Making It on Broadway

Saturday, August 27, 2011 /by

Vitas 81 open NEW YORK—Did you happen to know that Bjorn Borg and John McEnroe were rivals once upon a time? You may have heard something about it this year. I wrote a book about it, Matt Cronin wrote a book about it, HBO did a documentary on it, and there’s even been a strange advertising campaign for underwear centering on the two old-timers—can we look for the same thing from Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal in 30 years?

Anyway, my version of the Borg-Mac story, "High Strung," is really the story of the 1981 U.S. Open, and the cast of characters, led by Superbrat and Ice Borg, from that tournament and that era. It was a turning point in the sport’s history, and not just because it was the last Grand Slam that Borg would play. The game itself was changing, and that transformation—from wood racquets to graphite, from the net to the baseline—was summed up in the epic, five-set, fourth-round match on the Grandstand that year between an old-schooler, Vitas Gerulaitis, and the leader of the new school, Ivan Lendl. Two chapters of "High Strung" are devoted to their clash and the personalities behind it. Here’s a condensed version. Hopefully, if you’re on the east coast somewhere, it will be good for a hurricane-ravaged day before this U.S. Open kicks off.

*****

Over the course of his 10-year career, Vitas Gerulaitis has been compared to, among others, Joe Namath, Elvis Presley, and, most often, his good friend and tormentor Bjorn Borg. After his first match at the 1981 U.S. Open, though, Gerulaitis sounded more like one his fellow Brooklyn natives, Vinny Barbarino, the Sweathog played by John Travolta in the hit TV series of the day, Welcome Back, Kotter.

In the obscure outer reaches of the National Tennis Center, Gerulaitis walked off a jam-packed Court 16 after beating Terry Moor in five sets. He was met by his father, Vitas Sr., a tennis instructor who had first put a racquet in his son’s hand, and who had been the first head pro at Flushing Meadows. Senior gave Junior a congratulatory kiss on the cheek. The son thought it was a bit much.

“Jeez, Dad, now it’s a big deal when I win one round, huh?” the younger Gerulaitis said with mock annoyance. “Don’t have a coronary over one match.”

But Gerulaitis was as happy and relieved as his father. “This is the kind of match I’ve been losing,” he admitted.

Up to that point, 1981 had been a lost season for Gerulaitis. For half a decade he had been a fixture near the top of the rankings and a regular semifinalist and occasional finalist at the Grand Slams (he even won a star-depleted Australian Open in 1977). One year earlier, Gerulaitis was the 5th seed at Flushing. Now he had plummeted to No. 15. He came in to the tournament, according to the New York Times, as an “afterthought.” In the less charitable words of the Daily News, he was “a guy who didn’t belong with the contenders or even the pretenders.”

Like his colleagues Ilie Nastase and Bjorn Borg, Gerulaitis had spent much of the 1970s playing and living hard. As a new decade dawned, the candle that he had burned at both ends had begun to burn back. Part of this was the inevitable aging process. At 27, Gerulaitis discovered that he couldn’t maintain his legendary, round the clock, Broadway Vitas pace and still expect to hold it together on the court.

“I took a month off and didn’t practice,” Gerulaitis said as the Open began. “In the past, I was able to take a week off, play around, party, and get by. This time I found out I couldn’t. I guess I just lost my interest in tennis this past year.”

A few defeats early in the season had shaken Gerulaitis’ confidence, and a trip through the European clay-court circuit had been a disaster. “I wasn’t in the best shape and it showed,” he said. “I lost a couple of matches and said, ‘Ahhh, no big deal, I’ll come back.’ I lost a few more and I heard people say, ‘He can’t run anymore.’ Then I got the self-pitying trip. You know, ‘poor Vitas this, poos Vitas that.’”

By the time he got to Germany during that tour, the self-pity had to infect Gerulaitis, though he could still play it for a laugh. Before leaving for Europe, he contacted Robert Lansdorp, a California coach who had mentored Tracy Austin, and asked him to help him with his training. “We went to Germany to play the Hamburg Open,” Lansdorp recalled, “and he was playing this little Spaniard who I thought was a ball boy. Vitas cramped. He finally lost in a tiebreaker and they had to bring out a stretcher to carry him off. As he’s being wheeled by me he looks up and says, ‘Lansdorp, go home. I’m ruining your reputation.’”

It wasn’t just Gerulaitis’s age that had begun to show. While he remained a friend to all of them, inside he had grown weary of his role as an eternal sideshow act to Borg, McEnroe, and Connors. After turning pro in 1972, Gerulaitis had improved and risen steadily until 1977. At Wimbledon that year he reached the semifinals for the first time. But there he ran into the man who became his personal glass ceiling, Bjorn Borg. Year after year, Slam after Slam, when Gerulaitis would make a great run, the Swede would be waiting for him at the end of it. While he had stretched Borg to five memorable sets that day at Wimbledon, a pattern had been set. “I sometimes wonder what would have happened if he had won that match against me,” Borg said years later. “If he had beaten me, his career might have been very different.” It was the first in what would be a life filled with what-ifs and might-have-beens.

Stalled at No. 4, Gerulaitis watched as McEnroe, his Port Washington kid brother, took what he had always desired most, a title in his hometown at the U.S. Open. Finally, in 1980, there had been a breakthrough. At the Masters in New York, Gerulaitis beat Connors for the first time, after 16 straight defeats. True to Vitas’s freewheeling, no-ego style, the win inspired him to the heights of self-deprecatory chest-puffing, while giving tennis a lasting bon mot: “Nobody beats Vitas Gerulaitis 17 times in a row," he said.

Nobody, that is, except Bjorn Borg. Coming into the 1981 Open, Gerulaitis’s record against his friend was a mortifying 0-20. (Today it’s officially listed as 0-16 by the men’s tour; maybe Vitas hadn’t been joking after the Connors match.) Gerulaitis once said that he began every match with Borg with a dozen new ideas about how to beat him, then watched as his nemesis blew each of them to pieces. By 1980, though, Gerulaitis couldn't be philosophical about it any longer. After beating Connors in January, over the next five months he would lose to Borg four times, including a dismal 6-0, 6-2 drubbing in Monte Carlo, and an equally lopsided blowout loss in the French Open final, 6-4, 6-1, 6-2.

“I got to Connors," an agitated Gerulaitis told John Feinstein of the Washington Post in September 1981, “I got to McEnroe, but I just couldn’t get to Borg. It got frustrating. I just got tired of chasing, chasing, not getting there. I took time off because I wanted to get away from tennis for a while.”

But coming back from that break had been hard, and Lansdorp, for one, had been left to wonder how much Gerulaitis’ nightlife had begun to affect his attitude toward the game. “He lied to me,” Lansdorp said. “I would ask, ‘Do you do drugs?’ and he would say, ‘No.’ But then he would disappear on me for a whole week. I’d call the hotel but I wouldn’t see him for two days. I asked him in the beginning but I never asked again. It was my business but it wasn’t my business.”

So far 1981 had been a bust. And there were clouds on the horizon, clouds that would soon grow much darker. But Gerulaitis, who loved to play in his hometown even if it had never loved him back, would make the Open the site of his reclamation, and become the biggest surprise of the two weeks. He followed his win over Moor with two easy victories in his next two rounds. In his straight-set third-round win over the tenacious Harold Solomon, Gerulaitis said he played well enough to "have some confidence finally.”

Even so, it appeared that Vitas’s run would end in the next round, where he was scheduled to face the No. 3 player in the world and the sport’s stony new face of doom, a 21-year-old Czechoslovakian who had already been referred to by Tennis magazine as “the world’s toughest player”: Ivan Lendl. Few recognized it at the time, but their match on a jammed Grandstand court would pit tennis’s past against its future. The 1981 U.S. Open had reached its middle weekend, and the sport had reached a turning point. Was it ready to make that turn?

8-1 *****

If Vitas Gerulaitis was showing signs of early decline in 1981, Ivan Lendl had spent the year going in the other direction. At the French Open, he had beaten John McEnroe for the first time, before losing to Bjorn Borg in a five-setter in the final. With the dogged hard work for which he would become famous, he had improved his backhand immensely and, with the help of his mentor Wojtek Fibak, had begun to adapt to life in America—Lendl had defected from his native Czechoslovakia the year before. In 1981, he stayed at Fibak’s estate in Connecticut during the Open; the next year he would move into his own place in the same area. The next year he would also reach the first of eight consecutive U.S. Open finals.

At the time, the tennis world was consumed with the Borg-McEnroe rivalry. The American’s rise appeared to mark a changing of the guard in the sport, and it did, but only for a brief time. It would be Lendl, the dour, sallow, robotic, Czech with the heavy baseline game and killer forehand, who would be the sport’s real future. He would bring serious physical training to the genteel game. He would bring nutrition fads, aerobics at dawn, sawdust, and the now-obligatory racquet switch at every ball change. Lendl believed the properties of his frames altered just slightly over the course of seven games; he was mocked at first, until virtually every other top player started doing the same thing.

Most important, perhaps, Lendl helped bring the open-throated, midsize racquet to the men's pro game. He was an early adopter of the new, more explosive frames, and no player would symbolize or exploit this shift in emphasis more than Lendl. The game that he played with his sledgehammer Kneissel, which was based around a heavy serve and powerful ground strokes, is the one played today by the vast majority of pros.

This change in how the sport was approached was summed up by a conversation that Lendl had with his friend Bill Scanlon at a tournament in Tokyo at the end of 1980. Scanlon was scheduled to play Borg, whom Lendl had recently beaten for the first time. Riding from the stadium to the hotel, Scanlon asked Lendl for some advice on playing the great Swede.

“Billy,” Lendl said, “you just rally with him in the backcourt until you get a forehand you like. Then you crash it hard, crosscourt.”

Scanlon, still thinking in terms of classic tennis strategy, finished the thought. “And then I can approach the net because his backhand is vulnerable?”

Lendl paused and shot Scanlon a quizzical look: “No, he doesn’t get the forehand back!”

There was a new tactic in tennis, called power.

*****

Up to that point, the most notable moment of Lendl’s Open had come in his third-round win over Mark Vines on the Grandstand. During that match, a nearby trash compactor had exploded—these were the gritty days of NYC and Flushing Meadows—and ash and cinders had been sprayed into the arena. Lendl, ignoring the chair umpire, had wasted no time packing his bags and stalking off court—to, naturally, cries of “Choke artist!” from the beery Big Apple crowd.

Now, two days later, Lendl walked into that same Grandstand, which was filled beyond capacity for his fourth-round match with Gerulaitis. Talk had already begun about a possible semifinal match-up between McEnroe and the young Czech. Lendl had won their quarterfinal at the French Open, and many believed he would do it again here. But Gerulaitis was inspired. For the first time that he could remember, his hometown crowd was on his side.

“I kept thinking, ‘the boy is back,’” Gerulaitis said after the match. “It was the first time they were behind me. Maybe it’s because I’m ranked about 2,000 now.”

The twitchy Gerulaitis and the stone-faced Lendl couldn’t have made for a starker contrast. Over the years, Gerulaitis had become a ball of tics on court. Before every serve, he dipped his head, shook his blond locks, and peeked back over his right shoulder. “He looked like a rooster checking the henhouse for interlopers,” sportswriter Michael Mewshaw said. At this point in his career, Lendl emphasized intimidation. He wore dark clothes when he could, and his facial expression never changed even as he leveled one of his Howitzer forehands straight at an opponent’s head. While Gerulaitis used little bunny steps to sneak up to net and angle off volleys, Lendl pounded the baseline with heavy-footed strides. The difference could be heard even in the sound of their shots. Gerulaitis’s left his strings with a light ping; Lendl’s with a resounding thud.

Their match was a see-saw marathon. By the middle of it, Gerulaitis was so worked up that he fired a ball at a lineswoman, only to hit a spectator in the leg. He repeatedly harangued the umpire to “give someone else your seat, it’s the best in the house.” After losing the fourth set, 6-3, he walked to the sideline and saw his coach, Fred Stolle, stand up and lean out from the crowd. “He told me to stop bleeping around,” Gerulaitis said later. He settled down and the two players began the fifth set.

“Vitas was always a tough opponent for me,” Lendl says. “He was quick and he rushed straight up the middle of the court, so it was hard to find an angle to pass him.” That’s how most of the points in the fifth set developed, with Gerulaitis chipping and coming forward and Lendl replying with a rifled passing shot. The two remained knotted at 1-1, 2-2, 3-3.

From the vantage point of 30 years, tennis seemed to be moving in two directions in this set. Gerulaitis, a student of the great Aussies of the 50s and 60s, was going back in time, to the serve-and-volley, chip-and-charge Big Game of previous decades. Lendl the power-hitting baseliner was taking the sport forward all the way to the present day. A few months later, the two would face each other again, in the final of the 1982 Masters at Madison Square Garden. Gerulaitis, his 1981 slump well behind him, came in on a high. The same was true for the ever-improving Lendl. Gerulaitis got the better of their duel for two sets and seemed to have victory well in hand. But the tide began to turn when he was up a break and 2-0 in the third. In that game, Gerulaitis took a return of serve and rushed the net behind it. An angry Lendl took out his frustrations by drilling a forehand right into Gerulaitis’s forehead. Vitas was floored, literally, even if he wasn’t too worried for his health: “I have nothing in my head to really damage anyway,” he joked afterward. But the momentum had shifted, and Lendl would come all the way back to win. Symbolically, tennis had changed as well. In the future, the rifle-shot forehand would rule, and players would come to net at their peril.

At 3-3, 30-30 in the fifth set at the 1981 Open, Gerulaitis made the same move he would later make at the Masters. He took Lendl’s serve and followed it in. Lendl also did the same thing, slapping a forehand right at Gerulaitis. This time, though, the future was denied. Rather than taking it on the forehead, Gerulaitis deftly ducked to his left and knocked off a volley winner. “I decided at the beginning of the day that he was going to have to hit 2,000 passing shots,” he said. “He made 1,999 of them.”

Gerulaitis went on to break serve and, to the roars of the crowd, serve for the match. He walked to the back of the court and saw a familiar face. Patrick McEnroe was a 15-year-old ball boy working his older brother’s friend’s match. Gerulaitis looked at him and said, “Give me a good one, Lenny,” using Patrick's childhood nickname. He took the ball that McEnroe tossed him and won that point. A minute later he reached match point.

The two players rallied. Gerulaitis thought about coming to the net but stayed back instead. He didn’t want to give Lendl another crack at a passing shot—or a shot at his forehead. The safe play worked. A Lendl backhand caught the tape and fell backward. Gerulaitis lifted his arms and exulted. Tears came to his eyes as he put his hands to his lips and blew kisses to his 6,000 new supporters. “I love you, I love you,” he cried. The slump was over. Vitas had made it on Broadway at last.

Gerulaitis was last glimpsed on his day triumph running from reporters in the parking lot. “The boy is back!” he called out from the driver’s seat of his yellow Rolls-Royce.

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