The 1979 year-end Masters took place at Madison Square Garden — ‘The World’s Most Famous Arena’ — in New York City. The three favourites for the tournament were clear: World No. 1 Bjorn Borg, No. 2 Jimmy Connors and home favourite John McEnroe. But what was unexpected was not only that one of the finalists came from outside of that trio, but that the tournament is perhaps best remembered for a quip rather than a match.
“Let that be a lesson to you all. Nobody beats Vitas Gerulaitis 17 times in a row!”
Gerulaitis was in-form at World No. 4, just months removed from reaching his first — and what would be his only — US Open final. In that match, the ‘Lithuanian Lion’ fell in straight sets against a fellow New Yorker and close friend in McEnroe. So while Gerulaitis had proven his level, navigating his way through that cast of legends seemed unlikely.
But Gerulaitis not only got his revenge at MSG during round-robin play, earning his first ATP Head2Head victory against the lefty McEnroe; he overcame the odds again in his next match the following day.
Gerulaitis raised his level even higher against Connors, snapping a 16-match losing streak against his fellow American with an impressive 7-5, 6-2 victory to reach the championship match. On his second match point, Gerulaitis staved off Connors’ attacks on his backhand, eventually crushing a one-handed backhand passing shot down the line, which Connors could not handle. Vitas pumped both fists in a muted celebration quickly shouting, “Yeah!”
However, it was his quip to the media that will be remembered forever. It wasn’t about the number ‘17’, nor was it about Connors. It was Gerulaitis’ way of using his sense of humour to remind the world that not only was he more than just an entertainer on and off the court, but he was a competitor who was unafraid of competing against the best in the world. That quote is still referenced four decades later, not only in tennis, but throughout the sports world.
A reporter who was in the room for Gerulaitis’ remark on 12 January 1980 was Steve Flink, who was inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame in 2017.
“I did not think he was being serious at all. He was always self-deprecating. That is not to say that Vitas did not know how good he was; he had plenty of confidence. But he knew that line would make everyone in the room erupt into laughter, and that is exactly what happened,” Flink said. “He also knew how great Connors and Borg both were and he recognised that they were better than he was. Nevertheless, Vitas believed in himself and was proud of beating Jimmy in New York City.”
Gerulaitis beat Connors in their first-ever meeting — which also came indoors in New York, in 1972 — at the Clean Air Classic. And even though he lost their next 16 clashes, beating Connors again was not a shocker of monumental proportions, albeit an upset.
Jose Higueras was one of the eight men competing in that edition of the year-end Masters, held during the cold month of January, 1980. And although he had plenty of experience with long losing streaks himself, dropping his final final 11 matches against Borg, he was not stunned by Gerulaitis’ victory.
“It wasn’t a surprise to me just because of the type of competitor he was. His famous quote, ‘Nobody beats Vitas Gerulaitis 17 times in a row’, it’s a great quote and it kind of tells you his mindset,” Higueras said. “You could beat him, but he wasn’t going to go on the court and be beat. You would have to beat him 17 times in a row or 25 times in a row. So the fact that he beat those guys, obviously he wasn’t the favourite, but it wasn’t really a huge surprise because he was a big competitor and he always showed up.”
Patrick McEnroe was only a teen at the time, and he recalls going to MSG over the years to warm up his brother, John, ahead of matches. Gerulaitis was a mentor to the younger McEnroe.
“I kind of remember when it happened and it was just an off the cuff, witty kind of thing. He was very humble, Vitas. He was obviously a great player, but he also knew that he wasn’t as great as Connors, Borg or my brother, who were three of the greatest players ever,” said Patrick McEnroe. “He had that self-deprecating style about himself. When you compared him to everyone else on the planet, 99.8 per cent of the rest of the people, he was amazing. He was an all-time player as far as a Top 5 player, but that was his demeanour. That was really the way he was.”
Ironically enough, Gerulaitis did lose 17 matches in a row against a single player, a close friend in Borg, who defeated him a day after his Connors triumph 6-2, 6-2.
“Even with Borg, who was his best buddy, he couldn’t beat Borg… And even with John, he knew John was just a better player, more talented, but Vitas seemed to be content with where he was,” McEnroe said. “It wasn’t like he was jealous. I’m sure there was a part of him that thought, ‘I wish I had John’s touch, I wish I had Borg’s relentless competitiveness.’ Vitas had what he had, which was pretty damn good when you consider what he did with his career.”
There are plenty of stories of Gerulaitis being like a celebrity off the court, on many occasions leading players who enjoyed even more success than he did to nightclubs such as Studio 54 in Manhattan. He certainly didn’t shy away from attention, riding in a yellow Rolls Royce with the personalized license plate ‘VITAS’. But that was not the Gerulaitis who showed up to work every day, always among the first to the practice courts and one of the last to leave.
“Vitas obviously liked to live it up a little bit but he was also a guy who was a very hard worker and extremely fit. In a way his lifestyle with the fancy cars and going to the night clubs [wasn’t like his tennis]. The way he played was more about bringing your hard hat to the court,” McEnroe said. “He was just a grinder, he wasn’t a flashy player. But he was tremendously consistent and tremendously quick and very, very fit. Really, if you look at the way he lived his life, he was kind of a partier, and loved to have a great time, so you would think he would have been more of a risk taker in the way he played. But he really wasn’t.”
Gerulaitis’ father, Vitas Sr., was the first head professional at what is today the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center, the home of the US Open. So it’s no surprise that Vitas was raised to squeeze the best tennis he could out of his talents.
“He worked his butt off to get really good. He wasn’t a natural talent in the same way my brother was with the racquet,” McEnroe said. “I think he had to really school himself and drive himself with his strokes to get really solid. It wasn’t like he was a flashy player. I wouldn’t call him a guy with great hands like an [Ilie] Nastase or John. He was a workhorse and that’s how he became a Top 5 player.”
Forty-three years ago, Gerulaitis won his lone Grand Slam singles championship at the Australian Open. According to his opponent from that 1977 final, John Lloyd, they not only had breakfast together that morning, but warmed up together, too.
“I remember being worried about practising again,” Lloyd recalled. “So I asked, ‘Should we practise together?’ He responded by saying, ‘What can I f****** learn about your game? And what more can you learn about my game? Of course, we’ll practise together!’”
That’s just who Gerulaitis was. As successful as he was on the court and iconic as he was off of it, Vitas first and foremost was known among his peers as a good person. Patrick McEnroe would practise with Gerulaitis at the San Francisco Tennis Club in California when Vitas was “sort of retired”, and they’d have lunch at the club.
“The bill would be $20 for the two of us and he would always leave $100 for the waiter. That was just the way Vitas was. He was one of the most generous people and very generous with me,” McEnroe said. “I think I played him one time in one of those pre-US Open exhibitions when I was probably still a teenager and he beat the crap out of me, but then he basically spent another half hour after the match telling me what I needed to work on to get better. I always looked up to Vitas. He was a special person individually.
“He was always positive. He wasn’t a guy who was going to criticise you in a negative way. He was just an extremely positive guy, very optimistic. He wasn’t saying, ‘You need to do this or that’, he just did it in a way that was very encouraging and very positive. He obviously had his demons,” McEnroe added. “But when he was on the tennis court, I never saw that. I always saw someone who was just a positive guy and really loved life and was a great friend. He was someone you could count on to be in your corner. We miss him. He was a guy who was going to continue to give a lot to the sport.”
Gerulaitis not only lost 16 matches in a row against Connors, but all 17 of his meetings against Borg, it wasn’t for lack of effort, and there was never any jealousy. Vitas continued to work to earn moments like his victories against Connors and McEnroe at MSG.
“He beat them at the right time at the right place. He beat them in New York. What a great place for him,” Higueras said. “He was a New Yorker, people loved him there. I’m sure he fed from the crowd, I’m sure the crowd fed from him and it shows his level of competing that he showed up to the max.”
Many fans today may remember his famous quote, but it’s his work ethic and mindset that helped him win a Grand Slam, capture 26 tour-level titles and ascend as high as No. 3 in the FedEx ATP Rankings. Vitas was more than the words he spoke that day.
“His personality and lifestyle overshadowed his greatness as a player. No doubt about that. He was a natty dresser who loved living in the jet-set. But that was only a part of who he was. He also was a top of the line professional who worked very hard at his craft and competed with a lot of integrity. But he just happened to come along in a golden era of the sport. He was haunted by not only Connors and Borg but also by McEnroe. Those three superstars were the pace setters of their era,” Flink said. “But the great thing about Gerulaitis was his sense of humility and perspective. He fought hard against those guys on the court but was a good friend of both away from the arena. He seemed to be able to separate friendship from business. He never held grudges against those guys. Vitas was very close to McEnroe as well. McEnroe and Connors were always at odds with each other. Yet what they most had in common was their genuine respect for Gerulaitis.”
Whatever his sphere, as a competitor, commentator and mentor, Gerulaitis commanded universal respect. Sadly, on 17 September 1994, he passed away. Staying in a guest house in Southampton, NY, Gerulaitis died of accidental carbon monoxide poisoning from a faulty propane heater, which had seeped into the heating and air conditioning system. He was 40 years old.