesman’s platform, unhappy that a serve had been called in. He was able to force the point to be replayed. The crowd also engaged in zealous partisanship. They took to cheering when Gorman missed his first serve. Their cries of Ti-ri-ac echoed in the American team’s ears throughout the match, growing to a roar by the end of the fifth set. Tiriac came from two sets down to achieve an improbable victory. The defeat stunned the Americans, showing them that Tiriac would resort to almost any kind of behavior to win.
Coming into his match against Smith, Tiriac held one major advantage. It would be played on Smith’s least favorite surface, slow red clay. The surface effectively neutralized his attacking game, while placing a premium on strategy. Points were drawn out. Longer rallies would be to Tiriac’s advantage. Yet Smith had played two phenomenal matches in the lead up to the final day. He had always struggled on clay, but not in Bucharest. Smith had yet to surrender a set in two victories, one over Nastase in singles and a complete dismantling of the formidable Tiriac/Nastase team with the help of his partner Erik van Dillen in doubles. In the latter match, Smith and van Dillen had lost only five games. Smith’s play thus far in Bucharest was his best ever on red clay.
The Psychological Battle – Victory or Defeat From Within
Smith knew that Tiriac would pull out all the stops in an effort to rattle him. This was nothing new, as Tiriac had long been known for his tactical brilliance which made up for his decided lack of natural tennis talent. The Romanian was blessed with an icy, ominous demeanor that could intimidate even the most formidable opponents. In his autobiography, Nastase said that Tiriac “stays cool always, he doesn’t show his emotions, and his temper doesn’t flare up like mine. He never loses his control.” While Tiriac kept his own emotions largely under wraps many of his opponents lost control of their own. This allowed Tiriac to defeat more accomplished and talented players. The biggest question going into the match looked to be whether or not Tiriac could get inside Smith’s head. It would be a dramatic battle, more psychological than physical.