In the court of the ultimate tennis playboy
A legendary hedonist with Warhol at Studio 54, a rival to Borg on the tour – Vitas Gerulaitis lived fast and died young. As Britain's Davis Cup team head to a stadium named after him, Paul Newman talks to his family about an extraordinary life
Thursday 04 March 2010
Vitas Gerulaitis was a proud American citizen who was born and raised in the United States, lived and partied in New York and never visited his parents’ homeland of Lithuania. To this day, nevertheless, 16 years after the death of one of the most charismatic characters ever to wield a tennis racket, the Baltic nation still regards Gerulaitis as one of its own.
As Britain’s Davis Cup team will discover this weekend, Lithuania play their home ties at the Vitas Gerulaitis Memorial Tennis Centre in the capital city of Vilnius. It will be a poignant occasion for John Lloyd, Britain’s captain, who was a good friend of Gerulaitis, lost to him in his only appearance in a Grand Slam final 33 years ago and was playing tennis with the former world No 3 the day before he died in a tragic accident at the age of 40.
“Just thinking about him will bring back lots of memories,” Lloyd said. “I still miss him a lot. He was a lovely fellow.”
Gerulaitis, whose Lithuanian parents emigrated to America in 1949, was a fine player who had the misfortune - in terms of his tennis achievements - to play in a golden age dominated by Bjorn Borg, John McEnroe and Jimmy Connors.
Nobody, however, contributed more to making tennis the coolest sport in town. “Broadway Vitas”, the ultimate tennis playboy, dated actresses and models, played in a rock band, partied till the small hours at the hip Studio 54 nightclub in New York, befriended artists like Andy Warhol and owned Rolls Royces and Lamborghinis. He also took cocaine, was treated for addiction and was named in a federal grand jury investigation into drug-dealing, although he was cleared of any wrongdoing.
Gerulaitis’ lifestyle could hardly have been a greater contrast to the hardships his parents had endured after their families joined the thousands who fled when the Russians entered Lithuania in 1939. His 80-year-old aunt, Grazina, the younger sister of his mother Aldona, is the only surviving member of his parents’ generation. She lives in upstate New York and has never been back to her homeland. However, she remembers the events of 70 years ago as if they were yesterday.
“We were from a wealthy family, with a lot of property, but all we took with us was one suitcase between the five of us – my parents, me, Aldona and our brother,” she said. “We left everything behind. We thought we would go back one day, but we never did.
“Our father was Lithuania’s chief of police. He knew that he would have been killed by the Russians. As soon as we knew they were coming we left. We went to Vienna for about six months and then to Germany because of the bombing. In Germany we ran out of money to buy food, so my mother sold her jewelry on the black market in order to buy ration cards.”
Vitas’ father, who had worked for the Ministry of Education in Vilnius, fled Lithuania with his parents at about the same time. The two families ended up living on adjoining farms near Regensburg, which was how Vitas senior and Aldona met. At the end of the war they went to a displaced persons’ camp in Augsburg and married while awaiting American visas.
Gerulaitis’ parents settled in Brooklyn, New York, where they were joined by other family members. “After what we’d experienced, America was wonderful,” Grazina remembered. “We all found work and there was plenty of food.”
Vitas senior and Aldona, who were proud to become American citizens, had two children, Vitas junior and his younger sister, Ruta. Vitas senior had won the Lithuanian tennis championship and from an early age Ruta and Vitas junior would spend every weekend hitting balls with him on public courts at Forest Park in Queens.
“I remember quite well that we spoke no English on our first day in kindergarten,” Ruta recalled. “Only Lithuanian was spoken at home. Our parents were learning English also. My brother and I went to Saturday Lithuanian school in Brooklyn for eight years. That was our first language. We even danced the Lithuanian traditional dances at the World's Fair in New York. We were very involved in the Lithuanian community.”
Brother and sister both played tennis professionally. Ruta reached the quarter-finals of the French Open and the fourth round at Wimbledon, while her brother became one of the best players of his generation.
Vitas won 25 singles titles. Other players had more talent, but he was electrifyingly quick and a ferocious competitor, as well as a great entertainer. In 1977 “The Lithuanian Lion” featured in one of the greatest matches in Wimbledon history, losing to Borg in the fifth set of an epic semi-final. He reached three Grand Slam finals, beating Lloyd in Melbourne in the same year before losing to McEnroe at the US Open in 1979 and to Borg at the French Open a year later.
At Madison Square Garden in 1980 he ended a run of 16 consecutive defeats against Connors. Asked how he had finally managed to overcome his nemesis, Gerulaitis famously replied: “Because nobody beats Vitas Gerulaitis 17 times in a row.”
His off-court activities drew as much attention as his tennis. With his handsome features, flowing blond locks and magnetic personality, Gerulaitis was the centre of attention wherever he went.
Lloyd knew him from their days as junior rivals and became a firm friend. “It was interesting hanging out with him, though I didn’t have the stamina to do that for very long given what he used to get up to,” Lloyd recalled. “He was a great bloke. You never picked up a tab with Vitas. It didn’t matter if you went out with him and 10 other people he didn’t even know. He would have his credit card out before anybody. He had a very generous spirit.
“Someone told me that one year he had the third highest American Express bill for an individual in the world. He would use it to fly everywhere with ladies in private jets.
“I went with him to Studio 54 a couple of times. There were queues for miles outside, but he would just walk straight in because everybody there knew him. People would swarm around him immediately. I remember one night we stayed there until about five in the morning. Then we drove back in his Rolls Royce Corniche convertible with the top down back to his place.”
Lloyd was aware of Gerulaitis’ drugs habit. “It was social stuff,” he said. “He would party hard, but he would do it during periods when he was taking a break from the tennis circuit. He would go nuts for a couple of weeks and then he would punish himself by training hard for a month, practising eight hours a day.
“He was one of the fittest guys and it was weird really to think that he did all the other stuff. His work ethic when he wasn’t partying was beyond belief. He wouldn’t do that stuff when he was playing, though I’m not condoning what he did.
“During tournaments he would never drink. When he was playing he wouldn’t do the other stuff either. His idea of partying would basically be to go out with girls. He liked their company and he probably didn’t get that much sleep at night.”
Gerulaitis celebrated his 21st birthday by inviting all the fans at a tennis match to join him at a hotel pyjama party. When he expressed disappointment that not many had turned up, his friend Mary Carillo led him to a window. Hundreds of fans wearing pyjamas were standing outside in the car park.
Borg became one of Gerulaitis’ best friends on tour. They travelled, practised and partied together. McEnroe, who was five years younger than Gerulaitis, recalled in his autobiography going out on the town with the two men for the first time: “I marked the occasion by indulging in something I’d never tried before (never mind what) – and the next thing I knew Vitas and Bjorn were carrying me back into the hotel. I felt sick but wonderful: I had passed the initiation.”
For all his playboy lifestyle, Gerulaitis remained devoted to his family. He bought a mansion in Kings Point, Long Island, which he shared with his parents and sister. Ruta, who has never gone to Lithuania either, said: “He was very family-oriented and understood the sacrifices our parents made for him.”
Aunt Grazina saw less of Vitas as his fame grew, though she recalled one visit to the family home. “He was practising there with McEnroe and Borg,” she said. “I cooked them a turkey. The skin was lovely and brown, but I remember McEnroe picking it all off and eating it. I wanted to hit him.”
Ruta said: “I was the luckiest sister on the planet having Vitas as a brother. Even from our teenage years, he dragged me along everywhere he went, so we became very close. I always felt so loved, important and special. He was a wonderful son, too. He took my father all over the world and he thought it was great that we all still lived in the home that he was able to buy.”
Visiting Lithuania was very difficult under Soviet rule, but Vitas senior returned three times in the 1980s. The trips were organised by Vincas Korkutis, a Lithuanian tennis umpire. “He was supposed to meet tennis coaches and give lessons to young players,” Korkutis recalled. “We had to follow a strict agenda, but that was the only way for him to see his homeland. The KGB would still call every night to check up.”
Vitas senior suffered a fatal heart attack in 1991. His son died three years later, just as he had started playing again on the veterans’ circuit and was beginning to make his name as a broadcaster. “He had really made great strides in getting himself together after some lousy, very difficult years for all of us,” Ruta said.
The day before his death Gerulaitis played a doubles match with Borg, Connors and Lloyd in Seattle. “Vitas had one of those matches where every joke that he made and every shot that he hit came off,” Lloyd recalled. "After the first set, I said to Jimmy: 'The other three of us might as well not even be here. This is Vitas' room.' Jimmy said: 'Aren't they all?’
“I remember hitting a topspin lob. Vitas went to hit it and pulled a back muscle. It was because he’d hurt his back that he flew back to New York. If he hadn’t done that he would probably have stayed for a couple of days to hang around with the boys.”
On his return to New York Gerulaitis agreed to help out at a charity tennis event the following day. Ruta recalled: “My mom, who always doted on him, made him breakfast and I gave him a muscle relaxer for his back. We never saw him again.”
In the afternoon Gerulaitis went to a friend’s guesthouse to rest in preparation for a cocktail party in the evening. He never arrived. As he slept he had been poisoned by carbon monoxide leaking from a faulty swimming pool heater.
Aunt Grazina recalled: “The police telephoned my sister and said: ‘Is that Aldona Gerulaitis?’ She was by herself and they just told her that her son had died. She phoned me and told me. I said: ‘That can’t have happened. It must have been a crank call.’ But 15 minutes later they were saying on the television that Vitas had died.”
A distraught Lloyd also learned of the news in a telephone call, shortly before he was due to play another match in Seattle with Borg and Connors. “Borg was down in the restaurant having dinner. I grabbed him and told him that Vitas had died. He didn’t believe me. We went up to the hotel room and he called up Mrs Gerulaitis. She picked up the phone and was hysterical and told us it was the truth.”
Ruta thinks her brother’s death accelerated their mother’s decline and eventual death from Alzheimer's, although she also believes the disease was a blessing in disguise “because eventually she was able to forget he died or ever had a son”. Ruta, meanwhile, cherishes the memories of her brother. “I carry a pocket-size photo of him in my purse. I have my favourite photos of him displayed in my home. Many of them are just him playing golf and laughing a lot.”
Gerulaitis will be remembered this weekend, too, in Lithuania, a country he never visited but which had a special place in his heart. Korkutis, the umpire and family friend, said that Gerulaitis often talked about his parents’ home country. “He dreamed especially about the beach at Nida, one of the most beautiful places in Lithuania,” Korkutis said. “His parents apparently used to talk a lot about it with love and longing for their homeland.”
THE1977 AUSTRALIAN OPEN FINAL
Losing to Vitas Gerulaitis over five sets in a Grand Slam final was one of the great disappointments of John Lloyd’s career. However, Britain’s Davis Cup captain had one major consolation after his 6-3, 7-6, 5-7, 3-6, 6-2 defeat at the Australian Open in 1977. “If I could have chosen anyone to lose to it would have been Vitas,” he said.
The two friends spent a lot of time in each other’s company at the tournament, practising and dining together most evenings. Lloyd recalled dinner after they had won their semi-finals: “I said to Vitas: ‘Do you want to practise together tomorrow? Won’t it be a bit strange before we play each other in a Grand Slam final?’
“He just looked at me in his New York way and said: ‘Listen. Are you going to learn something new from my game tomorrow? Am I going to learn something new about you? Are you kidding? Of course we’re going to practise together tomorrow’.”
Lloyd started the final nervously but had taken the third set and was well on top when Gerulaitis started cramping. “I started thinking that I had to make him run, so I started chipping the ball and hitting it short, bringing him in and lobbing him,” Lloyd recalled.
“He was having treatment at every changeover and unfortunately for me he started getting rid of the cramp. I won the fourth set, but he played a really good game to break me right at the start of the fifth. That knocked me back a bit. I didn’t quite know whether I should keep trying to make him run or make him play.
“I screwed up really. I should have won. I had him cold but didn’t take advantage of it. It was one of those times when I wished I’d had an earpiece and a coach telling me to keep on playing my normal game and not change it.”
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