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Vitas Gerulaitis: The Man Who Was More Than A Quote

  • Posted: Jan 19, 2020

Vitas Gerulaitis: The Man Who Was More Than A Quote

40 years on from Gerulaitis’ famous quip after snapping a 16-match losing streak against Connors, pays tribute to the legacy of the ‘Lithuanian Lion’

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.

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Andy Murray injury: Bob Bryan says Briton has 'a lot of years left' as a player

  • Posted: Jan 19, 2020

Andy Murray has “a lot of years left” at the top level of tennis, says American doubles legend Bob Bryan.

Murray, 32, pulled out of this week’s Australian Open, and two more events in February, with a pelvic injury and has not put a time frame on his return.

But Bryan, who inspired Murray to have the same career-saving hip surgery as he had in 2018, has quelled doubts about the Briton’s future.

“I expect to see him back before too long,” said Bryan.

“He just wants to be extra careful because he knows he has got a lot of years ahead and he doesn’t want to screw it up right after surgery.”

Three-time Grand Slam singles champion Murray broke down in tears at last year’s Australian Open, revealing he thought he would have to retire after a swansong at Wimbledon six months later.

However, regular conversations with 23-time Grand Slam doubles winner Bryan encouraged the Scot to have the hip resurfacing operation – where a metal cap is put over the femur head – which revived his career.

Bryan, 41, had the same surgery in 2018 and was playing doubles alongside twin brother Mike five months later.

Murray returned to the doubles court in June, winning the Queen’s title alongside Spain’s Feliciano Lopez in his first tournament since being operated on by renowned hip surgeon Sarah Muirhead-Allwood last January.

A return to singles action came in August before the former world number one won the Antwerp Open title in October.

The pelvic problem flared up during the Davis Cup in November, sidelining Murray for the majority of Britain’s run to the semi-finals, and he has not played since.

“I asked him about his speed and his strength and he says it is right where it was,” added Bryan.

“The other injury is unrelated, a freak thing.

“He is working on it. He is seeing everyone and he will figure it out. He will be back strong.”

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Djokovic, Inspired By Nadal & Federer, Begins Quest For 8th AO Title

  • Posted: Jan 19, 2020

Djokovic, Inspired By Nadal & Federer, Begins Quest For 8th AO Title

7-time Australian Open champ says the game’s young stars are closing in on a Grand Slam breakthrough

Defending Australian Open champion Novak Djokovic says that his rivalries with fellow ‘Big Three’ members Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer have underpinned the success that has stamped him as one of the game’s greatest players of all time.

As he begins his quest for a record-extending eighth Australian Open title, the five-time year-end World No. 1 paid tribute to the men, with whom he will once against battle for the first major of the year.

“[My rivalry] with Roger and Rafa… is one of the motivations for me to still keep going at this age,” Djokovic, 32, said. “The three of us have inspired each other throughout our rivalries and careers to be better, to understand how we can overcome obstacles in the matchups.

“I am more grateful today to be in the same era with these two guys than I was probably 10, 15 years ago (smiling). I think that definitely rivalries with them made me very, very strong, very resilient, and also very motivated that I am still today.”

Chasing his fifth major after turning 30, Djokovic said that he also turned to his great rivals for inspiration to remain at the top of the game in the latter stages of his career.

“Roger has talked about this as well, Rafa as well, that age is just a number. It’s not just a cliché, but it’s really something that I feel like the three of us have in common. It’s really the way we approach career and our everyday life.

“I think we found a way, a formula, to balance private-professional life so we are able to kind of excel in tennis and still be able to compete at the highest level after many years, still be motivated, still be mentally fresh and, of course, physically prepared and fit to compete in best-of-five sets with young players that are coming up. They’re obviously very hungry to reach the great heights and fight for the biggest trophies in sport.”

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Federer, Djokovic Begin Australian Open Runs On Monday In Melbourne

Having seen Russian 23-year-old Daniil Medvedev push Nadal to five sets in the 2019 US Open final and 21-year-old Greek Stefanos Tsitsipas beat the world’s best to win November’s Nitto ATP Finals, Djokovic says that the challenge to deny the game’s young stars a major breakthrough will be tougher than ever in 2020.

“They’re coming closer and closer. It’s obvious. Medvedev had a great fight with Rafa in the last Grand Slam in US Open of last season. Tsitsipas played semis here last year. Dominic Thiem twice finals in French Open. They’re very, very close. They’re literally one set away.

“On a given day, in the very near future, I think that can happen. It’s going to happen. It’s inevitable.”

Djokovic, who is chasing his 900th match win Monday night against German Jan-Lennard Struff, said that his lead-in week to the Australian Open was less intense than previous years due to his strong performance at the inaugural ATP Cup, which included six singles wins in addition to doubles play.

“I did not have such an intensive couple of weeks the year before the Australian Open for many years. It was a lot of physical and emotional energy being spent in the ATP Cup, which of course was perfect for me individually, won all my matches in singles and doubles. We as a team won the title, which was definitely one of the highlights of my career.

“I keep saying that, winning with my friends, with the team, representing my country, winning team competitions, is definitely something that I cherish and that fulfills me truly.

“It was a phenomenal couple of weeks and great leadup to Australian Open. But it did take a lot out of me. I did adjust my training sessions towards that, so I had a little bit more of recuperation rather than just stepping on accelerator a little bit more.

“I just actually kind of put a level down a little bit, just tried to keep the sessions a bit shorter, with good intensity. That’s all, just maintain the right rhythm for the first match.”

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Konta & Evans lead British challenge in Melbourne

  • Posted: Jan 19, 2020
2020 Australian Open
Venue: Melbourne Park Dates: 20 January to 2 February
Coverage: Listen on BBC Radio 5 Live Sports Extra and online; Live text on selected matches on the BBC Sport website and app.

British number one Johanna Konta says she is not concerned by a lack of court time before launching her Australian Open campaign on Monday.

Konta, seeded 12th, faces tricky Tunisian Ons Jabeur, while compatriots Dan Evans and Kyle Edmund also play on the opening day in Melbourne.

Konta, 28, has only played one match since September’s US Open because of a knee injury.

“I am in a position to compete – that’s why I am here,” she said.

As well as the British players, there will be a host of star names in action when the first Grand Slam of the new season starts on Monday.

Japan’s Naomi Osaka, the defending women’s champion, opens up on Rod Laver Arena before American great Serena Williams, Swiss legend Roger Federer, Australia’s world number one Ashleigh Barty and Serbian defending men’s champion Novak Djokovic also play their openers on Melbourne Park’s 15,000-capacity main show court.

Coco Gauff – the 15-year-old who took Wimbledon by storm last year – faces 39-year-old fellow American Venus Williams in the standout match on Margaret Court Arena.

That is a rematch of their first-round meeting at the All England Club, which saw Gauff announce her arrival on the world’s biggest stage by beating the seven-time Grand Slam champion in straight sets.

Monday’s order of play on Rod Laver Arena
Day session starts at 11:00 local time (00:00 GMT, Sunday)
Naomi Osaka (Jpn) [3] v Marie Bouzkova (Cze)
Anastasia Potapova (Rus) v Serena Williams [8] (US)
Steve Johnson (US) v Roger Federer (Swi) [3]
Night session starts at 19:00 local time (08:00 GMT)
Ashleigh Barty (Aus) [1] v Lesia Tsurenko (Ukr)
Jan-Lennard Struff (Ger) v Novak Djokovic (Ser) [2]
  • Williams seeks 24th Grand Slam
  • Federer defends himself after criticism

‘I’m happy to be back in the swing of things’

Former Australian Open semi-finalist Konta has been managing the knee problem – a tendonitis-like inflammation – since the latter stages of last season.

She did not play again after losing to Ukrainian fifth seed Elina Svitolina in the US Open quarter-finals, making her return in Brisbane last week with a three-set defeat by Czech Barbora Strycova.

Konta meets Jabeur, who is ranked 85th but causes problems for opponents with her variety, last on 1573 Arena at about 19:00 local time (08:00 GMT).

“Having played only one tournament in the past four months, I’m really happy to be back in the swing of things,” Konta, who reached the Melbourne last four in 2016, told BBC Sport.

“Overall, I think practice is going well. I feel I am continuously building and getting better.”

British men’s number one Evans, 29, is seeded at a Grand Slam for the first time after breaking into the world’s top 30.

That means he cannot play one of the big names until the third round – when he is projected to face 16-time Grand Slam champion Djokovic.

First, Evans must get past American world number 132 Mackenzie McDonald, who he faces on court 14 at 11:00 local time (00:00 GMT, Sunday).

“Being seeded feels no different really, I just have to concentrate on my first match and hopefully get a win there. I can’t do more than that,” Evans said.

“I need to focus on the job in hand.

“It is obviously a great feeling to know you can’t play one of the top guys, but there are plenty of other good players out there who are ready to go and can beat me.

“It is a great achievement to be seeded but the end goal is to be going deep in these tournaments, not turning up as a seed and losing.”

Edmund, who was replaced as the top-ranked Briton by Evans in October, plays Serbia’s 24th seed Dusan Lajovic on court 15 about 13:30 local time (02:30 GMT).

The 25-year-old slid down the rankings during 2019, when he struggled for form and fitness. But he ended the year on a high by being Great Britain’s standout player in their run to the Davis Cup semi-finals.

Edmund is hoping a new coach in Franco Davin, who notably helped his fellow Argentine Juan Martin del Potro win the 2009 US Open, can spark him to replicate the form that took him to the Australian Open semi-finals in 2018.

“It is going well. It is a different dynamic working with a South American,” said Edmund, who is ranked 69th.

“He’s got experience so is a calm person and a calming influence.”

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Courtship: How Peers Won Over New Doubles Partner Venus

  • Posted: Jan 19, 2020

Courtship: How Peers Won Over New Doubles Partner Venus

New Aussie-New Zealand tandem forms alliance for 2020

No-one likes rejection. Whether it be asking a girl on a date or making advances on a new doubles partner, John Peers suffers the same rejection anxiety as the rest of us when he weighs the risk-reward equation. “I hate [the process],” he says.

Approaching a new doubles partner – especially one in a committed relationship – is inherently awkward. But believing that he was destined for success with World No. 11 Michael Venus, Peers initiated a WhatsApp thread with the New Zealander that has now paired the 30-somethings for the 2020 season.

“I’ve only [approached a new partner] a few times as I’ve been lucky enough to have a couple of long-term partners,” said Peers, who parted ways with Henri Kontinen at the end of last season. “It’s pretty much like a relationship: You throw a few messages out, hope for the best. Mike said yes, so that was good.

“It’s never easy looking, not knowing what they are going to say. He hung me out there for a few days to make we wait. We just wanted to make sure it would be good for both of us and fingers crossed it will be.”

While 20-time titlist Peers and Kontinen mutually agreed that it was in both their interests to seek success elsewhere, the decision was less clear-cut for Venus, who ended 2019 by reaching the Nitto ATP Finals title match with South African partner Raven Klaasen.

“The difficulty for me was that I’d had two good seasons with Raven, so when you’re doing well it’s never easy to go somewhere else,” Venus told “But things just seemed to align with John, including the ability to practise year-round together in London. Not many teams get that chance. We felt the more time we could spend together the more it would help. It was an opportunity I really liked the sound of.”

Venus says that he likes what his new partner brings to the table. “He’s got a big serve. He’s aggressive. Good hands around the net. Moves well. Understands the doubles game very well. I think he does everything pretty well. I’ll just try and hang onto him, clean up the little bits I can here and there.”

Although the new teammates are confident they have made the right choice, Peers admits that finding their best form together may happen after the season is in full swing. Earlier this week the team suffered a tight first-round loss in Auckland in their debut outing.

“The more time you spend together in difficult situations on the same side of the net the better things will get. In the tough situations it’s a bit of an unknown what they will do until you’ve spent time together. With time you get to know the finer details of what they want to do at certain moments.”

The seventh seeds will open their Australian Open campaign against Denmark’s Frederik Nielsen and Germany’s Tim Puetz.

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