Say Goodbye to Volleywood

Twenty-five years ago, tennis lost Saint Vitas.

Rick Marin | Racquet and Longreads | September 2019 | 9 minutes (2,347 words)

This story is produced in partnership with Racquet magazine and appears in issue no. 11.

Twenty-five years ago, Vitas Gerulaitis was found dead in the pool house of a friend in Southampton, N.Y. Not from drugs, as many suspected after his well-publicized battles with addiction. Vitas was sober. The cause was shockingly random and banal: accidental carbon monoxide poisoning from a faulty propane heater.

He was 40 years old.

The funeral was so crowded they had to put speakers outside St. Dominic’s Church in Oyster Bay. On YouTube you can see raw AP footage of Jimmy Connors, John McEnroe, and Bjorn Borg—the three biggest stars in men’s tennis of the ’70s—carrying the casket of their perennial No. 4, Connors wrapping his arms around Borg and McEnroe in sorrow.

Mary Carillo, a friend since they were New York juniors together, was there: “John could not stand Jimmy, Jimmy did not like John, and nobody got close to Bjorn,” Carillo said. “Only Vitas would be friends with all three of them.” They were all better tennis players than he was, but it was they who worshipped him. In her eulogy she said, “Our golden sun has set.”

Governor Mario Cuomo shut down the Long Island Expressway for the funeral procession to make its way from St. Dominic’s to the cemetery. Construction workers took off their helmets in respect. Did they know it was Vitas? Maybe not, but it was a fitting tribute for a blue-collar kid from Queens who made it big in a white-collar game.

A game that lost more than a tennis player when they buried Vitas. Grace that would be replaced by power. Fame that spilled over from the sports pages onto Page Six. A sense of fun that is just…gone.

A generation after his death—when tennis champions are meticulously calibrated überathletes inhabiting a curated world of kale water, “teams,” and corporate branding—it’s impossible to conceive the swath Vitas cut through the world he so vividly inhabited.

“There were few people I’ve ever met who were so damn alive,” Carillo said. “That it’s been 25 years is a little hard to take.”

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Special thanks to June Harrison for restoring her portrait of Vitas after his semifinals defeat of Roscoe
Tanner at the 1979 US Open. (June Harrison)

In 1979, the year Vitas lost the US Open final to McEnroe, he made the cover of People as one of its “10 sexiest bachelors.” Next to a bare-chested, beefcake-y Erik Estrada, Vitas is in a white suit with a red boutonniere, leaning against the hood of his Rolls Corniche convertible. The “Lithuanian Lion,” so nicknamed for his blond mane and huge heart, was all class. Inside, the headline reads, “Mixed doubles is a way of life for Vitas Gerulaitis.”

Indeed. On his 21st birthday, he led the Pittsburgh Triangles to a World Team Tennis championship and invited the fans to his hotel room for a pajama party to celebrate. Hundreds of them, mostly female, massed in the parking lot under his window. Playboys were not unknown in tennis. Ilie Nastase used to creepily scour out the crowd for the next mark to mesmerize with his vulpine gaze. Vitas didn’t have to work that hard. After matches, women would scream, “Take me home!”

In the cosmology of New York nightlife, Broadway Joe Namath was superseded by “Broadway Vitas.” Borg was a teen idol, but he shyly followed Vitas around Studio 54, as would McEnroe a few years later. A paparazzo pic from behind the velvet rope catches Vitas with Margaret Trudeau, the wanderlust-y mother of Canada’s current prime minister. McEnroe met his first wife, the actress Tatum O’Neal, at a party in the Hollywood Hills that Vitas took him to. He wasn’t just a tennis star—he was a rock star. If Connors was Elvis, Vitas was Rod Stewart. And enough of a pop icon for Andy Warhol to shoot him for the cover of Interview.

Trey Waltke, a tour buddy, said they’d drive around Manhattan in the yellow Rolls Corniche with the top down and people would shout, “Vitas!” His love of life was infectious, even to jaded New Yorkers. The definition of a bon vivant. Connors, Borg, and McEnroe taught you how to play tennis, Waltke said, but “Vitas taught you how to live.”

* * *

Vytautas Kevin Gerulaitis (hard G, btw) was born in Brooklyn to Lithuanian immigrants Vitas Sr. and Aldona Gerulaitis—who, thank God, didn’t make him go by Kevin. He grew up in Howard Beach, Queens, and never lost the accent. As cosmopolitan as he became (insisting his coach, Fred Stolle, bring a Michelin Guide when they dined abroad), he always sounded like a New Yorker.

His father had been a Lithuanian tennis champion and spent every weekend hitting on public courts with little Vitas and his younger sister Ruta, who got as far as the quarters of the French Open and the fourth round at Wimbledon. When the Port Washington Tennis Academy, on Long Island, started to attract junior talent under Tony Palafox, then Harry Hopman, Vitas found his way there—as McEnroe would a couple of years later.

That’s where a young Mary Carillo first saw him. She was 12. He was 15, warming up for the Easter Bowl with Billy Martin and some other prospects: “You couldn’t take your eyes off him,” she said. “He was so quick and dashing, with his long, flowing blond hair. He started to work up a sweat and without stopping play, he took off his sweater. Which pulled up the Lacoste shirt under it, so the collar stayed up as he threw the sweater off to the side of the court. It was the coolest move I’d ever seen, and the whole thing was unintentional.”

Tennis was still a game of amateurs then. It wasn’t to buy a yellow Rolls or canoodle with models in VIP rooms that drove Vitas to excel. What it was for an immigrant family (Vitas spoke no English in kindergarten, only Lithuanian) was a ticket out. A way to meet the right people and get a scholarship to a good college.

He went to Columbia but, like Connors at UCLA and McEnroe at Stanford, lasted only a year. The tour beckoned. In 1975, he won the men’s doubles at Wimbledon with fellow New Yorker Sandy Mayer. In 1977, he won the Australian Open (beating John Lloyd), the same year he played what was regarded as one of the greatest Wimbledon matches—an epic semifinal against Borg. The next day, after this achingly close loss (6–4, 3–6, 6–3, 3–6, 8–6), he offered to warm up Borg for his final against Connors. Borg was stunned. Who does that?

Whatever mischief Vitas got up to the night before, the next morning it’d be three Cokes and a Bundt cake and he was out practicing.

From then on, they always practiced together. Full five-set matches. Photographer Melchior DiGiacomo, who early on got close to Vitas and his family, took a picture of them, at rest on the side of the court, two shirtless Viking gods with cans of Fresca and Nestea at their feet. No Vitamin Waters or electrolyte elixirs! Whatever mischief Vitas got up to the night before, the next morning it’d be three Cokes and a Bundt cake and he was out practicing. And in those shirtless five-setters, DiGiacomo said, “Vitas always won.”

Besties. (Mel Digiacomo)

* * *

What was it like to play him? “A smothering feeling,” said Waltke. “Nothing he did was the best. He didn’t have the greatest serve or forehand or backhand. But he recognized what was happening in the point really quickly, saw when a short ball was about to happen. He was just a quick reactor. He beat you with that. He was a very smart player. He never beat himself. He just didn’t have the one or two great shots to be the best.” Brian Teacher, who won the Australian and has a winning record over Vitas, said he had incredible balance. And consistency: “If it was on his strings, he was gonna get it back—press you into the corners and get short ball.” Teacher, a star California junior, said he was shocked by how fast Vitas went from being a good junior, not the best, into the top 10 once he hit the tour: “I was amazed at his success.”

* * *

Let that be a lesson to you all. Nobody beats Vitas Gerulaitis 17 times in a row.

In 1978, Vitas hit his career-high world No. 3 and helped the U.S. team to a Davis Cup championship. He lost again to Borg at the 1980 French Open, this time in straights. But that loss was eclipsed by the 1980 Masters in Madison Square Garden, when he beat Connors in the semis, something he hadn’t been able to do since 1972—16 matches ago. At the press conference afterward, he uttered his most famous line:

“Let that be a lesson to you all. Nobody beats Vitas Gerulaitis 17 times in a row.”

His last hurrah was a 1981 invitational in Toronto when he beat Connors in the semi and McEnroe in the final. He was in the top 10 seven straight years, but by 1985, his career had devolved to rehashing the “Battle of the Sexes” with Bobby Riggs against Martina Navratilova and Pam Shriver. It was another W for the ladies. But Vitas was chivalrous, not chauvinist. Hard to imagine Riggs taking Billie Jean King dancing at Studio 54 for her first time there.

She’s also given Vitas credit as the first one to give free racquets to underprivileged kids. Before foundations were a mandatory PR move for any player with a galactic endorsement deal, Vitas started the Gerulaitis Youth Clinics. (You can still buy the T-shirts online.) He got Mac, Bjorn (who would tape like he was playing Wimbledon), and tennis-loving celebrities like Dean Martin Jr. to schlep to the Bronx in a van full of racquets and teach kids a game that was still as white as the clothes people wore to play it. But that was Vitas. People would do anything for him, because he would do anything for them.

* * *

Vitas teaches Billie Jean King how to boogie down at Studio 54 in 1977. (Getty Images)

His generosity—he never let anyone pick up a tab—and charisma were world-class. But the quickness that fueled his high-octane serve-and-volley game was slipping. Mel DiGiacomo always positioned himself at the net. He knew when Vitas came to net exactly when he’d be in his frame to snap the shot. But by the 1985 US Open, DiGiacomo said, “he wasn’t in my frame anymore.”

Something was slowing him down, and it wasn’t just Father Time.

At “Studio 52,” as DiGiacomo calls it (he’s not really a “club” guy), Vitas would disappear into the infamous back room, where A-listers indulged in the white powder that had New York nightlife in its grip.

“Mind if I join you?” DiGiacomo asked, because he wanted to keep shooting Vitas.

It was the only time Vitas denied him access: “Not on this one, Mel.”

But when someone offered a line to Connors (whose drug of choice was tennis), Vitas shoved the guy against a wall and said, “I told you to keep that shit away from Jimmy.”

Vitas had an “addictive personality,” said Waltke, “whether it was golf, dancing, cars, practicing five hours a day….” Even music. One time, Vitas was staying with him in Los Angeles and they went to Tower Records. “He goes over to the guy who works there and says, ‘Can you follow me around with a couple of carts?’ We’re walking down the aisles and he’s pointing: ‘Give me two of these, three of those…’ He walked out with a hundred albums.”

When he retired in 1986, he found a new career as a commentator on USA. Connors, after a winner during his epic run at the 1991 US Open, turned to the camera and mugged, “How’d you like that, Vitas?”

TV was easy for Vitas, with his off-the cuff wit (never prepared, always winged it) and savvy about the game. But it wasn’t a fix, not like tennis. For that rush, he still had to look elsewhere.

In Connors’ autobiography, The Outsider, he describes finding Vitas in a filthy condo on Florida’s Turnberry Isle in 1992. Janet Gretzky, who’d once been engaged to Vitas, was calling an intervention doctor and giving Vitas an ultimatum: “Our friendship or the coke.”

He did six months in rehab and came back on Connors’ Champions Tour, along with Borg, Vilas, and other not-quite-ready-to-hang-it-up greats. When the press questioned Vitas’ fitness, he insisted on limping onto the court on crutches.

* * *

After calling out the “hangers-on” who deserted Vitas during his troubles, Jimbo has one more score to settle—with the International Tennis Hall of Fame.

He’s pissed off Vitas isn’t in it.

“Vitas had a Hall of Fame career, but apparently he didn’t have a Hall of Virtue career,” he writes. “It shouldn’t be the case that his outstanding record and major contribution to the sport have, sadly, been overshadowed by his issues off the court.”

He blames Newport’s stuffy blue-hairs. But Mary Carillo, who’s on the nominating committee, said Vitas’ name has never fallen off the ballot—it’s just never hit the 70 percent vote threshold. The new criterion is two majors. Vitas has only one, from a year when, bizarrely, there were two Australian Opens. He won the Italian Open twice, in 1977 and 1979, when it was considered “the fourth slam.” But to the purists, he’s a perennial No. 4. Like David Ferrer—a genius with the bad luck to be playing behind three super-geniuses. The best of the rest.

And yet, Michael Chang and Yannick Noah won only one major, and they’re in.

“I’m not sure it would matter that much to Vitas,” Carillo said. “He was never part of that scene—a bunch of guys in boaters. There are other Halls of Fame he belongs in.” If he gets in, she said, it’ll be for his charitable work with kids.

When they were still kids, Carillo, Vitas, and his sister Ruta were playing for a mixed doubles cup at the West Side Tennis Club. Ruta’s partner, John Holladay, dived for a volley and scraped himself up pretty bad. Vitas handed him a towel and said, “Hell, John. We’re only playing for an ice bucket.”

Okay, so if the Hall of Fame won’t induct him, how about inscribing his name on an ice bucket?

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Rick Marin wrote about novelist John O’Hara for Racquet’s California issue.