TBT, 1977: One small edge helps Vitas Gerulaitis win only major titleBy Dec 31, 2020
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TBT, 1977: One small edge helps Vitas Gerulaitis win only major title
These were the years when the Australian Open field was rather shallow, and the 23-year-old American was the top seed.
Published Dec 31, 2020
On this final day of 1977, Vitas Gerulaitis was delighted to see his prophecy had come true. That morning in Melbourne, Gerulaitis prepared to play the final of the Australian Open.
These were the years when the Australian Open field was rather shallow. The 23-year-old Gerulaitis, ranked No. 5 in the world at the time, was seeded first. Absent from the draw were several of tennis’ reigning powers, each of whom had won at least two Grand Slam singles titles by this time—Jimmy Connors, Bjorn Borg, Guillermo Vilas. The second seed and defending champion was 13th-ranked Roscoe Tanner, who lost in the second round to Chris Lewis.
Ranked 18th in the world as 1977 began, Gerulaitis that year captured five singles titles. Most notable was his run in Rome, where this street-smart New Yorker showed exceptional moxie, imposing his chip-charge attack to earn a title that at the time was considered just slightly less significant than a major. Several weeks later, at Wimbledon, Gerulaitis advanced to his first Slam semi. There, he severely tested Borg, losing, 8-6 in the fifth, in a gem of all-court artistry and mobility that remains a classic.
So now, Gerulaitis came to play the Australian Open for the first time in hopes of reaching and winning his first Grand Slam singles final. Thanks to being coached by former Australian Davis Cup captain Harry Hopman in his formative years, Gerulaitis had a strong affinity for that nation’s capacity for both hard work and, once off the clock, the earned right to enjoy oneself.
Everywhere Gerulaitis went, he was a Pied Piper—an inclusive, affable lad who would make friends with men and women of all ages and stages. Dinner for four could quickly mushroom into six, eight, 10, 20. On his 21st birthday, while playing a World Team Tennis match for the Pittsburgh Triangles, he’d invited the entire crowd to join him and celebrate. And as many a mate noted, when you were with Vitas, you never picked up a check.
His dearest friend during that time in Melbourne was another charismatic blonde, the rising British hopeful, John Lloyd. Nights were fun, but days were for work.
Never was Gerulaitis’ devotion to tennis more vivid in Melbourne than during one rainy day that led to the tournament cancelling all scheduled matches. Lloyd relaxed and pondered plans for the evening. But then he heard from Gerulaitis, demanding Lloyd join him to practice at an obscure facility where the courts were just playable enough. Lloyd thought Gerulaitis was crazy. But Gerulaitis made an even more emphatic argument: Don’t you get it? No one else is practicing. We’re going to practice, and that will give us a jump on everyone else. As the session concluded, Gerulaitis reminded Lloyd: mark my words.
As fate had it, Gerulaitis was right. He and Lloyd, practicing with one another daily, each marched through the draw to make it to the finals, the unseeded Lloyd along the way upsetting seven-time major singles winner John Newcombe.
Tennis’ unspoken tradition is that if two players are about to play one another, they warm up with someone else. That morning in Melbourne, Lloyd reminded Gerulaitis of the protocol.
Prefacing his statement with a friendly and forceful form of profanity, Gerulaitis said, “Of course we’re going to warm up with each other. Do you really think there’s anything we don’t know about each other’s game?” This too was Aussie-flavored, harkening back to the days when Roy Emerson and Fred Stolle roomed together and warmed one another up prior to playing each other in the Wimbledon singles final.
The match began as anticipated. Gerulaitis won the first two sets, 6-3, 7-6. All seemed on path for the American to earn his first major singles title and the British contender to conclude a fine run.
Then came a twist. The cornerstone of Gerulaitis’ game was his speed, an exquisite brand of alertness and opportunism that made him superb at the net. But as much as Gerulaitis could smother and cut, it was not always easy for him to crush and kill, most notably due to his lack of a big serve.
Lloyd rallied to take the third set, 7-5. Early in the fourth, Gerulaitis began to cramp. Given his superb physical fitness, this was arguably due more to nerves than fatigue. Lloyd sprinted through that set in 23 minutes, winning it 6-3 to level the match.
But in the fifth, Gerulaitis regained just enough strength, taking charge early to win it, 6-2. “I could only serve from the shoulders,” he said, “and every shot was agony. At one stage in the fourth set, I looked up to the sky and said that I needed a miracle if I was going to win this match. I guess I was just lucky.” And maybe a little extra practice that rainy day made the difference – at least in his head.