The 1979 year-end Masters befell at Madison Sq. Backyard — ‘The World’s Most Well-known Enviornment’ — in New York Metropolis. The three favourites for the event had been clear: World No. 1 Bjorn Borg, No. 2 Jimmy Connors and residential favorite John McEnroe. However what was surprising was not solely that one of many finalists got here from exterior of that trio, however that the event is probably finest remembered for a quip reasonably than a match.
“Let that be a lesson to you all. No person beats Vitas Gerulaitis 17 instances in a row!”
Gerulaitis was in-form at World No. 4, simply months faraway from reaching his first — and what could be his solely — US Open last. In that match, the ‘Lithuanian Lion’ fell in straight units towards a fellow New Yorker and shut buddy in McEnroe. So whereas Gerulaitis had confirmed his degree, navigating his method via that solid of legends appeared unlikely.
However Gerulaitis not solely obtained his revenge at MSG throughout round-robin play, incomes his first ATP Head2Head victory towards the lefty McEnroe; he overcame the chances once more in his subsequent match the next day.
Gerulaitis raised his degree even increased towards Connors, snapping a 16-match shedding streak towards his fellow American with a formidable 7-5, 6-2 victory to succeed in the championship match. On his second match level, Gerulaitis staved off Connors’ assaults on his backhand, finally crushing a one-handed backhand passing shot down the road, which Connors couldn’t deal with. Vitas pumped each fists in a muted celebration rapidly shouting, “Yeah!”
Nevertheless, it was his quip to the media that shall be remembered eternally. It wasn’t in regards to the quantity ‘17’, nor was it about Connors. It was Gerulaitis’ method of utilizing his sense of humour to remind the world that not solely was he extra than simply an entertainer on and off the court docket, however he was a competitor who was unafraid of competing towards the perfect on the planet. That quote continues to be referenced 4 many years later, not solely in tennis, however all through the sports activities world.
A reporter who was within the room for Gerulaitis’ comment on 12 January 1980 was Steve Flink, who was inducted into the Worldwide Tennis Corridor of Fame in 2017.
“I didn’t assume he was being severe in any respect. He was all the time self-deprecating. That’s not to say that Vitas didn’t understand how good he was; he had loads of confidence. However he knew that line would make everybody within the room erupt into laughter, and that’s precisely what occurred,” Flink mentioned. “He additionally knew how nice Connors and Borg each had been and he recognised that they had been higher than he was. However, Vitas believed in himself and was pleased with beating Jimmy in New York Metropolis.”
Gerulaitis beat Connors of their first-ever assembly — which additionally got here indoors in New York, in 1972 — on the Clear Air Traditional. And although he misplaced their subsequent 16 clashes, beating Connors once more was not a shocker of monumental proportions, albeit an upset.
Jose Higueras was one of many eight males competing in that version of the year-end Masters, held in the course of the chilly month of January, 1980. And though he had loads of expertise with lengthy shedding streaks himself, dropping his last last 11 matches towards Borg, he was not shocked by Gerulaitis’ victory.
“It wasn’t a shock to me simply due to the kind of competitor he was. His well-known quote, ‘No person beats Vitas Gerulaitis 17 instances in a row’, it’s an amazing quote and it type of tells you his mindset,” Higueras mentioned. “You may beat him, however he wasn’t going to go on the court docket and be beat. You would need to beat him 17 instances in a row or 25 instances in a row. So the truth that he beat these guys, clearly he wasn’t the favorite, nevertheless it wasn’t actually an enormous shock as a result of he was a giant competitor and he all the time confirmed up.”
Patrick McEnroe was solely a teen on the time, and he recollects going to MSG through the years to heat up his brother, John, forward of matches. Gerulaitis was a mentor to the youthful McEnroe.
“I type of keep in mind when it occurred and it was simply an off the cuff, witty type of factor. He was very humble, Vitas. He was clearly an amazing participant, however he additionally knew that he wasn’t as nice as Connors, Borg or my brother, who had been three of the best gamers ever,” mentioned Patrick McEnroe. “He had that self-deprecating type about himself. If you in contrast him to everybody else on the planet, 99.eight per cent of the remainder of the folks, he was wonderful. He was an all-time participant so far as a High 5 participant, however that was his manner. That was actually the best way he was.”
Paradoxically sufficient, Gerulaitis did lose 17 matches in a row towards a single participant, an in depth buddy in Borg, who defeated him a day after his Connors triumph 6-2, 6-2.
“Even with Borg, who was his finest buddy, he couldn’t beat Borg… And even with John, he knew John was only a higher participant, extra gifted, however Vitas appeared to be content material with the place he was,” McEnroe mentioned. “It wasn’t like he was jealous. I’m certain there was part of him that thought, ‘I want I had John’s contact, I want I had Borg’s relentless competitiveness.’ Vitas had what he had, which was fairly rattling good when you think about what he did together with his profession.”
There are many tales of Gerulaitis being like a star off the court docket, on many events main gamers who loved much more success than he did to nightclubs equivalent to Studio 54 in Manhattan. He definitely didn’t shrink back from consideration, using in a yellow Rolls Royce with the personalised license plate ‘VITAS’. However that was not the Gerulaitis who confirmed as much as work day by day, all the time among the many first to the apply courts and one of many final to go away.
“Vitas clearly favored to reside it up a bit bit however he was additionally a man who was a really arduous employee and intensely match. In a method his life-style with the flowery vehicles and going to the evening golf equipment [wasn’t like his tennis]. The way in which he performed was extra about bringing your arduous hat to the court docket,” McEnroe mentioned. “He was only a grinder, he wasn’t a flashy participant. However he was tremendously constant and tremendously fast and really, very match. Actually, for those who have a look at the best way he lived his life, he was type of a partier, and liked to have a good time, so you’d assume he would have been extra of a danger taker in the best way he performed. However he actually wasn’t.”
Gerulaitis’ father, Vitas Sr., was the primary head skilled at what’s as we speak the USTA Billie Jean King Nationwide Tennis Heart, the house of the US Open. So it’s no shock that Vitas was raised to squeeze the perfect tennis he might out of his abilities.
“He labored his butt off to get actually good. He wasn’t a pure expertise in the identical method my brother was with the racquet,” McEnroe mentioned. “I feel he needed to actually faculty himself and drive himself together with his strokes to get actually stable. It wasn’t like he was a flashy participant. I wouldn’t name him a man with nice fingers like an [Ilie] Nastase or John. He was a workhorse and that’s how he grew to become a High 5 participant.”
Forty-three years in the past, Gerulaitis received his lone Grand Slam singles championship on the Australian Open. Based on his opponent from that 1977 last, John Lloyd, they not solely had breakfast collectively that morning, however warmed up collectively, too.
“I keep in mind worrying about practising once more,” Lloyd recalled. “So I requested, ‘Ought to we practise collectively?’ He responded by saying, ‘What can I f****** find out about your recreation? And what extra are you able to find out about my recreation? In fact, we’ll practise collectively!’”
That’s simply who Gerulaitis was. As profitable as he was on the court docket and iconic as he was off of it, Vitas at the start was recognized amongst his friends as a superb individual. Patrick McEnroe would practise with Gerulaitis on the San Francisco Tennis Membership in California when Vitas was “form of retired”, and so they’d have lunch on the membership.
“The invoice could be $20 for the 2 of us and he would all the time depart $100 for the waiter. That was simply the best way Vitas was. He was one of the crucial beneficiant folks and really beneficiant with me,” McEnroe mentioned. “I feel I performed him one time in a type of pre-US Open exhibitions after I was most likely nonetheless a young person and he beat the crap out of me, however then he mainly spent one other half hour after the match telling me what I wanted to work on to get higher. I all the time regarded as much as Vitas. He was a particular individual individually.
“He was all the time optimistic. He wasn’t a man who was going to criticise you in a unfavorable method. He was simply a particularly optimistic man, very optimistic. He wasn’t saying, ‘It is advisable to do that or that’, he simply did it in a method that was very encouraging and really optimistic. He clearly had his demons,” McEnroe added. “However when he was on the tennis court docket, I by no means noticed that. I all the time noticed somebody who was only a optimistic man and actually liked life and was an amazing buddy. He was somebody you could possibly depend on to be in your nook. We miss him. He was a man who was going to proceed to provide so much to the game.”
Gerulaitis not solely misplaced 16 matches in a row towards Connors, however all 17 of his conferences towards Borg, it wasn’t for lack of effort, and there was by no means any jealousy. Vitas continued to work to earn moments like his victories towards Connors and McEnroe at MSG.
“He beat them on the proper time on the proper place. He beat them in New York. What an amazing place for him,” Higueras mentioned. “He was a New Yorker, folks liked him there. I’m certain he fed from the group, I’m certain the group fed from him and it reveals his degree of competing that he confirmed as much as the max.”
Many followers as we speak might keep in mind his well-known quote, nevertheless it’s his work ethic and mindset that helped him win a Grand Slam, seize 26 tour-level titles and ascend as excessive as No. three within the FedEx ATP Rankings. Vitas was greater than the phrases he spoke that day.
“His character and life-style overshadowed his greatness as a participant. Little question about that. He was a natty dresser who liked dwelling within the jet-set. However that was solely part of who he was. He additionally was a high of the road skilled who labored very arduous at his craft and competed with a number of integrity. However he simply occurred to return alongside in a golden period of the game. He was haunted by not solely Connors and Borg but in addition by McEnroe. These three superstars had been the tempo setters of their period,” Flink mentioned. “However the wonderful thing about Gerulaitis was his sense of humility and perspective. He fought arduous towards these guys on the court docket however was a superb buddy of each away from the sector. He appeared to have the ability to separate friendship from enterprise. He by no means held grudges towards these guys. Vitas was very near McEnroe as nicely. McEnroe and Connors had been all the time at odds with one another. But what they most had in frequent was their real respect for Gerulaitis.”
No matter his sphere, as a competitor, commentator and mentor, Gerulaitis commanded common respect. Sadly, on 17 September 1994, he handed away. Staying in a visitor home in Southampton, NY, Gerulaitis died of unintentional carbon monoxide poisoning from a defective propane heater, which had seeped into the heating and air-con system. He was 40 years previous.