Vitas Gerulaitis - A Tribute by Chris Lewis
On the tour, he was universally liked. Flamboyant, charismatic, witty and incredibly generous, Vitas Gerulaitis was always great company, with a tremendous sense of life. With Vitas, there never was a dull moment.
Whether it was watching his favorite sports teams, heading out to Studio 54 in his Rolls Royce or practicing for the US Open at his Long Island home, Vitas enjoyed himself. He lived life as if every second counted. And he was popular because wherever he went, he was always in good humor. People loved being around him, and he them.
For example, even though he wasn’t exactly an embodiment of the values represented by that golden era of Australian tennis, when Australia ruled the tennis world, he was well liked by the Australian greats. For instance, he got on tremendously well with Fred Stolle, and I know that Tony Roche also thought highly of Vitas, and you only had to look at who attended his funeral to see how highly regarded he was by his contemporaries.
As far as his playing goes, he was no 800lb gorilla, his game had no 'heft', it was a game built purely around speed and reflexes -- lightning quick foot speed and even faster cat-like reflexes. He was also an extremely quick thinker and decision maker, making full use of a limited arsenal to exploit any of his opponents’ weaknesses.
He was also a guy who wasn’t scared to take the initiative by coming in behind a relatively weak second serve, backing himself - and his speed - to worry the guy into making a return error. You need a special sort of courage to do that.
His was a game that said "pass me or lob me fifty times in the next two hours and the match is yours." Bjorn could do it, Jimmy could do it, Ivan could do it, John could do it, but there weren’t too many others who could do it often enough to beat him consistently.
To quote internationally respected tennis journalist, Peter Bodo, Vitas was a player who fitted into the "One thing I'm confident about, though, is that it's pretty easy to overlook the value of speed and quickness. Give me a player with world class speed (and I'm talking track-and-field world class), consistent groundstrokes, and a strong mind and - bingo! - he's Top 5 for sure" category.
In Vitas' case, it wasn't that he relied on consistent groundstrokes & his speed around the baseline to win matches, even though he did this well when he couldn't get in, he relied on consistent volleys and his speed around the net.
I think another factor in Vitas' on-court success was his larger than life off-court status; he was a true celebrity in Tennis’ rock 'n' roll era. Didn't matter where he was, walking down the streets of Manhattan, dining in a fashionable restaurant in London or stepping on to the Concorde in Paris, Vitas turned heads. He was the guy who hung out with guys like Mick Jagger, & dated Vogue Cover supermodels like Janet Jones.
Like Bjorn Borg, Vitas brought fans through the gate. Crowds wanted him to win.
Most of the time, the guys he played just didn’t have nearly the same status, nor the same star quality. A born showman, Vitas nearly always established a very positive rapport with the spectators. He engaged them. They wanted to see him play the next day, not the other poor sap. He was exciting to watch.
Is this a factor in a tennis match? -- i.e.; the psychological factor involved when playing a BIG name? You bet -- unless you’re one of those anti-hero types who likes to spoil the script by ruining the ending. Didn’t happen that often, though. Just against the very best.
Like the sixteen times in a row he was beaten by Jimmy, & upon finally beating him for the first time, Vitas’ immortal words to the press were "Nobody beats Vitas Gerulaitis seventeen times in a row." Classic Vitas!
Vitas Gerulaitis (without shirt) with Harry Hopman (center)
I mentioned in my earlier post that I practised extensively with Vitas. Just a word about that. On the practice court, Vitas was all business. His work ethic (he was a Harry Hopman protégé) was flawless. He was easily one of the Tour’s most hard-working, conscientious players on the practice court.
Tireless, even after a very late night, or nights.
As with everything he did, he loved to play. He was one of the few guys who actually enjoyed pushing himself to the max in practice, and then heading off for some interval training afterwards.
Nicknamed "Broadway Vitas" by the press, he lived life in the fast lane, all the time. To me, his legacy is that of someone who squeezed every ounce out of life before his accidental & tragic death.
He was both a great player and a great person.
Vitas Gerulaitis R.I.P.
Have Something You'd Like To Contribute About Vitas?
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What Other Visitors Have Said
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Jimmy B Not rated yet
I taught at Harry Hopman's Bardmoore International facility and Vitas used to workout there and he would put on a clinic and allow kids to come onto the …
Who is the other fellow Not rated yet
Who's the guy flanking Hopman. I know him, but can't put my finger on his name.
Business Executive Not rated yet
I was in my 20's, an American and a huge tennis fan, living in England in the summer of 1975. A few pals and I managed to get tickets to Wimbledon through …
Phillip Martyn Not rated yet
every word of Chris Lewis,s tribute to Vitas was the way it was
in a world of big egos he left his at the door. Vitas was the most charismatic person …
pibgidget Not rated yet
I followed tennis a lot back in the 1970s to mid 1980s. I met Vitas when he was playing in/for the World Team Tennis League for the Indiana Loves against …
Us Pro Indoor Philadelphia 1977 Not rated yet
Got Vitas' autograph in the 70's' ALWYAS LIKED HIS GAME. THE 70's were the golden age of American Tennis. A great time to be a tennis player and fan.
firstname.lastname@example.org Not rated yet
I saw VITAS and all the boys playing the PLAYERS CHALLENGE back in the late 70's. If I remember corectly, he played flawless tennis, and also beat his …
my memory of Vitas Not rated yet
I was born in 1969 but I grew up watching Vitas and his contemporaries playing the game. I loved to watch Vitas play in Channel 7's (Australia) Summer …
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Other Tennis Articles by Chris Lewis:
Are Tennis Champions Born? -- Or Made?
Pete Sampras: Sorry Pete, But That's No Sacrifice
Wimbledon Center Court: What An Experience
On Court Coaching: Should It Be Allowed?
Tennis Parents: "The Ugly Parent Syndrome"
A National Junior Development Program Disaster
Harry Hopman: A Tennis Legend
Tennis Marketing: Substance Versus Image
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