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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 1,547

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This is the grave of Vitas Gerulaitis.

Born in 1954 in Brooklyn, Gerulaitis grew up in a Lithuanian immigrant family. I am not sure of the details of how his family ended up in the U.S., since this was before the Immigration Act of 1965 and immigration from eastern Europe was still heavily restricted plus the Soviets were not exactly friendly to people leaving for the U.S. In any case, he grew up speaking Lithuanian at home, so this was really uncommon for the 50s. He grew up in Queens, went to Columbia briefly, then dropped out. Gerulaitis’ father was a tennis player back home and taught tennis in the U.S., so it’s not surprising his boy would get into the game too.

Gerulaitis became a top young tennis player by the early 70s and he dropped out of college to work full-time on the game. At the time, and this is largely forgotten today, there were attempts to make tennis a more television friendly sport through having teams and leagues. Gerulaitis came to wider attention through the World TeamTennis league. WTT was a mixed-gender league with somewhat complicated rules about how “games” would be decided. In any case, because it had some actual financial backing behind it, WTT became a place where many of the top players in both the men’s and women’s fields played and quite a few of the top players of the 70s and 80s got their feet wet there, including Gerulaitis. He became a doubles master at first, and won the men’s doubles at Wimbledon for his first major title in 1975.

In fact, Gerulaitis would only win one men’s major title as a singles player–the 1977 Australian Open. But he played an important part of the ecosystem–the top 10 player would could play some epic matches and sometimes get to the finals, but was unlikely to win it all. Think of all the people Djokovic has defeated in majors of his career. A lot of them are, oh yeah I remember that guy guys. Vitas was a bit beyond that because he was also socially well-known, but tennis-wise, that was him.

The late 70s and 80s was a great era of men’s tennis. But Gerulaitis could never quite reach the level of John McEnroe, Jimmy Connors, Bjorn Borg, and Ivan Lendl. Part of what made that era great is that there’s wasn’t a Djokovic character there who just won every damn tournament. Those guys just beat on each other. They all had pretty big personalities too, and then Boris Becker showed up and added to all of that as some of the older guys were aging out. What Gerulaitis was in this ecosystem was a minor planet, like Yannick Noah and Mats Wilander. Great players, really. But not transcendent players. However, they could win a tournament here and there and had their share of wins over the really big guns. He peaked at #3 in the world in 1978.

Perhaps part of Gerulaitis’ problem is that he really liked cocaine. He was a party animal in an era of party animals. He was known for his wild hair and his love of the nightlife. He was treated for cocaine addiction on at least one occasion and he was implicated in a cocaine dealing case in 1983, though in the end he was not charged. In any case, this was not good for his game, as you can imagine. He teamed up with Bobby Riggs to try The Battle of the Sexes again but they got their asses kicked by Martina and Pam Shriver in the doubles match and that mercifully ended.

Gerulaitis officially retired in 1986 but he didn’t leave the game. He was a commenter for tennis coverage on USA between 1988 and 1994. He was Pete Sampras’ coach for awhile, including when Sampras beat Becker in the 1994 Italian Open.

Gerulaitis had an unfortunate end. He was at his friend’s house out on Long Island. The friend had recently worked on his pool but the people had screwed up the work. The heater for the pool leaked carbon monoxide into the guest house and that killed him in September 1994. He was 40 years old.

Vitas Gerulaitis is buried in Saint Charles Cemetery, Farmingdale, New York.

If you would like this series to visit other American tennis players, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. I believe this is only the second tennis player in the series, with the great Arthur Ashe being the first. So lots of potential to use this series to riff on my favorite of the non-four big sports in the U.S. (I also like volleyball quite a bit). Bill Tilden is in Philadelphia and Althea Gibson is in Montclair, New Jersey. I also wanted to note once again the upcoming southern grave tour. I am sure there are some southern tennis players I could pick up as well in New Orleans, or if not, my also upcoming trips to Georgia and Tennessee. In any case, I again profusely thank those who have helped make these trips happen. Previous posts in this series are archived here and here.

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