Photo: AFP
Photo: AFP

Vitas Gerulaitis served an ace of a punchline

Gerulaitis often had to play second fiddle to the likes of Borg and Connors, but a post-match press conference in 1980 ensured him legendary status

Vitas Gerulaitis was once the golden boy of tennis. It began with his hair, a golden mane that fell to and over his shoulders. It included the yellow Rolls Royce he drove to wherever his fast-lane life took him, and the dancing and parties and drugs in the heart of New York.

But there was more than the playboy image to the man. He was one outstanding tennis player. In 1975, he won the doubles title at Wimbledon, and reached the singles semi-finals in 1977 and ’78. In ’77, the eventual champion, Björn Borg, needed a 8-6 fifth set to beat Gerulaitis in a pulsating semi-final. Later that year, Gerulaitis won the Australian Open. He would reach and lose two more Grand Slam finals.

That much and his other titles spell out a fine career record indeed. Only, it could have been even better. With his speed around court and excellent volleying (see some of it in the clip below), Gerulaitis should have won more tournaments, even Grand Slams, than he did. Only, among his exact contemporaries as a professional were three truly great players: Borg, Jimmy Connors and John McEnroe. Handsome as his game was, just possibly he wasn’t quite in their league.

And maybe that’s why he is best remembered, despite his tennis laurels, for a few words he once said at a press conference. Here’s how that went.

In the second week of January 1980, Gerulaitis was one of eight elite players who had qualified for the end-of-season (the 1979 season) Masters tournament in New York. This tournament is unique for the format it uses. The eight players on top of the rankings at the end of the season are divided into two groups, which are contested round-robin style. The top two players from each group then advance to the semi-finals, which is a knockout.

In the round-robin stage of that 1980 tournament, Gerulaitis was grouped with Harold Solomon, Guillermo Vilas and McEnroe. He beat Solomon handily and lost to Vilas in a tough three-setter. The match against McEnroe was the tightest of the three. He lost the first set, 6-3. But he stayed firm the rest of the way and pulled out two tie-break sets, 7-6, 7-6.

That victory must have been sweet indeed. A good friend off the court, McEnroe was younger than him by five years and had beaten Gerulaitis all three times that they had played. So, this was the first time ever that Gerulaitis had won against this man who was already being called the most talented racquet-wielder the world had ever seen. And the victory was stimulus enough that Gerulaitis went on to win the next two times they played too. Though after that, McEnroe was too good for him: he won every one of the last eight matches the two played as professionals, each win seemingly easier than the previous.

Still, that week in New York, Gerulaitis topped his group—in fact, by virtue of that win over McEnroe. In the semi-finals, he was lined up against Connors, who had finished second in the other group to Borg. Now, his record against Connors was even more discouraging than against McEnroe. He had just one win, and that had come all the way back in 1972. Oh yes, if you check the record, you will find a Gerulaitis victory in 1975 too—but that was because Connors gave him a walkover. Take that away, and Gerulaitis had lost to Connors 16—that’s right, 16—straight times.

So, nobody expected Gerulaitis to win that Masters semi-final.

Except Gerulaitis himself. He came out swinging from the start, playing his fearless serve-and-volley all-court game. In his autobiography, Connors himself writes that Gerulaitis was “playing incredible tennis" that day. Only what he had to do, to win against Connors. And Gerulaitis did win, 7-5, 6-2.

A famous victory? Certainly—and like with McEnroe, it was stimulus enough that he went on to beat Connors the next four times they played (including, amazingly enough, another walkover). Though after that, Connors took their last two encounters.

Famous it was, but almost nobody remembers that semi-final for the tennis. That’s because—as, again, Connors writes—“At the post-match press conference, Vitas gave the world his memorable line."

“Let that be a lesson to you all," said Gerulaitis, with a wide grin and a bottle of champagne in his hand. “Nobody beats Vitas Gerulaitis 17 times in a row."

An instant classic, of course, and probably one of the most-repeated tennis punchlines ever.

No doubt, Gerulaitis meant it as a self-deprecating joke of the best kind. But given that this happened in January, I like to think it spoke too of something else in the man. As the year turned—as the decade turned, for that matter—I imagine Gerulaitis sitting at a flashy New York New Year’s Eve party, girls falling all over him, yellow Rolls parked outside, Heineken going down the hatch, and he gets to thinking: “Is there nothing else? I have all this and I still can’t beat Mac and Jimmy and Björn!"

And right there, knowing the big Masters tournament is just days away, he makes a resolution for the New Year: “I don’t care what else happens, I don’t care how I do it, but this year I’m going to beat these guys, and I will start at the Masters."

It would likely mean he would win the title, of course. I don’t know if anyone ever defeated McEnroe, Connors and Borg in the same tournament, but that’s the task Gerulaitis sets himself. He beats his pal Mac. He beats his pal Jimmy. In the final, he will play his pal Björn, who took a close match against Mac in the other semi-final.

History is on the line again: Gerulaitis has never beaten Borg (except, amazingly enough, for still another walkover). In fact, he has lost to Borg 10 times. But given that he overturned history with McEnroe and Connors, he must feel the adrenaline, going into that final with Borg.

Sadly, it doesn’t do much for him. Borg wins the match and the Masters title, 6-2, 6-2. Not every New Year resolution pans out, don’t we know.

By the time their professional days were done, Borg had won five more times against Gerulaitis. Sixteen Borg victories over Gerulaitis, that is, and not one defeat.

But, of course: “Nobody beats Vitas Gerulaitis 17 times in a row."

Once a computer scientist, Dilip D’Souza now lives in Mumbai and writes for his dinners. His latest book is Jukebox Mathemagic: Always One More Dance.

His Twitter handle is @DeathEndsFun

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