Tennis Prose



Vitas Gerulaitis Portrait of a Champion book is finished!

Thirty years ago at US Open player lounge I walked by Vitas Gerulaitis, sitting on a coach by himself, in the player’s lounge. A perfect opportunity to do a Biofile interview with the Grand Slam champion. For some reason I declined to approach him, probably something to do with his off court image of hard partying. Boy, do I regret that silly righteousness.

Vitas was much more than a party animal an a world class tennis player, he was adored by just about the entire pro tennis community for his friendly nature, company, extraordinary generosity, charisma and kindness. One person kept pushing me to do a book on Vitas, so I became intrigued by his persistence and did it. The book is finished after over a year of work and it turned out to be a wonderfully edifying experience to learn about such a unique champion.

Jimmy Connors: Vitas added a new dimension to the Tour.

John McEnroe: I adored him like crazy.

Pete Sampras: I think we would have been friends forever.

John Lloyd: No one has contributed more than him to make tennis the coolest sport of its generation.

Bjorn Borg: If he doesn’t get in the Hall of Fame, I’m ready to drop out.

Johan Kriek:  In 1978 I arrived in the US to play the Satellite in Florida which was called The Watch circuit in February 1978. And I thought I was just going to play that for six weeks and go back to Austria and become a citizen, play Davis Cup for them. That was kind of my plan because my coach from South Africa emigrated so I lived with him for three years in Austria.

Anyway, by August 1978, a short few months later, I was top 200 in the world, qualified for US Open for the first time as a 20 year old and then I played with Vitas Gerulaitis in the quarterfinal. Never seen anybody play faster than me or run faster than I was… he spanked me (62 61 62). I played for the first time on center court (Louis Armstrong Stadium). So that was a big chance for me, never was in the big picture before. I won a couple of close matches before I played Gerulaitis (76 63 76 vs. Brian Teacher in fourth round, 62 67 63 vs. Rick Fagel in second round). 

In 1979 a year later, I never went back to Austria, by the way, I met my first wife, got married and lived in Naples, FL. And then I played Gerulaitis again. And then when I played him the second time in 1979, I got a stadium ticket and sat as close to the bottom of it to get a better sense and feel of the size of the stadium. Because I was completely out of sync when I first played him in 1978. No wonder these guys playing earlier on the center court are the ones most used to it. If you play on a smaller court, suddenly your vision is completely changed. It’s a different thing. Well, I was serving for the third set to go up two sets to one. I lost to Gerulaitis in four sets. I couldn’t believe it.

So then I played him again. I had to play him in Milan, Italy in 1980. And I said to myself the night before, ‘If I lose to him again, I am going to lose it.’ Because he’s very fast and he and I were… he was 4 in the world, I was about top 20. And I beat him badly in Milan I think (64 76), it could have been somewhere else. 

I ended up playing him a lot of times (11 total). I beat him in the final of Monterrey, Mexico 1981 76 36 76 indoor carpet. Won the tournament. I had a great relationship with Vitas. The sad part of our relationship was that the weekend before he died in New York at his friend’s house because of a leaky pump or something – it pumped carbon monoxide into his swimming villa. Borg and I had played him and we beat him and his partner in the semifinal of the tournament in Seattle for the Champions Tour. And that night he took a red eye back and was in New York on the Sunday morning and then went to his friend’s house on the Hamptons. Then he unfortunately took a nap and then never woke up. So that was my claim to fame with Vitas, very interesting story.

Fantastic gentleman. I had a lot of fun playing with him. It was always hilarious. One time I played him and Wojtek Fibak was playing Connors in Philadelphia. And they were in the (round of 16). And the two courts were next to each other. Well, Vitas and I were running so wide for drop shots and angles that we were running into their court and disrupting their game and Connors got so pissed he sat down and said, ‘I’m not playing anymore.’ So Wojtek and Connors waited a half an hour watching me and Vitas play. I think I may have lost that match (64 26 57). I had so many great matches with Vitas. Some I won, some he won. But an absolute gentleman. So that’s my story. 

You can get your copy at this link

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