Vitas Gerulaitis

Excerpt of Jimmy Connors‘ autobiography The Outsider:

A friend remembered

Vitas Gerulaitis was 17 and I was 19 when we first met, after he met the Riordan circuit.
We hung out a lot together through the 70s and 80s. When I won the US Open in 1978, I went out for a celebration dinner at Maxwell’s Plum in Manhattan. Vitas drove up and parked right in front of the restaurant, and let me tell you, he was hard to miss: Vitas was the only guy around tennis – or around most places – who drove a yellow Rolls Royce. He got out of the car with two cute young girls who couldn’t have been a day over 18, waltzed in, and sat down to congratulate me. He was the only one who did that. He was all class.

What the public saw was the real Vitas: the dazzling smile, the free-spirited guitar-playing rocker, the over-the-top playboy lifestyle. Yet he was also one of the most decent guys I’ve ever known, and everyone liked him.
Although he had his own crowd that included Borg and Mac, Vitas and I were close, and it was a no-bullshit friendship. It was an open secret that Vitas had a big problem with cocaine, and it led to his retirement from the game at the end of 1985.
Without the discipline of tennis to hold him in check, Vitas’ habit intensified dramatically. It’s the reason I asked him in 1989 to travel with me to Europe for five months. I might not have been his closest buddy, but you don’t abandon people when the going gets tough. As much as I hated drugs, we were buddies throughout the good, the bad and the ugly of it all.

My friend Vitas was only 40 years old when he died. He was very close to his mom and his sister, he was a good son and brother and always looked after his family. Patti and I went to his funeral, at St Dominic, in Oyster Bay, Long Island, and joined 500 other people – including Mac, Borg, Billie Jean King, Tony Trabert, Jack Kramer, Bill Talbert, Fred Stolle, and Mary Carillo – to mourn our friend. Out if respect for Vitas, the governor closed the Long Island Expressway when they took his casket from the church to the cemetery.

Vitas brought a lot to tennis – not just his athletic style of play but also his rock-star sex appeal, which added a new dimension to the tour. He was a wild and flamboyant but also a great champion, winning the Australian Open in 1977 and reaching the finals of the French Open and the US Open. He was a Davis Cup participant and winner of 25 Grand Prix tournaments.
Is any of that recognized by the tennis establishment? No. Vitas had a Hall of Fame career, but apparently he didn’t have a Hall of Virtue career, but who does? It shouldn’t be the case but his outstanding record and major contribution to the sport have, sadly, been overshadowed by his issues off the court.
I miss him.”

John McEnroe and Ilie Nastase, 1979 US Open

From John McEnroe‘s autobiography, Serious:

In the second round at the 1979 US Open, I faced Ilie Nastase. Nasty, who had won the tournament in 1972, was thirty-three and long past his prime, but he hadn’t mellowed with age – if anything, he was crazier than ever. And the big New York crowd at the Open always got him going.

Our night match drew a big crowd, eager to see Super Brat face down the aging enfant terrible of tennis. Frank Hammond was officiating the match. Of all the umpires out there, Frank – fat, bald, and dark-mustached, with a deep voice and a no-nonsense manner – was one of the few I liked. I always thought of him as a player’s umpire: he knew everyone by name, he treated you like a person.
Frank was known as an umpire who could control the crowd and the players in a difficult match, but that night he didn’t have a chance. There was a lot of drinking going on in the stands, and Nasty was on his worst behavior – stalling, arguing, cursing the officials, and generally trying to provoke me into going off the rails. Remarkably – and all too unusually – I kept it together. By the third set, Frank had had it: he lost his composure and ranted away at Nasty, docking him a penalty point. The crowd decided then and there that Frank couldn’t do anything right.

I was rattled myself, but then, at one set all and down a break, I began to pull it together, and won the third set 6-3. I was serving at 2-1, 15-love in the fourth set, when Nasty began arguing about another line call. He sat down in a linesman’s chair and refused to play. Frank literally begged him to go on, but Nasty wouldn’t stand up. It was clear that Nastase knew he was going to lose, and was simply looking to prolong everyone’s agony. ‘Game penalty, Nastase‘, Frank said. ‘McEnroe leads, three games to one‘.
Nasty stood up from the chair with his hands on his hips, screaming such vile obscenities at Frank that Frank, after further pleading, defaulted him. Now the crowd really went nuts, thowing paper cups and beer cans onto the court.

Mike Blanchard, the tournament referee, then came onto the court, and talked with Nasty and me. Figuring I was going to win anyway, and wanting to avoid a riot, I agreed to play on. Blanchard told the crowd that if things didn’t quiet down, the match would be discontinued.
Still, as soon as Frank tried to start play again, the crowd started chanting ‘Two to one, two to one‘ – the score before the game penalty. The chanting got louder and louder. I had never seen such pandemonium in a tennis match, and never would again, even in our wildest South American Davis Cup ties. Finally, Bill Talbert, the tournament director, decided to take Frank out of the match and put Blanchard in the chair. I felt terrible for Frank as he climbed down and walked off the court, the crowd pelting him with garbage. He had lost all credibility. What I found out only later was that the match had essentially destroyed his career. When the ATP decided to hire a group of full-time traveling officials, they didn’t choose Frank.

Once Frank was out off the court, I knew the air had gone out of Nasty, and ran out the rest of the match easily. Even the crowd seemed spent now. It was finally over at twelve thirty in the morning. Afte the match, I was somewhat astonished when Nastase came up to me and said ‘Hey, let’s go to dinner‘. Here was another lesson: business and pleasure must always be separated. ‘Sure‘, I said.