If you came of age as a tennis player some time during the early days of the Open Era, eventually you came into contact with Vitas Gerulaitis. He was, on some level, the embodiment of tennis in the New York metropolitan area and why it was cool to play. There had been other great players to come from the East, national junior champions, All-American college players, Davis Cup players, and even Grand Slam champions, but there had never been anyone before like Vitas Gerulaitis. Even if he was quickly overtaken and surpassed as an American tennis champ of his own era by another Port Washington student and fellow New Yorker, John McEnroe, Vitas retained a special aura, which couldn’t be infringed upon. Once he burst upon the tennis scene with his distinctive game, unique look, and his hybrid persona of rock star/layman, you never forgot him.
Tennis was starting to become big in the mid-1970s, with an unusual combination of factors creating a boom in the sport. Nowhere was it more evident than in the East, where there was abundant indoor tennis facilities, major national junior tournaments, the Masters and Virginia Slims at the Garden, and the U.S. Open at Forest Hills, New York’s own Grand Slam event. In this vortex of tennis energy emerged the most dynamic and charismatic tennis player of this era, Vitas Gerulaitis. He came from New York, which of course meant that he had played Eastern junior tournaments, so when he became a regular fixture in the U.S. Open starting in 1971, it was a confirmation of tennis success for everyone. He was a guy, granted, a wickedly talented one, who’d come up through the ETA ranks to now being in the main draw of the U.S. Open. Sure, others had come before him and others would come soon afterwards, but it was Vitas who made you feel that you were part of the Open because he was one of us. Consequently, his much deserved success and inexorable rise to the highest level of pro tennis was validation for all of us.
The U.S. Open was always a distinctly more American-flavored tournament back in the nascent stages of its development, with the main draw normally being heavily weighted with more than 50 percent of American-born players. The game is much more global now, but back then, the tournament was infinitely more of an American event, with the bulk of the players having played Sectional USTA tournaments, national tournaments such as Kalamazoo, and more than likely having played college tennis as well. Even if the tournament moved from Forest Hills to Flushing Meadows, or from grass to clay to hard courts, it was still a predominantly American event, with an American, Arthur Ashe, having won the first Open to include professionals in 1968. Coincidentally, Vitas eventually played Ashe at the Open in 1974, losing in straight sets. Not surprisingly, he also played most of the other great U.S. players of that era, beating some and losing to others, eventually getting to the semis twice and the finals once. He played in the Open 15 straight years, an estimable accomplishment in and of itself, having suffered some rough early round losses along the way, but also notching some incredible wins against some of the very best players our country produced during this period.
Like his style of tennis, Vitas’ results were so much like New York in general, quick and exciting, yet erratic and confounding at times. He could beat almost anyone on any given day, but was vulnerable to the upset because of his style of play and his gusto for the life befitting a true New Yorker of his ilk. He was so different than other tennis players that it was hard not to be drawn to his matches, which, given his lifestyle, weren’t always pretty. Yet, regardless of the results, or maybe even because of them, this was the guy who made tennis relatable to many of us. His game wasn’t developed in a country club and his persona and demeanor couldn’t be corralled and boxed in by the USTA hierarchy. Vitas Gerulaitis was a straight-shooting New York original, an athlete first, a tennis player second, but absolutely a New Yorker through and through. You could envision him at a racetrack or at a nightclub, or maybe just hanging out with his buddies and playing some ball. He just happened to develop into a world-class tennis player, right there in our own backyard, right there amongst us in New York.
My remembrances of Vitas are crystallized by a couple of brief episodes where our paths intersected. While I played with him once, it certainly wasn’t in an actual match, nor would I have the temerity to think that I was in his ballpark. However, it wasn’t the first time our paths had crossed and it wouldn’t be the last. He played in the Davis Cup, representing the United States against South Africa a few years later in a match held at my alma mater, Vanderbilt University. It was during the heated Apartheid protests of 1978, when I had to cross picket lines to watch him play at Memorial Gymnasium. A younger version of him crashed at my hotel room in Miami Beach during the Orange Bowl one night when he had no money, no ride back home and no place to stay. I was only too happy to help him and another buddy out considering they were real players, whereas, I was a scrub. The only thing that I had going for me was a good heart, an extra bed, along with some oranges and bananas in the refrigerator to offer them. Within another year, he’d be playing Bjorn Borg in the finals of the Orange Bowl. I’d be playing Paul Feldman in the finals of the New Rochelle Parks & Recreation Tournament. We both lost.
He was supposed to be the poster boy to emerge out of the once illustrious Port Washington Tennis Academy, directed by the legendary Australian Davis Cup Coach, Harry Hopman. He was groomed and destined for greatness. I even remember having seen his picture in The New York Times Sports Section when, as a high school tennis champion, he was to play an exhibition doubles match along with another high school champ, partnered with the two great Panchos, Gonzales and Segura, at Madison Square Garden. Seeing your picture in the Times was heady stuff for a kid back then, but not for a guy who was on the fast track to becoming a star. Not even one year at Columbia could throw him off course from his eventual destiny with pro tennis success at the highest levels and the accompanying pitfalls of fame and fortune.
But through it all, he always played the U.S. Open, and if the New York Jets had Broadway Joe Namath, then the tennis fans of New York had Vitas Gerulaitis. He always answered the bell, so even if he had some disheartening losses that may have crushed others, he’d shake them off and live to play again. Playing in the Open must have been as potent an elixir to him as it was for the people who came out to see him play. He was a fixture and a mainstay in the draw, nearly always seeded once he had turned pro, and certainly a threat to take out anyone, but like any other flawed human hero, vulnerable to the unexpected ambush by a determined competitor on a hot, steamy late August afternoon.
The U.S. Open wasn’t the U.S. Open if Vitas wasn’t in the tournament. He may have never won the event, but his meteoric rise into the upper echelons of professional tennis is inextricably interwoven with the rise of the U.S. Open itself and its evolution into what it has become today, a mega-event. However, instead of broadcasting from up above, he was out there as a 17-year-old battling a little known Japanese guy on the patchy turf of West Side Tennis Club in 1971, going down 6-1 in the fifth. It was the first main draw match of 48 matches he’d play over the next 15 years at the Open, the last of which was a straight sets loss to Yannick Noah in the third round in 1985. His overall 33-15 singles record is still quite impressive, with an enviable .687 winning percentage. While I might not have seen many these matches, they are surely representative of quite a body of work from a special player during a pivotal transitional era in the history of modern tennis.
This was the guy who embodied what was cool about tennis, so it no longer seemed lame to be playing such a rich kid’s sport, as it was formerly known. Now it had some city roots, some blue-collar toughness and realness, and a rock ‘n’ roll vibe like never before. Rather than being shunned for being a tennis player, which wasn’t considered a real sport, now you could be proud to be called a tennis player.
This was especially true if you were a New York guy who was already a tennis player to begin with, because this guy spawned from your own ranks and was truly one of you. He didn’t descend from Mount Olympus or emanate from the privileged, aristocratic country club culture that had produced the bulk of the elite players up until then. No, this character grew up in Queens, N.Y. A rare combination of talent, hard work, a little luck, and exquisite timing created a perfect storm for our anti-hero, Vitas Gerulaitis, to arise from.
The Vitas Years were unique and special. I doubt that this kind of highly unusual confluence of events could possibly ever take place again, let alone another individual or character like him elevate to the heights that he ascended to. Yet to be of that era and to have known Vitas, even if only peripherally like myself, makes you feel that you got on the tennis bandwagon at just the right time because that’s what you needed to attach yourself to the game. It’s a long time ago now, but I’m still banging away in the tennis world as are many others, and Vitas’ legacy and glowing aura will not fade away. I wish that there was a tennis version of “The Wonder Years,” so you could see that period through the eyes of an adolescent, but with the clarity provided by the wisdom and knowledge of an older, more mature version of you doing the commentary. Little did I know in reality how lucky I was to be attempting to become a tennis player during the Vitas Years.