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Barry McDermott
August 15, 1977
Hail Vitas Gerulaitis, winner in Rome, semifinalist at Wimbledon, who some say will rule at Forest Hills. Et tu?
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August 15, 1977

It's Veni, Vidi, Vici For Vitas

Hail Vitas Gerulaitis, winner in Rome, semifinalist at Wimbledon, who some say will rule at Forest Hills. Et tu?

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Yet there is a puzzling aspect to all this. Fans in Indianapolis, for example, are confused by Gerulaitis' occasional lackluster performances for the Loves and his relatively lowly ranking of eighth in WTT's singles standings. The team's owner, Bill Bereman, explains, "People can't understand how Vitas can win the Italian Open and play such a superb match as he did against Borg at Wimbledon and then not win at World Team Tennis. They don't think he takes it seriously enough."

That seems a strange accusation to level at a player who sometimes practices six hours a day, but there may be some truth to it. Motivating himself for Wimbledon or Forest Hills is no problem, but the nagging question is whether Gerulaitis cares enough to be No. 1 day in and day out.

"I don't think I'd be any different if I were No. 1," Gerulaitis said at dinner one evening in Dallas. "My father raised me to share. Sometimes people take advantage of me, but I'm happy. I'd like to be No. 1—at least I think I would. I mean is it better to win three million or one million? To have four houses or two? Six cars or four?"

Earlier that evening Gerulaitis had won an opening-round match over Wojtek Fibak 1-6, 3-6, 6-0, 6-2, 6-3. It was close to midnight and an injured ankle was aching, but while Connors and the rest of the players were already back at the hotel, he ate pasta in the company of Texans with names like Billy Bob, pretty girls with sunken cheeks and Richard Weisman, a financier from New York who said things like, "I was at a 21 table with Lance Rentzel and Craig Morton in Las Vegas and I turned to this girl and said, 'Would you like to go to Russia tomorrow?' And then on the way home we stopped in Paris and the last time I saw her she was shopping in Gucci...."

Weisman was trying to set up a "Beauty and the Beast" mixed doubles match in which Nastase and Farrah Fawcett-Majors would play Gerulaitis and Jennifer O'Neill. Vitas' date for the evening was a model from Houston who, for one reason or another, seemed to tire of this conversation. When Weisman suggested that Vitas would have sufficient incentive to win the WCT tournament if the prize were a Rolls-Royce, she asked, a trifle sarcastically, "Oh, you like Rolls-Royces?"

"I have two of them," Vitas replied, neglecting to mention the Mercedes 450SL and the Porsche 914 he keeps around for rainy days.

Also on hand in Dallas was Vitas' 62-year-old father. The two have a lively relationship, one that Vitas compares to Sanford and Son—bickering endlessly yet lovingly. The elder Gerulaitis won the championship of Lithuania in 1938 and then took the Balkan championship in a grueling match that was played under a searing midday sun. Afterward, in the locker room, he collapsed with heat stroke. Someone asked what his prize was. "I won the title," he replied. Of his son he says, "If Vitas will listen to what I tell him about his strokes, no one will touch him. He is the fastest player on tennis court there is. He has the talent, but he doesn't put hard enough work in his life." Counters Vitas, "His philosophy is that if I spent 100 more hours on the court than Connors, I would be the better player, which is not necessarily true. It's talent and no one knows if he has the talent to be No. 1. All you can do is try. It's no use arguing with him. I can't argue with him. That's why he doesn't travel with me more—because we get into violent discussions. It's just father and son. Even if I know that he is right. I still argue with him."

Gerulaitis has not forgotten his roots. "Vitas is not selfish or bigger than his shoes," says Hy Zausner. His mother, his father and his sister Ruta, who is also his teammate on the Indiana Loves, live with him in his new house on Long Island, and when he is in town he stops by Port Washington to rally with teen-agers at the academy. Recently he worked out briefly at Hopman's new tennis complex at the Bardmoor Country Club in Largo, Fla., and his old mentor cheerfully noted that Gerulaitis still outworked all the other students.

Hampered by his injured ankle, Gerulaitis was beaten in the semifinals of the Dallas tournament by Dick Stockton 6-7, 6-3, 7-6, 3-6, 3-6. Now it was hours later, getting on toward 3:30 a.m., and Vitas was zooming down an expressway at 90 mph when he noticed a police car, cherry light flashing, in his rearview mirror. He pulled over. The agitated patrolman said that not only was Gerulaitis speeding, but he also did not have his lights on and had made an illegal turn onto an entrance ramp. Amazingly, Vitas was let off with a warning. Weisman was in the car and he told Gerulaitis as they pulled away, "If that cop had been calling the lines tonight, you would have won."

In the motel parking lot, Vitas was greeted by a couple of girls who told him he had "the best legs in tennis." They also told him, "The party is in room 916." It was now after 4 a.m. and Gerulaitis was to meet Dibbs in a match for third place at 1 p.m. that same day. So he went to the party. As he strolled in, conversation stopped and all heads turned toward him. A pretty blonde deserted her companion and moved to Vitas' side. She soon had an arm draped languidly around his shoulder and her face upturned toward his. With an impish air, Gerulaitis began telling her about the incident with the highway patrolman. " lights off...a wrong turn...he let me go." "Oh, Vitas," she purred. "You're so wonderful." In the background, the music was playing.

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