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.”

Serena Williams, US Open 2214

This is a guest post by Margaret

The Open already felt … uncertain, since one of my favorites couldn’t defend his championship.

An American attending an American tournament, when much had been made of the steadily vanishing number of Americans in the Men’s Singles Draw, I wondered if the tournament’s “big story” would be a victory for American players in Women’s Singles (Serena), Men’s Doubles (the Bryans, gunning for their 100th title), and Mixed Doubles (this is when Taylor (Townsend) and Donald (Young) had reached the quarters, but not yet lost in them) … even in the face of the American men seemingly unable to manage it.

Then Taylor and Donald lost.

And I reverted to having no clue what the “story” might be.

I heard Darth Vader’s Theme adapted to “Darth Federer’s Theme” at the US Open in 2007, its presence underscoring Roger’s relentless march through the draw like it did the original Vader’s stalking and sweeping through The Empire Strikes Back.

That theme followed the (alleged) Darth Fed’s come-from-behind 5-setter against Gael Monfils in those … quarterfinals … this year.

It sounded ominous to me, placed there. And not in a good way.

I wanted to call up the US Open DJ from outside of New York City where I was, and cry “Too soon! Too soon!” as many times as it took for him to shut it off.

We all know how that turned out.

But we didn’t know it when Roger took the court, guided – many would argue, to much-improved results over recent months – by his once-idol, to square off against another man with a score to settle with his sport who was also guided by his once idol … another variation on the “new story”, the theme of the once-kings positioning their new champions, near-champions, or renewed champions like chess pieces, the tight struggle for first-time crowns, or repeat crowns, or to create them kings above all (yes, Roger – please come back. We know you will play as long as we watch, and we will watch as long as you play. One more. Encore. Just one more).

I listened to a clip of Bud Collins commenting on the variety of Johnny Mac’s game, and another clip of Steve Tignor talking about how that one-handed backhand in combination with a frequent net approach in the modern game brought the upside to a player of so much more variety in his or her game at the same time that it brought the downside of much more risk.

I had the great good fortune to spend time with the Mens Champions Doubles Teams of McEnroe/McEnroe and Cash/Martin to witness exactly what Mr. Collins meant (yes, JMac fans, he’s still got it :-)).

Cash/Martin vs McEnroe/McEnroe

The ladies played on Ashe on their historic Championship Sunday. And I got to see them. In that same clip, Mr. Collins talked about Mr. Ashe’s enormous influence on tennis for the good, extending down to what he felt was an inspirational influence for the Williams sisters, both of whom serve now in an inspirational role for a new generation of athletes, and one of whom was looking to put another layer of historic lustre on that influence – if she could get past the Women’s Winner of the US Open 2014 Sportsmanship Award, who was looking for her historic first Slam title.

That – that I couldn’t know, in any match, whose strategy would prevail, whose backhand would prove more devastating, whose legs would last – was, through every match, what kept me pasted in front of any screen I could see it on for the duration of the time I couldn’t be there in person like I annually scrambled to set aside the time to do.

As we take a breath between the great Grand Slams, and warm up for the Davis Cup – we know what the stories are, already, for each of the personalities we follow.

We just don’t know how this chapter of them is going to come out.

And that is why we watch.

Sles, McEnroe, Clijsters and Bahrami

My reports on the Optima Open are finally online! This match took place on Saturday, August 16th (read my complete Optima Open report here).

Last match of the day: a mixed doubles exhibition with Kim Clijsters, Monica Seles, John McEnroe and Mansour Bahrami! It’s always a pleasure to see these great champions play and have fun on court.

Players entering the court:

Warm-up:

4-time Grand Slam champion Kim Clijsters, visibly happy to be on court:

Kim Clijsters and Mansour Bahrami

Kim Clijsters

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Optima Open 2014 report

Optima Open

I spent a day in Knokke-Heist, Belgium, last month to attend the third day of the Optima Open, the Belgian stop of the ATP Champions Tour. It was the second seniors event I attended this year after the World Tennis Day showdown in London last March (find all the recap here).

Situated in the heart of the country’s Flemish-speaking Flanders region, Knokke-Heist is considered to be one of Belgium’s most exclusive and affluent seaside resorts. Knokke-Heist is the perfect base for exploring the enchanting Zwin region, on the Belgian-Dutch border.

Knokke

Knokke

Knokke

The tournament has the typical senior event format: 2 groups of 3 players, with the winners of each group facing each other in final. This year the Optima Open also featured a star-studded mixed doubles exhibition event: with three former world number one, winnners of 20 singles Grand Slam titles in total, and tennis’ greatest entertainer, Mansour Bahrami completing the foursome.

Group A Group B Special guests
Fabrice Santoro Xavier Malisse Kim Clijsters
Greg Rusedski Goran Ivanisevic Monica Seles
Henri Leconte Pat Cash John McEnroe
Mansour Bahrami
Sabine Appelmans
Dominique Monami

All results on the official website (Malisse beat Santoro in the final)

Optima Open

Optima Open

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John McEnroe

Enjoy these exclusive pictures of Pat Cash and Todd Martin win over the McEnroe brothers in the Men’s Champions Doubles final:

Cash/Martin vs McEnroe/McEnroe

Cash/Martin vs McEnroe/McEnroe

Cash/Martin vs McEnroe/McEnroe

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