Howard: The greatest tennis player who couldn’t play … Ion Tiriac
When you think of the athletes who have acquired the most wealth over their careers and life-time, you would never imagine that Ion Tiriac would be at the top of that list. Many people wouldn’t even know who you’re talking about. Over two billion dollars later, the 79 year-old from Romania laughs all the way to the bank, his bank.
The quote of the title came from Tiriac himself, his father died when he was 11 and his mother worked at the local truck factory in Romania, you might call it an impoverished childhood for the most part.
Known for his ice hockey skills, where one time he broke his stick in half and challenged the whole stadium in anger, he took up the game of tennis seriously at the age of 17.
He played amateur tennis from 1962 to 1968 when open tennis began and then made the most of his impact as a player doubling with tennis great (also from Romania) Ilie Nastase, winning 17 titles through 1979 when he retired from the professional ranks. Romania made it to three Davis Cup Finals 1969, 1971 and 1972 of which he played, where he was respected, but not very well liked.
Ion had an evil look with his handlebar mustache and dark facial hair, never smiled (in public), had head butt greetings and made some fun commercials based on this special type of persona.
But there was a lot more behind him than most would have thought.
He knew how to teach the game with an eye for up and comer’s and how to get the most out of their talents.
He took players like Manuel Orantes, Adriano Panatta, Guillermo Vilas, Henri Leconte, Ilie Nastase, Boris Becker, Mary Jo Fernandez, Goran Ivanisevic and Marat Safin to heights they may not have reached. Not to mention organizing endorsements deals that made some of them very rich.
As Romania opened itself to capitalism, he started to create many different business dealings that became very successful. T-V Enterprises, tennis clubs, real estate, founded Banca Tiriac (the first Romanian private bank), retail, insurance, auto leasing, dealerships, and even airlines.
He collects antique and unusual cars for a hobby with one of the largest collections in the world.
Even though tennis is a smaller part of how he spends his time and efforts today, he still helps out different players he believes in, and owns the “Madrid Open” that is heralded as one of the top masters events during the clay court season — as well as other professional tennis events.
He is quite the character, quoted like Yogi Berra and Will Rogers, certainly with his own personal twist of Romanian flair, wit and wisdom, which most of the time is very amusing.
If you run into someone eating a champagne glass, catching an easy ball out of the air on match point and stating, “That shot was so pitiful I cannot take it”, or heard saying, “Better your mother cry than my mother cry”, with intimidating looks and no smiles, you just might be in the presence of the one-and-only Ion Tiriac, the richest professional athlete to date.
Chris Howard is a local USPTA Tennis Professional with over 40 years in the racquet and fitness industry. He can be reached at 928-642-6775 or email@example.com.