Gerulaitis Found Dead in New York : Obituary: Boyhood friend of McEnroe won 27 singles titles, including 1977 Australian Open.
Vitas Gerulaitis, the shaggy-maned, fun-loving artist with a tennis racket and once John McEnroe’s Long Island boyhood chum, was found dead Sunday in a bedroom at the home of an acquaintance in Southhampton, N.Y. He was 40.
Police said a preliminary investigation did not reveal any suspicious circumstances and the cause of death will be determined after a coroner’s examination today.
“It appeared he had been there a while, like overnight,” said Sgt. Lars King of the Southampton Village Police Department.
Gerulaitis won only one Grand Slam event singles title, the 1977 Australian Open, but reached the final in two others, losing to McEnroe in the 1979 U.S. Open and to Bjorn Borg in the 1980 French Open.
Although Gerulaitis won 27 singles titles, nine doubles titles, was ranked in the top 10 from 1977-1982 and reached as high as No. 4 in 1984, it is generally believed in tennis circles that his tennis achievements were curtailed by his carefree nature.
“Tennis has lost one of its great characters,” said John Lloyd.
It was Lloyd who was beaten by Gerulaitis on the grass courts of Kooyong in Melbourne in the Australian Open final 17 years ago.
Lloyd also played Gerulaitis in his last match.
In a doubles match Wednesday in Seattle, part of Jimmy Connors’ Champions Tour for players over 35, Lloyd and Borg played Connors and Gerulaitis.
The production was pure Vitas, Lloyd said.
“He put on a performance that really was great entertainment,” he said. “I told Jimmy during the match ‘Well, there are three guys out there and there’s Vitas.’
“He must have had 50 one-liners. Everything just clicked. He was on. We got a standing ovation when we left.”
It was the last time Gerulaitis stepped on a tennis court. He suffered a pulled muscle in his back during the match and withdrew from a singles match scheduled for Thursday.
Lloyd said Gerulaitis barely could walk because of his back and wanted to get it better because he planned to play a lot of golf, his new passion, this week.
Gerulaitis was in Portland on Tuesday and played golf at Oregon Country Club in a foursome that included Pete Sampras, Tom Gullikson and Nike tennis marketing director Ian Hamilton.
“He looked fine and felt fine, as far as I could tell,” Hamilton said.
Lloyd said he remembered something Gerulaitis told him at the U.S. Open a little more than a week ago. Lloyd said Gerulaitis complained about being unable to lift his arm after taking a three-hour golf lesson.
Connors was unable to discuss Gerulaitis when reached by telephone at his Seattle hotel.
Lloyd informed Borg of Gerulaitis’ death and he was “totally shattered,” according to Lloyd, who also said Borg telephoned Gerulaitis’ mother in New York to express his sympathy.
Tracy Austin, who worked with Gerulaitis on the USA cable network’s tennis broadcasts, said she last saw Gerulaitis on Sept. 11, the final day of the U.S. Open. Gerulaitis was working as an analyst for CBS.
Austin said she felt the same way she always did when she saw Gerulaitis.
“Every time I saw him, I smiled,” she said.
“He made everybody feel better. There are certain people in life when you are around them, you feel happier. Vitas was one of them.
“We’re all going to miss him so much. He always had a joke, a smile, a laugh. He was just one of the good people.”
Gerulaitis left the tour in 1985 and worked as a television analyst. He sometimes played in over-35 tournaments.
Regarded as a skilled shotmaker with dazzling flair, Gerulaitis had some problems off the court. He acknowledged that he used cocaine in the late 1970s. He also said that his lifestyle undercut his ability as a player.
Gerulaitis, who in his early teens hung out at the same Long Island tennis clubs as McEnroe, won four tournaments in 1979. That was the year that McEnroe, five years younger than Gerulaitis, claimed his first Grand Slam title at the U.S. Open.
On Sunday night, McEnroe defeated Michael Chang in an exhibition match in Berkeley and said afterward: “I won this match for my buddy Vitas and I’m too distraught to talk about it.”
Gerulaitis also won five of his six Davis Cup singles matches in 1979, helping the United States defeat Italy, 5-0, in the final to defend its title.
The tennis establishment had long since identified him as a prodigy.
“I mean, I played him when he was 17, in the juniors,” said Lloyd, who is British. “He was just an outstanding player.
“But there was more to Vitas. He was just a funny, funny guy. He was just pure entertainment.
“I just liked being around him. He was a great, great character. This is just so hard to believe. He is too young for this to happen. It’s a waste.”
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