Tennis player, guitarist in an underground rock band and coach of Pete Sampras, Vitas Gerulaitis, also known as the "Lithuanian lion" has marked the history of sport in the seventies. Before getting lost in parties, cocaine and women. Like so many others, but better than the others...
"We've often been told that we looked alike early in our career, but he has greasy hair, I don't." That morning of August 1977, Vitas Gerulaitis is in a playful mood. Prolific by nature, the American seemed laconic that day. Even annoyed. Or rather resolved to put an end to the recurring questions of the reporters. Their error? "At every press conference, it's the same thing: they always talk to me about my backhand or my likeness with Björn Borg, he explained. But who cares. What I would like to discuss, it’s sex or the last visit of the Pope." But it's true that the physical similarities between the two were striking. Two tall fair-haired men, slender and friends facing each other in the semi-finals of Wimbledon. The American was more nervous than the Swede. The match was epic and well played. The defeat even more frustrating. In total, the two men met 16 times. Gerulaitis never won. “If I can bring him into a tennis court when he will be 95 and help him out of his wheelchair, I think that, that day, I will have a chance to beat him!” Same crazy statistic against Jimmy Connors, a fellow Yankee that he finally managed to beat in 1980 after an identical number of successive defeats. Before gargling in the press conference, happy with himself and with a bottle of champagne in hand. “And let that be a lesson to you all. Nobody beats Vitas Gerulaitis 17 times in a row.” This famous punch line summarizes the flamboyant trajectory of this legend of tennis: the legend of one of the most gifted players of his generation, 25 titles in singles to his name, but also that of a hedonist, guitarist in a rock band, flirty, cocaine addict, Lamborghini collector and friend of Andy Warhol who, throughout his career, lost 29 finals in official tournaments. « From a tennis point of view, he was unfortunate enough to be part of the Borg, Connors and McEnroe generation, and they were all too strong for the common man, says John Lloyd, former British tennis star in The Independent. A player in the shadow of the greatest, perhaps not the best in history but no one has contributed more than him to make of tennis the coolest sport of its generation. We called him 'Broadway Vitas'».
Rolls Royce Corniche convertible, serve and volley and Mick Jagger
We don't really know the origin of this nickname but legend has it that he chose it himself. Because even before going around the world, the history of Gerulaitis is that of a kid from New York. A Brooklyn lad, to be exact. "And nothing else," as he used to say. Son of Lithuanian immigrants exiled after the Second World War, after the invasion of Russia and the bombings of the Red Army. "Vitas was born on American soil a few years later and has therefore never seen the war, ration and fear, according to his sister Ruta, also a professional tennis player. I remember very well that we didn't speak English for our first day in kindergarten. Our teachers asked us to dance traditional Lithuanian dances to introduce ourselves to other children. Although we have always been involved in the community, my brother saw it as a humiliation. As if he was an animal.» At home, Gerulaitis senior, former head of the Lithuanian police, imposed a strict discipline. He’s the one who put in the hands of his offspring his first racquet. He taught him the basics of serve-and-volley - his future trademark - advised him never to drink alcohol and to get married young. Recommendations fell into deaf ears, according to his childhood friend, John McEnroe: «Even when we were in junior, there were many rumours: Vitas was with this actress, he had played that tournament under the influence of those drugs. I wondered how the hell did he do to burn life from every angle possible, says "Big Mac" in his autobiography, You can't be serious. He had a suite at Kings Point and a glamorous life in Manhattan. Me, I returned from my travels with dirty clothes for my mother and went back to my old room in Douglaston. He was driving a Rolls Royce Corniche convertible, the same creamy yellow colour than his hair with a plate on which you could read: 'Vitas G'. At the time, I had in a crappy orange Pinto." Over the years, when they were coming to play the U.S. Open and the Masters, Borg, McEnroe, Noah or Vilas used to follow the party-man for crazy nights out in New York. At the time, the disco was in everyone's head. "We are rivals on the court, friends in life and drunk the rest of the time," said the head of the gang. These lads’ nights inevitably ended up at the legendary Studio 54, a former theatre and famous club in the city. Church of drugs, uninhibited sex and excess, it was the only place where it was OK to indulge completely at the time. The last balcony (remnant of the old theatre) was reserved for sexual encounters. As for the basement, the first VIP area of the world, it was a real narcotics supermarket, from cocaine to acids, through LSD. One night Gerulaitis even invented a game with Mick Jagger that became a tradition there: blowing up a balloon with a little cocaine, wait until it rises to the ceiling and then burst it. Result: "It was as if the drug was falling from the sky and delivered to us by God himself."
Pyjamas, cocaine and carbon monoxide
For his 21st birthday, he invited all the female supporters of a match to join for a pyjama party organized in the club. At midnight, still no one. Vitas was worried, even desperate, until a friend took him to the window. Outside, hundreds of girls in nighties were screaming "Happy birthday." The next morning, on the court, he still had traces of lipstick on his neck and on the collar of his white shirt. The audience noticed and started cooing in the stands. According to John Lloyd, “it was common knowledge that Vitas took drugs. It was a social thing at the time. He was partying a lot, but he was able to stop everything when a tournament began. He was going to bed early and would only leave the house to train for 8 hours a day... As if to punish himself. It was really weird.” Admitting the harm caused by the extensive use of certain drugs for his career – “if I was doing as well on the courts than what I am capable of doing outside, I would have been world number 1 for a while” - The American still managed to obtain a very good palmares. The kid of Brooklyn won the Australian Open in December 1977 and reached the final of the U.S. Open in 1979. Less than two years before, Vitas Gerulaitis even managed to reach the third place in the world rankings and was one of the undisputed leaders of the American Davis Cup by BNP Paribas team. But after fifteen years of professionalism, he hung up the racquets in 1986. He then became a commentator for American television, got involved in the New York Lithuanian community, coached Pete Sampras for a while and played a few matches on the veteran tour. His son died of a heart attack in 1992, but he strived to shine with his good mood and seemed "happy and healthy" according to the former player Paul McNamee, one of his closest friend, who still remembers some good fiestas: « Someone who was working at American Express told me that one year, he was in the records as the third largest spender of the banking world. A huge amount of money cracked in private planes and prostitutes. » On the 18th of December 1994 Vitas embarked his last journey. He died at 40 years old, in his sleep, while he was staying at a friend's house. After evoking a cocaine overdose, the police thought of carbon monoxide poisoning caused by a defective pool heater. On the eve of his death, Borg had beaten him again during a senior doubles match. The good memories of his formula: « when people ask me how long I intend to live, I answer until I beat Borg.»
By Victor Le Grand