IT'S VENI, VIDI, VICI FOR VITAS

Hail Vitas Gerulaitis, winner in Rome, semifinalist at Wimbledon, who some say will rule at Forest Hills. Et tu?
August 14, 1977

It is 3 a.m. but Manhattan still glitters for Vitas Gerulaitis. Gerulaitis has made his way to West 54th Street—at the moment lined with double-parked limousines whose bored chauffeurs sprawl against gleaming fenders or stand in small groups outside the current In discotheque. Studio 54 is a "members only" refuge for the arbiters of fashion and the brokers of power, and it is left to the doorman to pick out those eligible for entry.

Gerulaitis is not a member, but he is quickly ushered in by owner Steve Rubell, who recognizes him for who he is—the world's ninth-ranked male tennis player and a young man at ease in elegant surroundings. As the people on the sidewalk watch Gerulaitis enter, they show no sign of resentment, suggesting they agree with Groucho Marx, who once said he never wanted to join a club that would have him as a member.

Inside, pulsating music makes small hairs stand up and the body tingle—also, ears ache. Gerulaitis, whose curly blond hair tumbles below his shoulders, is dressed in smooth velvet pants and a designer's idea of an army fatigue shirt, with a long, white silk scarf draped around his neck and knotted at the chest. Above him, banks of lights flicker wildly, as do cones of bulbs reaching from floor to ceiling. Every so often a new backdrop descends—a pyramid, a mountain, a moonscape. Each dazzling image is greeted with applause by the roiling crowd. When simulated snow begins to fall, a roar goes up. In the midst of the spectacle is Gerulaitis, smiling, laughing, reveling in it all. It is 2 a.m. on a Sunday in May. The previous afternoon Gerulaitis had been in Dallas and tomorrow he will fly to Rome, where he will win the Italian Open. But tonight he will dance.

The music never stops playing for Vitas Gerulaitis, a man who reads menus in a dozen languages and whose partying knows no 200-mile limit. This year he will earn close to half a million dollars playing tennis and will spend every penny of it. "If a rainy day comes, I don't have an umbrella," he admits. He does, however, have a $250,000 home on Long Island with a tennis court, a sauna and a swimming pool in the shape of a tennis racket. He buys his clothes in Paris and Rio, owns $165,000 worth of automobiles and is angling for a modeling contract. Last winter he dated Chris Evert discreetly, and friends like actress Jennifer O'Neill find him wry and engaging. Andy Warhol is doing his portrait. "I just want always to be invited to the parties," he says. Gerulaitis is 23 years old.

Right now Jimmy Connors is the best tennis player in the U.S. Brian Gottfried, Dick Stockton or Eddie Dibbs might be next best. So might Gerulaitis. In the past few months he has beaten Ilie Nastase, Manuel Orantes, Adriano Panatta, Harold Solomon and Jan Kodes. He won the Ocean City, Md. indoor tournament, and with Panatta as his partner, was second in the World Championship Tennis doubles tournament. He played Bjorn Borg in the semifinals at Wimbledon, losing in an epic five-set struggle that even people with long memories say may well have been the best in Wimbledon history. That match elevated Gerulaitis to new heights and it seemed somehow fitting that his opponent was Borg, whom he closely resembles. Once they merely looked alike; now Vitas is beginning to play tennis at Bjorn's level, too. Gerulaitis is hot and on his way up, but then he always has been able to accomplish almost anything he wanted. Five years ago he was only the sixth-ranked junior player in the U.S. But he is named after Vytautas, a 15th-century Lithuanian king, and the let balls always seem to fall right for him.

Gerulaitis is sprawled on a disheveled motel-room bed in Dallas. He is there for the annual eight-man WCT championships, having finished second in four of his last five WCT tournaments. He is on the phone telling a friend how this girl he knows had wanted to see him the night before. He had begged off by saying he was not feeling well, whereupon she went to a party where press people flocked around her because the side of her dress was slit to the waist and, well, this morning everyone is calling Gerulaitis and asking the same question—because he is ill, will he withdraw from the tournament? "Can you believe it?" Gerulaitis shouts into the phone, laughing.

"You have to meet this guy," he says after hanging up. "He owns a disco and knows every girl in town. But don't play him backgammon. He's a hustler." Vitas has a scouting report on everybody.

Later, in the motel lobby, he stops and talks to a friend about a $10,000 fine that the WCT slapped on him for skipping a tournament in Monte Carlo. "I just want an explanation from them," he says with a so-what grin. "I know I'm not going to get the money back. But I'd like a $10,000 explanation."

Then he climbs into a Cadillac courtesy car with his name on the side. A local newspaper reporter is with him, exploring rumors that Gerulaitis is a bit of a ladies' man on the circuit. Gerulaitis scoffs at the very idea, assuring his questioner that on the road he spends all his time hanging out in motel lobbies playing electronic video games.

"What about girls?" the reporter persists.

"Everybody thinks there are a lot of girls around tennis players," says Gerulaitis. "It's not true. At least they're not hanging around me. I wish they were." But Gerulaitis can only carry this so far. He also tells the writer that he likes Dallas because it has, yes, pretty girls. Tomorrow, after the story appears, there will be a lot of intriguing messages waiting for him back at the motel.

At practice that day, Gerulaitis hits with Nastase, who is peevish because of a heavy attack of jet lag. Though they seem to be an unlikely pair—Gerulaitis' jauntiness vs. Nastase's arrogance—the two are good friends. A few months before, they were sitting in a posh dining room at Cerromar Beach in Puerto Rico when Nastase offered to take off his trousers if Gerulaitis could down a tumbler full of tequila. Reveler though he is, Gerulaitis happens to be a non-drinker and he gagged on the tequila, tears streaming down his face. But he finished the drink. Nastase removed his trousers while his wife Dominique screamed in protest.

As they practice, Gerulaitis goes out of his way to humor Nastase, hitting to his strengths and calling shots in that might have been out. It is a source of some puzzlement to Nastase that, although he leads both Connors and Borg in career matches, he has never beaten Gerulaitis in five tries. Whatever the explanation for this, Vitas is only too happy to play the fool in practice. The fact is that Gerulaitis works at his tennis, practicing up to six hours a day, or until his leg muscles turn to pudding.

Gerulaitis was diligent even as a youngster. Born in Brooklyn and raised in Queens, he played his earliest tennis on teeming public courts. His father, Vitas Sr., fled Lithuania and the Russians in 1944 and five years later emigrated to the U.S. Young Vitas remembers working on the grounds crew at the tony West Side Tennis Club in Forest Hills and resenting the well-born members who spent their days at the lesson courts and sipped lemonade on the patio.

"He was hungrier than the others," says Hy Zausner, owner of the Port Washington Tennis Academy where Gerulaitis later trained under Harry Hopman. "What he thought to be handicaps," says Hopman, "turned out to be assets." Hopman drilled his pupil with his celebrated zeal, forcing the boy to run after every ball, and the more the tutor asked, the more the panting Gerulaitis ran. At 16 he played in a match against the Columbia tennis team. As Hopman remembers it, the college boys swaggered onto the court against the Port Washington juniors, conjuring up visions for Gerulaitis of those privileged souls at Forest Hills. Gerulaitis beat the top-ranked Columbia player 6-0, 6-0. On days like that, Gerulaitis seemed like a caged animal suddenly set free, for he was not simply playing tennis; he was journeying from Kansas to the Land of Oz.

The young Gerulaitis could be brash, at times even impudent. As a junior in 1972, he was on an American team that accompanied Hopman to Australia for a tournament. There he engaged in histrionics worthy of his pal Nastase, pushing opponent Billy Martin in one match, storming petulantly off the court in another and counting 10 over a player who slid underneath the net while trying vainly for a shot. Once, as a youngster, he found himself on the same court with Ken Rosewall, warming up the old pro before a match. During one rally, he could not resist the urge to hit a winner past the Australian when the opportunity presented itself. A moment later, a Rosewall shot knocked the racket out of Gerulaitis' hand. Each player gained the other's respect that day.

Gerulaitis, the old Columbia baiter, wound up attending that school himself for a few months in 1971. After that cameo appearance he turned professional, and in 1974, his first full season on the circuit, he won $70,000, bought a $25,000 Lamborghini sports car and was signed by entrepreneur Bill Riordan, who called him the successor to Jimmy Connors. The next year he teamed with Sandy Mayer to win the doubles title at Wimbledon. He also was named the circuit's "most improved player" by Tennis Magazine, and moved up to fourth in the U.S. ratings. Suddenly, at cocktail parties, admirers started to gather around him.

The advent of World Team Tennis hastened Gerulaitis' maturation. Joining the Pittsburgh Triangles gave him a steady income, and his flair for theatrics was nicely suited to WTT, which encourages crowds to be demonstrative. His fan club called itself Vitas' G-Men. On his 21st birthday, he used the public-address system at a match to invite the crowd of 10,858 to a party at a nearby hotel. Hundreds came. In Pittsburgh he also renewed his acquaintance with Rosewall, who had become the team's player-coach. Rosewall worked with the youngster and tidied up some of his flaws. Today Gerulaitis has a two-year, $250,000 contract with the WTT Indiana Loves.

For all his bravado off the court, Gerulaitis' playing style is far from audacious. At times his strokes seem defensive, but there are reasons for this. Vitas is quick enough—"like a mosquito," says his father—to play a waiting game, running down his opponents' shots until, exasperated, they commit fatal errors. Once his backhand was ineffectual but he has improved it, and now his only shortcoming is his serve, especially his second delivery. He has all the ingredients, everyone agrees, to reach the top.

Vitas Gerulaitis has come a long way. This he demonstrates with his haste to pick up checks, with his insistence on the best tables at the best restaurants, on the best cars and clothes and girls. He is now a member of the West Side Tennis Club, and when the U.S. Open is held there next month, he would like nothing better than to win the championship, toss the trophy into the backseat of one of his Rolls-Royces and drive off with a "ta-ta" to the adoring multitudes.

Yet there is a puzzling aspect to all this. Fans in Indianapolis, for example, are confused by Gerulaitis' occasional lackluster performances for the Loves and his relatively lowly ranking of eighth in WTT's singles standings. The team's owner, Bill Bereman, explains, "People can't understand how Vitas can win the Italian Open and play such a superb match as he did against Borg at Wimbledon and then not win at World Team Tennis. They don't think he takes it seriously enough."

That seems a strange accusation to level at a player who sometimes practices six hours a day, but there may be some truth to it. Motivating himself for Wimbledon or Forest Hills is no problem, but the nagging question is whether Gerulaitis cares enough to be No. 1 day in and day out.

"I don't think I'd be any different if I were No. 1," Gerulaitis said at dinner one evening in Dallas. "My father raised me to share. Sometimes people take advantage of me, but I'm happy. I'd like to be No. 1—at least I think I would. I mean is it better to win three million or one million? To have four houses or two? Six cars or four?"

Earlier that evening Gerulaitis had won an opening-round match over Wojtek Fibak 1-6, 3-6, 6-0, 6-2, 6-3. It was close to midnight and an injured ankle was aching, but while Connors and the rest of the players were already back at the hotel, he ate pasta in the company of Texans with names like Billy Bob, pretty girls with sunken cheeks and Richard Weisman, a financier from New York who said things like, "I was at a 21 table with Lance Rentzel and Craig Morton in Las Vegas and I turned to this girl and said, 'Would you like to go to Russia tomorrow?' And then on the way home we stopped in Paris and the last time I saw her she was shopping in Gucci...."

Weisman was trying to set up a "Beauty and the Beast" mixed doubles match in which Nastase and Farrah Fawcett-Majors would play Gerulaitis and Jennifer O'Neill. Vitas' date for the evening was a model from Houston who, for one reason or another, seemed to tire of this conversation. When Weisman suggested that Vitas would have sufficient incentive to win the WCT tournament if the prize were a Rolls-Royce, she asked, a trifle sarcastically, "Oh, you like Rolls-Royces?"

"I have two of them," Vitas replied, neglecting to mention the Mercedes 450SL and the Porsche 914 he keeps around for rainy days.

Also on hand in Dallas was Vitas' 62-year-old father. The two have a lively relationship, one that Vitas compares to Sanford and Son—bickering endlessly yet lovingly. The elder Gerulaitis won the championship of Lithuania in 1938 and then took the Balkan championship in a grueling match that was played under a searing midday sun. Afterward, in the locker room, he collapsed with heat stroke. Someone asked what his prize was. "I won the title," he replied. Of his son he says, "If Vitas will listen to what I tell him about his strokes, no one will touch him. He is the fastest player on tennis court there is. He has the talent, but he doesn't put hard enough work in his life." Counters Vitas, "His philosophy is that if I spent 100 more hours on the court than Connors, I would be the better player, which is not necessarily true. It's talent and no one knows if he has the talent to be No. 1. All you can do is try. It's no use arguing with him. I can't argue with him. That's why he doesn't travel with me more—because we get into violent discussions. It's just father and son. Even if I know that he is right. I still argue with him."

Gerulaitis has not forgotten his roots. "Vitas is not selfish or bigger than his shoes," says Hy Zausner. His mother, his father and his sister Ruta, who is also his teammate on the Indiana Loves, live with him in his new house on Long Island, and when he is in town he stops by Port Washington to rally with teen-agers at the academy. Recently he worked out briefly at Hopman's new tennis complex at the Bardmoor Country Club in Largo, Fla., and his old mentor cheerfully noted that Gerulaitis still outworked all the other students.

Hampered by his injured ankle, Gerulaitis was beaten in the semifinals of the Dallas tournament by Dick Stockton 6-7, 6-3, 7-6, 3-6, 3-6. Now it was hours later, getting on toward 3:30 a.m., and Vitas was zooming down an expressway at 90 mph when he noticed a police car, cherry light flashing, in his rearview mirror. He pulled over. The agitated patrolman said that not only was Gerulaitis speeding, but he also did not have his lights on and had made an illegal turn onto an entrance ramp. Amazingly, Vitas was let off with a warning. Weisman was in the car and he told Gerulaitis as they pulled away, "If that cop had been calling the lines tonight, you would have won."

In the motel parking lot, Vitas was greeted by a couple of girls who told him he had "the best legs in tennis." They also told him, "The party is in room 916." It was now after 4 a.m. and Gerulaitis was to meet Dibbs in a match for third place at 1 p.m. that same day. So he went to the party. As he strolled in, conversation stopped and all heads turned toward him. A pretty blonde deserted her companion and moved to Vitas' side. She soon had an arm draped languidly around his shoulder and her face upturned toward his. With an impish air, Gerulaitis began telling her about the incident with the highway patrolman. "...my lights off...a wrong turn...he let me go." "Oh, Vitas," she purred. "You're so wonderful." In the background, the music was playing.

PHOTOHis memorable match with Borg at Wimbledon proved Gerulaitis is crowding the world's best. PHOTOGerulaitis, whose tennis game will net him nearly half a million this year, poses with his four-wheeled trophies: a brace of Rolls-Royces flanking a Mercedes.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)