The undeniable legacy of Vitas Gerulaitis
Vitas Gerulaitis was one of those people who appeared to live twice as fast as most of us. To take in all he meant to so many, to hear others describe his kindly soul, to ponder his crushing early death at 40; all of that made working on Tennis Channel’s documentary about him one of the most rewarding projects of my life.
My job as researcher-story editor on documentaries is to start by creating a lengthy timeline of events in the subject’s life—notable encounters, key influences, big wins, tough defeats and so on. I also spoke with many of Vitas’ mates in order to fine-tune questions and topics for the in-person interviews our producers would conduct.
With a great many tennis icons, the preliminary hunting and gathering process focuses extensively on grand triumphs, as it should give the incredible resumes of such subjects as Martina Navratilova or Rod Laver (other documentaries I’ve worked on). However much there is struggle, the tale of a titan also tilts north towards redemptive, massive victory.
It was very different with Vitas. No question, he’d soaked up many great moments inside the lines. Gerulaitis won the Australian Open, a pair of Italian Opens (at a time when the tournament was even more of a big deal than it is now), reached the final at Roland Garros and the US Open, played on a Davis Cup-winning team, beaten just about every player of his time. During Gerulaitis’s best years in the late ‘70s, only three all-time greats—Bjorn Borg, Jimmy Connors, John McEnroe—were better.
Gerulaitis’s game was fueled by the kind of moxie you’d expect from someone raised in New York City. Certainly, Gerulaitis was fast, adept at quick, dart-like moves all over the court. But his was not merely a sprinter’s speed. This was a style based on first-rate awareness, a hyper-alert, opportunistic quality that made him a superb net-rusher. In he would come, again and again, be it a steady stream of serve-and-volley, the chip-charge return, a mid-rally carved approach shot.
Talking with Gerulaitis’s opponents, I would repeatedly hear them speak of how they felt smothered versus him. No single shot was physically imposing, he was also hindered by a fairly meager second serve and a backhand he mostly sliced. But that hardly mattered to this keenly street-smart player. In the days when net-rushing was a high percentage tactic, he was a master, fitness perhaps his most underrated asset. One great example came in the final of the 1979 Italian Open. On the rugged clay of Rome, he took on Guillermo Vilas, the highly physical left-hander who is in large part a stylistic ancestor to Rafael Nadal. Over the course of five hours, Gerulaitis won, 6-7 (4), 7-6 (0), 6-7 (5), 6-4, 6-2. Amazingly, with the match deadlocked at two-all in the fifth, he snapped up the next four games.
This was a man who could burn the candle at both ends. Nights were for friends, parties and encounters at such high-visibility spots as Manhattan’s Studio 54, Gerulaitis front and center alongside celebrities Andy Warhol and Bianca Jagger. Daylight was for tennis, when he trained with all the zeal he had learned at Port Washington Tennis Academy from the iconic Australian former Davis Cup captain, Harry Hopman. There would be a couple of practice sets with a mate in the morning, followed by a best-of-five match with Borg in the afternoon.
But it wasn’t simply his tennis, nor his fame, that defined the Gerulaitis legacy. Trey Waltke, a close friend, peer and rival, put it quite simply. “Borg, Connors and McEnroe taught us all how to be better tennis players,” said Waltke. “But Vitas taught us how to be better humans.”
He did this with his spirit, a Pied Piper-like capacity for inclusion, generosity and empathy. Over the course of my research, tale after tale emerged of Gerulaitis’s concern for others, be it donating thousands of racquets to at-risk children, to treating numerous friends and newly met acquaintances for meals, to greeting just about anyone he met with a sharp smile. A zealot for music, he would shop for records with a large cart, picking up multiple copies of albums he would send to various friends and family members. In the summer of 1975, on his 21st birthday, playing a World Team Tennis match in Pittsburgh, Gerulaitis invited the entire crowd to join him and celebrate at his nearby hotel. In an era when the game grew bigger and players increasingly began to distance themselves from fans and even from one another, Gerulaitis insisted on bringing in as many as possible behind the velvet rope.
There also were demons. As Connors said in the documentary, “You want to remember only the good. But it’s better to remember everything.” Substance abuse problems plagued Gerulaitis in his 30s. In time, he got clean and sober and began to build a career as a TV commentator—a field where his natural gift of gab made him perfect for the microphone and camera. Having turned his life around by 40, he appeared set for a superb second act.
But death came so suddenly and randomly—accidental carbon monoxide poisoning. It was the result of a pool mechanic’s failure to install a plastic exhaust pipe that cost $1.44, sending a massive shock wave throughout the tennis community. A New York Times photo from the Gerulaitis funeral shows McEnroe and Connors—as bitter rivals as tennis has ever seen—hugging one another. To which anyone who knew the deceased would say: Only Vitas. –tennis.com