VITAS GERULAITIS was one of the most entertaining tennis players of the 1970s and 1980s. Appealingly confident and charismatic, he was popular with crowds and colleagues because he brought so much flair and imagination with him to his stage on the courts. He could often be cantankerous and vulgar with officials, exploding with rage and expletives, revealing his darker side in the harsh glare of the public spotlight. But he was an engaging personality: bright and frequently buoyant, energetic and enterprising.
At the time of his death at the age of 40, Gerulaitis seemed to be quite comfortable with his life and with himself. Having retired from the men's professional tour nearly a decade ago, he had become in the last five years one of the most prolific television commentators on tennis, working for a variety of American networks. He had seemed to be finding his voice in that role, spreading his enthusiasm naturally across the airwaves.
In turn, the New Yorker had been working hard to assert himself as a viable competitor on the senior tours. He particularly wanted to make his presence known on Jimmy Connors's Champions circuit for leading 35- and-over players. As he said over the summer, 'I have to catch up with some of the other guys because I didn't pick up a racket for four or five years. But it is an incentive for me to do well because I love entertaining and love being able to strut my stuff. To do that, I have to be in good shape.'
It was this propensity for playing to the crowds and being an attractive performer that made Gerulaitis so prominent in his prime at the major championships. He won the Australian Open singles title in 1977, took a pair of Italian Open championships, in 1977 and 1980, reached the US Open final in 1979, and made it to the French Open final the following year. At one time or another he beat those with bigger names and wider accomplishments, scoring significant victories over Connors, John McEnroe, Arthur Ashe, Ilie Nastase and Ivan Lendl. The only great player of his era that he did not overcome at least once was Bjorn Borg, his friend and frequent practice partner. And yet Gerulaitis gave a singularly glowing account of himself in an epic five-set semi-final loss to the Swede at Wimbledon in 1977.
With both players in good form in this classic confrontation, which began in brilliant afternoon sunshine and concluded just before darkness, the outcome hung in the balance until the last instant. Gerulaitis was always battling admirably from behind, and then briefly forged in front in the middle of a dazzling final set. He built a 3-2 fifth set lead, had a game point for 4-2 which might have swung the match permanently in his direction, but he failed to go to the net behind his second serve and the chance was lost. Borg prevailed 6-4, 3-6, 6-3, 3-6, 8-6, but Gerulaitis was so good in defeat that few could regard his excellent performance as anything less than a triumph.
Gerulaitis was a graceful stylist on court. His flat first serve was a superior and decidedly underrated weapon, delivered smoothly and efficiently. He was very vulnerable on his second serve and he could not come over his backhand to produce the topspin he needed for passing shots. But he will be recognised above all else for his extraordinary agility all over the court and for his ability to volley with unwavering consistency off both sides all through his career. He carried himself with pride and panache, competed honourably, and probably squeezed all he could out of his talent. Between 1975 and 1984, he was ranked in the American top 10 eight times, rising to No 2 in 1978. Six times he was ranked in the world's top 10, including a stretch at No 3 in 1979. Furthermore, he was victorious in 11 of 14 Davis Cup matches for the United States.
But, despite his many accomplishments, Gerulaitis struggled during his productive playing days and beyond with an alleged substance abuse problem. He was rumoured in the tennis community to be a severe victim of cocaine, and it was believed by some authorities that taking that dangerous drug for prolonged periods had shortened his run as a top- flight competitor. The issue of alleged drug use had caused Gerulaitis much consternation through the years. In the early 1980s, a story in a New York newspaper predicted that Gerulaitis would be indicted on drug-related charges within days, although that never actually happened.
The tragedy for Gerulaitis is that it appeared he had turned the corner. There were rumours that he had entered a drug rehabilitation programme a few years ago and friends felt since that time that he was in better physical and psychological shape than he had been for a long while. Whether or not his death at such a young age was related in large or small measure to the possible use of drugs will remain the source of speculation for some time to come.
Admirers of Gerulaitis will prefer to remember his astute sense of humour, and will recall how he used laughter to conceal his pain on many occasions. When he faced Connors in Madison Square Garden, New York, in 1980, he had been beaten by his friendly adversary no fewer than 16 times in a row. But now, after eight consecutive years of agonising losses to a great rival, Gerulaitis finally overcame his nemesis. Asked to explain how and why he had finally won against Connors, Gerulaitis broke into a wide grin and answered, 'Because nobody beats Vitas Gerulaitis 17 times in a row]'
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