SI Vault
Edited by Jack McCallum and Richard O'Brien
September 26, 1994
Black Eyes for the Buckeyes
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September 26, 1994


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At some point, however, someone should save the Ohio State program.

Viva Vitas

Vitas Gerulaitis was a man who moved between various eras of tennis as smoothly as he once moved from baseline to net. He chatted amiably in his television work with oldies but goodies like Tony Trabert and Fred Stolle, he jammed on the guitar with John McEnroe, he gave counsel to young superstar Pete Sampras. When Gerulaitis was found dead at age 40 on Sunday at the home of an acquaintance in Southampton, N.Y., the tennis world lost a free spirit and a shaggy-haired ambassador. As SI went to press, the Suffolk County medical examiner had not yet determined the cause of death.

Despite a career in which he ranked among the top five players in the world in four different years. Gerulaitis was better known for his Studio 54 lifestyle. He was one of the few athletes who admitted using cocaine, in the late 1970s and early '80s, and also acknowledged that his penchant for partying had hurt him on the court. He was reportedly treated for substance abuse in 1983 and was implicated, though never charged, in a cocaine-dealing conspiracy that same year.

But by all indications Gerulaitis had pulled his life together. He did commentary for CBS during the U.S. Open (his native Brooklynese accent was part of his charm), he played on the masters circuit, and, most of all, he kept up relations with the myriad friends he made in the game.

There was no better example of Gerulaitis's affability than his friendship with Sampras. Sampras, 23, a reserved and sometimes lonely young champion, opened up to Gerulaitis, adopting him as one of his chief confidantes and advisers. "He had a big heart," says Sampras. "He was someone I considered one of my best friends, and I don't have that many. I could tell him anything."

When Sampras collapsed in the referee's office after losing a five-set match to Jaime Yzaga in the round of 16 at the recent U.S. Open, he ordered everyone out of the room except Gerulaitis. "He took care of me," says Sampras. "That's the kind of guy he was."

Gerulaitis's flamboyance and penchant for high living masked the fact that he was a tenacious competitor with nonpareil quickness and a variety of shots hatched on New York City's public courts. What he lacked was the one big weapon that would have pushed him ahead of his more successful contemporaries—Bjorn Borg, Jimmy Connors and good buddy McEnroe, who beat him in the final of the '79 U.S. Open. But he will be remembered as a man who wrestled with his personal demons and hung around to do some good.

No Kick from Kicking

Santa Fe High's first-year football coach, Steve Baca, has a philosophy, and it goes like this:

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