In the opening match on the third day of the 1972 Davis Cup Final the American Stan Smith found himself in an extremely difficult position. Up against the trickery and dubious tactics of the Romanian Ion Tiriac he lost the first set 6-4. Finding himself in the unenviable position of being down a set with the Romanian crowd roaring with delight in his ear, Smith now faced his greatest challenge. This was the exact opposite of how he had started his other two matches in the Finals. In both of those, he had won the first set on the way to straight set victories by playing nearly flawless attacking tennis under the most intense pressure imaginable. Neither the partisan Romanian crowd nor the slow red clay could defuse Smith’s power game in those first two matches. In Tiriac, though, he faced an entirely different type of challenge.
Tiriac’s game was much more limited than his superstar and much higher ranked countryman Ilie Nastase who had been decisively defeated by Smith. Tiriac stood little chance against Smith if he tried to outhit the American. Instead he slowed down the match both during and between points. His tactic during play was to hit high, loopy groundstrokes denying Smith the pace his game fed off. This would often lead to openings which Tiriac was able to exploit. Then between points he would stall and interrupt in every way imaginable. These tactics reaped early rewards for the Romanian as Smith struggled to gain control. After less than an hour under a slate grey sky he found himself a set down to Tiriac.
“They weren’t going to let me win” – Unsportsmanlike Conduct
To make matters worse he was having trouble holding his serve to open the second set. At game point Smith did something totally out of character with his usual gentlemanly demeanor. When his first serve was called out, Smith fooled the referee into overruling the call. With another chance at a first delivery, Smith produced an ace. Instead of complaining, Tiriac applauded Smith for his gamesmanship. The tide suddenly turned in the match. Over the next two sets Smith steamrolled Tiriac by playing confident, aggressive tennis. The difference between the two in talent and skill level became obvious. The plodding Tiriac could do little under the weight of Smith’s serve and volley assaults. Smith looked like what he was; one of the best tennis players in the world. Tiriac, meanwhile, plodded around the court looking all but finished.
The difference in the two players’ skill level was so vast that it looked like Tiriac’s antics would not win him more than one set against Smith. Yet the Romanian still had a few tricks left to play. And play he did, but it was not so much pro tennis, as it was head games. The linesmen willfully assisted Tiriac in his effort to scheme a way to victory. The situation grew so bad in the second set that after one of them made three wrong calls in a row against Smith, the American captain Dennis Ralston succeeded in having him removed. The blatant cheating became even more apparent in the third set when Smith had four consecutive close calls go against him. At that point, he would have been well within his rights to walk off the court. Somehow he managed to maintain his composure enough to finish off the set. Later he said that “I started to believe they weren’t going to let me win…no matter how well I played.”
“Going Nuts” – Smith Nearly Loses Control
Smith’s doubts about winning must have risen to a whole new level in the fourth set when he grew so angry and flustered that he nearly lost all control of himself. The result was that for a while he did lose control of the match. Tiriac, the linesmen and the crowd were a lethal combination. The culmination of all this unsportsmanlike conduct occurred when Tiriac hit a serve out and Smith smacked the ball for a clean winner. The call was then completely reversed. The linesman said that Tiriac’s serve had been in and Smith’s return out. An incredible turn of events! Soon thereafter Tiriac had won the fourth set by a score of 6-2. Smith was on the verge of self-destruction or so Tiriac and the vociferous Romanian fans thought. Smith later admitted that by the end of the fourth set he was “going nuts.”
What happened next was just as improbable as the rest of the match. Smith came out for the fifth set in rare form, unleashing a barrage of unreturnable winners. His shots were so far inside the lines that there was no way they could be called out. Tiriac failed to marshal a response, the crowd was silent and the linesmen could only watch impassively as Smith hit one powerful stroke after another. Tiriac was left flat footed and helpless. His antics were useless at this point, cheating was out of the question and the crowd was drained. Tiriac was being destroyed by a superior player. The man who had been the tennis incarnation of Count Dracula, casting his dark magical spells over the court for three days was now reduced to stoic bystander. Tiriac’s upset bid withered in the end. He lost the final set 6-0. It was game, set, match and Davis Cup to the Americans.
Losing A Match, Gaining A Reputation – The Tiriac Way
After the final point, Smith is reported to have told Tiriac during their obligatory post-match handshake, “I lost a lot of respect for you today.” What Tiriac thought of Smith’s comment is not known. Judging by his behavior throughout the Final it is unlikely Tiriac cared. His goal was to win, whatever the cost. Damage to his reputation from the match was minimal. Tiriac likely enjoyed his standing as a mysteriously fearsome character. It was his main weapon against much more talented opposition. In an interview decades later, Tiriac stated that he did not regret his behavior in the matches. For him the memory was of just another Davis Cup Final that Romania had lost to the United States. It would be the last time Tiriac or Romania appeared in the Final. At least they were able to say their loss was memorable…for all the wrong reasons.