Remembering Vitas... 20 Years On
Today, on the 20th anniversary of his passing, the tennis world pays tribute to Vitas Gerulaitis.
Vitas Gerulaitis made everyone smile. Blond-haired, athletic and flamboyant, he walked about with a confident swagger and had a spark that could instantly energise any locker room.
Mary Carillo, who was 12 when she first met 15-year-old Gerulaitis and his sister, Ruta, a former pro, at the Port Washington Tennis Academy in New York, recalls her first meeting. “I was in proper awe of him. He was striking to look at — great clothes and carrying more racquets than any kid I’ve ever seen before. He had a mane of blond hair trailing behind him, and was friendly even though he was in a constant state of motion.”
John Lloyd remembers, “I think I first played him aged 17, alongside Billy Martin and Pat Dupre, in Torquay. Even then he was charismatic and he stood out. [A few years] later, I remember watching [the British comedy series] Fawlty Towers with him and he commented, ‘This is crap. You want to watch this?’ It was typical of him. He had a great sense of humour.”
Carillo fondly remembers partnering Gerulaitis against Ruta and her partner in a mixed doubles club-level final at the West Side Tennis Club, the former venue of the US Championships. “Once there, Ruta's partner took a dive for a volley and scraped himself up pretty badly, to which Vitas handed him a towel and said, ‘Hell, John — we're only playing for an ice bucket.’ My proud parents still have that ice bucket.”
To this day, the tennis world is quick to recall his quip after beating Jimmy Connors in the semi-finals of the January 1980 Masters. Although Gerulaitis had won their first meeting indoors at New York in 1972, Connors had gone on to claim their next 16 matches. At the press conference, a reporter asked Gerulaitis how he had finally managed to beat Connors after losing 16 in a row. Gerulaitis grinned and said, "And let that be a lesson to you all. Nobody beats Vitas Gerulaitis 17 times in a row." Veteran tennis writer Steve Flink, who was present, remembers, “The room erupted with laughter. He said it genially and everyone got a big kick out of it.”
Dashing and daring, Gerulaitis was born in Brooklyn, New York, to Lithuanian immigrants. He was the sport’s ultimate jetsetter in the late 1970s, adored by a legion of female fans, who screamed, “Take me home!” after his matches. He was also an intense competitor to his closest rivals, Connors, Guillermo Vilas, Bjorn Borg and John McEnroe, who became good friends. During a golden era for men’s tennis, he rose to a career-high No. 3 and was ranked inside the Top 10 for seven straight years until 1983.
“I first met him in 1972, as players, in the Orange Bowl final in Miami,” recalls Borg, who won 7-6, 6-2, 6-1. “That was our first contact. After we played the five-set 1977 Wimbledon semi-final, Vitas and one of his friends visited me at The Cumberland Club [in north London] the next day, where I trained between matches. He could easily have left to fly home, but, incredibly, he told me, ‘Whenever you want to practise, I am ready.’ I was stunned that a player would do such a thing. From that moment on, we always practised together.”
Back at home, Gerulaitis was ‘Mr New York’. As a freshman at Columbia University, prior to turning pro one year later in 1971, he had owned a yellow Datsun 240-Z sports car. Later, in his native New York, he would leave his Long Island home for a night out in a yellow Rolls Royce with the personalized number plate 'VITAS'. His non-stop reverie, whether it was dinner at the Playboy Club, drinks at Daisy, or discos like Annabel’s in London or Studio 54 in New York with his many friends, included artist Andy Warhol, his ‘fraternal twin’, Borg, and McEnroe. He earned the nickname, 'Broadway Vitas'. Every New Yorker knew him… and loved him.
Borg adds, “Vitas was of my best friends in tennis. We helped and made one another better players, and developed a great friendship. We connected and had so much fun. He was a funny guy. I rarely saw him in a bad mood. He had so much positive energy.” Billie Jean King reveals, “In New York, we frequently practised at his place on Long Island and away from the court, he was the first one to take me dancing at Studio 54. It was never a dull moment when Vitas was around.”
Gerulaitis' tennis did not appear to suffer. He won the 1977 Australian Open (d. J. Lloyd) and two Internazionali BNL d'Italia crowns, among 25 singles trophies. John Lloyd, recalling their joint career-high at Kooyong, says, “During the 1977 Australian Open, we practised and went out together during the week — it would never happen now. On the morning of the final we had breakfast together and I remember being worried about practising again. So I asked, ‘Should we practise together?’ He responded by saying, ‘What can I f****** learn about your game? And what more can you learn about my game? Of course, we’ll practise together!’ Gerulaitis won in five sets. He also finished runner-up at 1979 US Open (l. to McEnroe) and at 1980 Roland Garros (l. to Borg).
Looking back at Gerulaitis’ hedonistic days, Fred Stolle, his coach of four years, says, “Whatever he got up to the night before, he always trained hard the next day. He was easy to coach and I didn’t change his technique much. We worked out on his court at his home. He travelled hard and played hard. He liked the high life, but never drank.
“He liked me to check the Michelin Guide when we were in Europe for the best restaurants. If he kept winning we would go to the same restaurant. He was very superstitious. He used Johnson’s gauze tape. His Mum used to buy it by the case load for his racquet grips. Every changeover, he changed his grip. I don’t know how he did it. I remember his Mum saying, ‘I wish we had stocks in Johnson’s.’”
Gerulaitis’ game was built on speed. Carillo, who remains good friends with his sister, Ruta, to this day, says, “He was very, very quick around the court and had a terrific nose for the net. He was agile and charismatic on the court, and had the same gifts off the court.” Johan Kriek, who was given a “tennis lesson” by Vitas in the 1978 US Open quarter-finals, insists, “Whenever you played him, you needed to be on top of your game. He had a lot of flare, and was an all-round great player and mover.”
Borg, who, like McEnroe, knew Gerulaitis better than anybody, says, “His movement and speed around the court was his greatest strength and he had such an eye for the game. He was one of the best volleyers – forehand and backhand – and was always aggressive.” Stolle adds, “His slice backhand was great too, especially if he came up against players who could attack the net.”
But Gerulaitis also had a weakness. “We used to spend 90 minutes hitting second serves,” remembers Stolle. “He was fine until things got tight in a match and then he would revert back to his old motion, as muscle memory kicked in. He hit a lot of double faults.” Stolle still shakes his head at what happened in a match against Ivan Lendl at the 1981 Masters [now named Barclays ATP World Tour Finals] at Madison Square Garden. “Lendl was serving at 5-6 in the third set tie-break, down two sets to love. Having missed a first serve, Vitas took a step forward and played a backhand return. He looked to be chip-charging en route to the net, forcing Lendl to pass him on match point. But Vitas took two steps forward, and then four backwards. Lendl would clinch the tie-break 8-6 and go on to win in five sets.”
Off the court, Gerulaitis was generous to a fault. He cared, supplying tennis racquets to thousands of New York City children, taking the time to catch up with a player he may not have seen for a while or by picking up a dinner cheque. Carillo often joined Vitas, Ruta and McEnroe at concerts and dinners in New York City. “We gave a bunch of tennis exhibitions while we were still juniors,” says Carillo. “I also got to help with the Vitas Gerulaitis Youth Fund [established in 1979], the first of its kind.
“Vitas wanted to bring tennis to underserved New York City kids and took a band of us all over the five boroughs every summer, handing out racquets and giving clinics for hours on end. Vitas got every big tennis star in the world to give their time, from Arthur Ashe to Bjorn Borg, Chris Evert and McEnroe, Ilie Nastase and Jimmy Connors — everyone wanted to help Vitas and try to keep up with his great heart. It was the very best part of him. Who else would lose his only championship match at the US Open (1979 to McEnroe) and then go to the winner’s party later that night?”
Billie Jean King remembers, “When I think of Vitas, I always remember he was the first person — at least the first one I recall — to give free racquets to children. We have carried his tradition on at World TeamTennis and for several years each of the racquets we gave to children carried his name on the racquet. It was a small way to honour a man that was such a great player, lover of tennis and a really good friend.”
Just two weeks before his death, Gerulaitis was compassionate to a new champion, Pete Sampras. After the American had lost to Jaime Yzaga over five sets in the 1994 US Open fourth round, Sampras recalls, “I had got to know him when I lived in Tampa, Florida, as we used to play golf together. I went into the Open a little out of shape. After the match I was pretty down. Leaving the stadium for a private room, Vitas came by. He unlaced my shoes, put a dry shirt on me, packed up my racquets and told me he understood just how bad I was feeling. He was always thinking of others. He was always upbeat.”
Gerulaitis had retired as a player in 1985, after a 14-year-old pro career, and had taken to perfecting his golf swing. At the behest of his tennis friends, including Connors and McEnroe, he returned to the sport in 1993 on the newly formed Seniors Tour and picked up work as a television analyst with ESPN and CBS Sports. Lloyd says, “He knew exactly what questions to ask the players. He would have been the equivalent of McEnroe as a commentator today — one of the main guys.” His childhood friend and CBS colleague, Carillo says, “Vitas was genuine, relaxed and funny — the real deal.”
In his final match, at the Seattle Centre Arena, that started at shortly after 10 p.m. local time on 14 September 1994, Connors and Gerulaitis paired up to beat Borg and Lloyd 6-4, 7-6. Lloyd recalls, “That [Wednesday] evening in Seattle, on the Seniors Circuit, every joke and every one-liner he made, hit! He was at the peak of his comedic and charismatic level. We played in front of a crowd of 3,000. Sometimes, jokes you make strike and sometimes they don’t work. He completely stole the show. Mid-match, he injured his back and afterwards left to return to New York.”
Three days later he passed away. After a short lay-over, Gerulaitis had taken part in a charity clinic at the Racquet Club of East Hampton, where he demonstrated his volleying skills to 60 corporate sponsors. He left the clinic promising to attend a party that night, but never reappeared. Staying in the pool house of a friend in Southampton, NY, Gerulaitis ordered a sandwich and watched golf on television. At 3 p.m. the next day, 17 September, a housekeeper found his body. An inquest found that he had died of accidental carbon monoxide poisoning from a faulty propane heater, which had seeped into the heating and air conditioning system. He was 40 years old.
“When I heard he had died, it was unbelievably bad news,” says Borg. “When I heard, I started to cry – every player did. To lose such a friend, a positive guy is sad. It is still tough for me to talk about him today. I miss him so much.” Lloyd, like Borg and Connors, was still in Seattle. “I was preparing for the doubles final when I heard the news. I could not believe it. I had to find Bjorn, who was eating a meal in the restaurant and I was the one who told him that Vitas had died. Jimmy was out with his family.”
Sampras remembers being on Davis Cup duty in Sweden. “We were preparing and I walked into the team room to be told Vitas had died. I remember that week we wore ‘V’ patches on our clothes.” Carillo says, “I was last with Vitas for CBS' coverage of the US Open, shortly before he died. It's still very hard to know that he's gone. There were few people I've ever met who were so damn alive.”
“He was like another son,” says Stolle. “It was such a shock when he died. I went to the funeral. He had a pink golf club and ball with him in his coffin.” His great rivals and friends, Borg, Connors and McEnroe were pallbearers. Connors finished his eulogy, in front of 500 mourners, by saying, “He was my friend and I loved him, and I’m going to miss him.” Carillo said, "His legacy is laughter. We all have to tell each other stories about him. We have to keep him alive."
The legacy of the 'Lithuanian Lion' endures, 20 years on.