25 years later: Remembering the Lithuanian Lion, Vitas Gerulaitis

25 years later: Remembering the Lithuanian Lion, Vitas Gerulaitis

Vitas Gerulaitis was a fine player who had the misfortune, in terms of 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, played in a rock band, partied at Studio 54 in New York, befriended artists like Andy Warhol and owned fancy cars. He also did cocaine, was treated for addiction and named in a federal grand jury investigation for drug-dealing, later cleared of any wrongdoing.

Gerulaitis’ lifestyle could not have been a greater contrast to the hardships his parents endured after their families joined thousands to flee when the Russians entered Lithuania in 1939.

“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,” Vitas’ aunt Grazina said in 2010. “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. 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 Jr. and his younger sister, Ruta. Vitas Sr. had won the Lithuanian tennis championship, and from an early age Ruta and Vitas Jr. would spend every weekend hitting balls with him on public courts at Forest Park in Queens.

“I remember we spoke no English on our first day in kindergarten,” Ruta said. “Our parents were learning English also. My brother and I went to Saturday Lithuanian school in Brooklyn for eight years. We danced the Lithuanian traditional dances at the World’s Fair in New York. We were very involved in the Lithuanian community.”


25 years later: Remembering the Lithuanian Lion, Vitas Gerulaitis

25 years later: Remembering the Lithuanian Lion, Vitas Gerulaitis

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Brother and sister both played tennis professionally. Ruta reached the quarterfinals of the French Open and the fourth round at Wimbledon, while her brother became one of the best players of his generation.

Vitas won 26 ATP 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 John Lloyd in Melbourne in the same year for his only major singles title 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, Vitas ended a run of 16 consecutive defeats against Connors. Asked how he had finally managed to overcome his nemesis, Gerulaitis famously replied: “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 presence, Gerulaitis was the center of attention wherever he went.

Lloyd, a good friend of Gerulaitis’, was playing tennis with Vitas the day before he died in a tragic accident 25 years ago at the age of 40.

“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 said. “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 had his credit card out before anybody. Someone told me one year, he had the third highest American Express bill for an individual in the world.

“I went with him to Studio 54 a couple times. There were queues for miles outside, but he would just walk straight in because everybody knew him.”


25 years later: Remembering the Lithuanian Lion, Vitas Gerulaitis

25 years later: Remembering the Lithuanian Lion, Vitas Gerulaitis

McEnroe and Gerulaitis, with Aerosmith lead singer Steven Tyler, during a benefit concert for the Special Olympics in July 1983. “He was a funny guy,” Borg told the ATP website in 2014. “I rarely saw him in a bad mood. He had so much positive energy.” (AP)

Lloyd was aware of Gerulaitis’ drug 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 punish himself by training hard for a month, practicing 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. During tournaments he would never drink. When he was playing he wouldn’t do the other stuff either. His idea of partying would be to go out with girls.”

Gerulaitis celebrated his 21st birthday by inviting all the fans at a tennis match to join him at a hotel pajama party. When he expressed disappointment that not many had turned up, his friend Mary Carillo led him to a window. Hundreds of fans wearing pajamas were standing outside in the car park.

Borg became one of Gerulaitis’ best friends. McEnroe, five years younger than Gerulaitis, recalled going out on the town with the two 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.”


25 years later: Remembering the Lithuanian Lion, Vitas Gerulaitis

25 years later: Remembering the Lithuanian Lion, Vitas Gerulaitis

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.

“He was very family-oriented and understood the sacrifices our parents made,” 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. He thought it was great we all still lived in the home that he was able to buy.”

Aunt Grazina saw less of Vitas as his fame grew, though she recalled one particular visit to the family home.

“He was practicing there with McEnroe and Borg,” she said. “I cooked them a turkey. The skin was lovely and brown. I remember McEnroe picking it all off to eat. I wanted to hit him.”

Visiting Lithuania was difficult under Soviet rule, but Vitas Sr. returned three times in the 1980s. The trips were organized by Vincas Korkutis, a Lithuanian tennis umpire.

“He was to meet coaches and give lessons to young players,” Korkutis said. “We had to follow a strict agenda. It was the only way for him to see his homeland. The KGB would call every night to check up.”

Vitas Sr. suffered a fatal heart attack in 1991. His son died three years later, just as he had began playing again on the senior circuit and was making a name as a broadcaster.

“He really made great strides in getting himself together after some very difficult years for all of us,” Ruta said.


25 years later: Remembering the Lithuanian Lion, Vitas Gerulaitis

25 years later: Remembering the Lithuanian Lion, Vitas Gerulaitis

In 1979, the Gerulaitis Foundation Youth Clinic brought tennis to all five boroughs of New York City, Vitas’ adopted home in the United States. “He was agile and charismatic on the court, and had the same gifts off the court,” Carillo told the ATP website in 2014. (AP)

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 said. “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.”

Gerulaitis agreed to help out at a charity tennis event the following day.

“My mom, who always doted on him, made breakfast,” said Ruta. “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. He never came out. As he slept, he was poisoned by carbon monoxide leaking from a faulty swimming pool heater.

Aunt Grazina recalled: “The police telephoned my sister. She was by herself and they 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 by telephone, shortly before he was due to play another match with Borg and Connors.

“Borg was having dinner. I grabbed him and told him that Vitas had died,” said Lloyd. “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 Vitas’ death accelerated their mother’s decline and eventual death from Alzheimer’s. She 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 favorite photos of him displayed at home. Many are just him playing golf and laughing a lot.”


25 years later: Remembering the Lithuanian Lion, Vitas Gerulaitis

25 years later: Remembering the Lithuanian Lion, Vitas Gerulaitis