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On scorching New Year's Eve, Vitas Gerulaitis closes out 1977 in Grand Slam style
The charismatic American captured his lone major title on the last day of the year at the Australian Open.
Published Dec 31, 2021
WATCH: Signature Series—Vitas Gerulaitis
As the last day of 1977 began, 23-year-old Vitas Gerulaitis was eager to close out the finest tennis year of his life with an exclamation point.
Twelve months earlier, Vitas Gerulaitis was ranked No. 18 in the world. Gerulaitis at that stage of his career was one of several promising young Americans. His game was built around speed, an effervescent brand of street-smart, net-rushing moxie that propelled itself straight from the streets, subways, sights and sounds of his hometown, New York City. This was a man in constant motion.
Throughout 1977, Gerulaitis’ years of hard work began to pay off in a big way. In May, Gerulaitis won the Italian Open in Rome, a clay-court tournament then considered of near-major significance. Along the way, he knocked off two recent Roland Garros champions, Jan Kodes and popular native son, Adriano Panatta. That a net-rusher could win such a prominent title on the dirt revealed much about Gerulaitis’ exceptional prowess.
At Wimbledon, Gerulaitis reached his first Grand Slam singles semifinal. Versus the man who would become his closest friend, Bjorn Borg, Gerulaitis played one of the greatest matches of his career, losing an instant classic, 8-6 in the fifth set.
Seemingly living at twice the speed of his peers, Gerulaitis was known for burning the candle at both ends. All through his breakout ’77, “Broadway Vitas” was frequently spotted at New York City’s new hot spot, Studio 54. There, Gerulaitis was tennis’ emissary to pop culture, front and center amid such notables of this glitter-saturated decade as model Cheryl Tiegs, artist Andy Warhol, and rock star David Bowie.
[Gerulaitis'] game was built around speed, an effervescent brand of street-smart, net-rushing moxie that propelled itself straight from the streets, subways, sights and sounds of his hometown, New York City. This was a man in constant motion.
But by day, he was a dogged worker. Gerulaitis’ training ground through his formative years was Port Washington Tennis Academy, where his mentor had been longstanding Australian Davis Cup captain, Harry Hopman. Hopman strongly emphasized fitness—hour after hour of rigorous two-on-one drills and practice sets. Gerulaitis took to all of this with zeal.
Starting in October ‘77, perhaps as a tribute to Hopman and the Australian tennis legacy, Gerulaitis committed himself to playing five tournaments Down Under, culminating with the Australian Open—an event that from 1977 to ’85 marked the end of the tennis year.
Gerulaitis lit Australia on fire. He won titles in Brisbane and Perth and reached the semis at a pair of tournaments in Sydney. True to his gung-ho spirit, in November, smack in the middle of his Australian swing, Gerulaitis headed back to the U.S. to compete at an event in Las Vegas.
Ranked fifth in the world by mid-December, Gerulaitis was seeded first at the Australian Open. In those years, the tournament’s field was rarely comprised of top ten players. But it remained a major, and Gerulaitis was eager to claim it.
Gerulaitis in those days was exceptionally close to Great Britain’s number one player, John Lloyd. Over the course of the Australian Open, the two practiced together daily and enjoyed their share of evening adventures at Melbourne’s many clubs and restaurants.
One day, there came a massive rainstorm. Lloyd assumed there would be no tennis. Gerulaitis differed, demanding Lloyd join him at a remote facility (as good as Gerulaitis was at finding fun, he was equally proficient at locating tennis courts). His message to Lloyd was simple. No one else is playing today, said Gerulaitis. But if we practice, we’ll be that much sharper than everyone else. This was quintessential New York City: find the edge that gives you an advantage. Amid moisture and slick conditions, the two climbed a fence to get inside the court and had their practice session.
The prophecy proved accurate. Gerulaitis reached the finals with the loss of but one set. The unseeded Lloyd upset two-time Aussie champion John Newcombe and also advanced to the finals. All tournament long, they continued to practice together.
Custom in tennis holds that when two players are about to compete versus one another, they do not hit with each other the day of the match. Aware of this, Lloyd asked Gerulaitis if they should break their tournament-long ritual. With more than a trace of profanity, Gerulaitis countered: Look, we know each other’s games inside and out. Is either of us really going to show the other something different if we hit before the match? Come on, mate, let’s warm up.
Gerulaitis’ remarkable ability to balance camaraderie and competition was also deeply in the Australian tradition, back to the days when such greats as Roy Emerson and Fred Stolle had roomed together and warmed each other up the morning of the Wimbledon singles final.
So it was that on December 31, 1977, Gerulaitis and Lloyd played a compelling match. As anticipated, the favored Gerulaitis won the first two sets, 6-3, 7-6. But then, Gerulaitis began to cramp. “I could see the pain Vitas was experiencing,” wrote Newcombe in his account of the match. “Cramp on an Australian summer’s day with the court temperature around 105 degrees is not pleasant.” Gerulaitis’ physical struggles might have been a result of schedule back-ups, the quarterfinals, semis and finals being played over the course of three straight days.
Though initially put off-balance by seeing his rival and friend so hindered, Lloyd began to time the ball brilliantly and won the next two sets, 7-5, 6-2.
But in the fifth, Gerulaitis summoned up one last charge, taking the decider 6-2. “It was one of the gutsiest performances I have ever seen,” wrote Newcombe. “Today was my lucky day and the good Lord looked down on me,” said Gerulaitis. “The pain was dreadful and I remember looking up toward the sky in the fourth set and saying to myself I couldn’t win without some sort of help. My muscles were popping out because of the cramp, which spread right through my body, but I wasn’t about to give up in such an important final.”
Exclamation point accomplished.