It is 3 a.m. but Manhattan still glitters for Vitas Gerulaitis. Gerulaitis has made his way to West 54th Street—at the moment lined with double-parked limousines whose bored chauffeurs sprawl against gleaming fenders or stand in small groups outside the current In discotheque. Studio 54 is a "members only" refuge for the arbiters of fashion and the brokers of power, and it is left to the doorman to pick out those eligible for entry.
Gerulaitis is not a member, but he is quickly ushered in by owner Steve Rubell, who recognizes him for who he is—the world's ninth-ranked male tennis player and a young man at ease in elegant surroundings. As the people on the sidewalk watch Gerulaitis enter, they show no sign of resentment, suggesting they agree with Groucho Marx, who once said he never wanted to join a club that would have him as a member.
Inside, pulsating music makes small hairs stand up and the body tingle—also, ears ache. Gerulaitis, whose curly blond hair tumbles below his shoulders, is dressed in smooth velvet pants and a designer's idea of an army fatigue shirt, with a long, white silk scarf draped around his neck and knotted at the chest. Above him, banks of lights flicker wildly, as do cones of bulbs reaching from floor to ceiling. Every so often a new backdrop descends—a pyramid, a mountain, a moonscape. Each dazzling image is greeted with applause by the roiling crowd. When simulated snow begins to fall, a roar goes up. In the midst of the spectacle is Gerulaitis, smiling, laughing, reveling in it all. It is 2 a.m. on a Sunday in May. The previous afternoon Gerulaitis had been in Dallas and tomorrow he will fly to Rome, where he will win the Italian Open. But tonight he will dance.
The music never stops playing for Vitas Gerulaitis, a man who reads menus in a dozen languages and whose partying knows no 200-mile limit. This year he will earn close to half a million dollars playing tennis and will spend every penny of it. "If a rainy day comes, I don't have an umbrella," he admits. He does, however, have a $250,000 home on Long Island with a tennis court, a sauna and a swimming pool in the shape of a tennis racket. He buys his clothes in Paris and Rio, owns $165,000 worth of automobiles and is angling for a modeling contract. Last winter he dated Chris Evert discreetly, and friends like actress Jennifer O'Neill find him wry and engaging. Andy Warhol is doing his portrait. "I just want always to be invited to the parties," he says. Gerulaitis is 23 years old.
Right now Jimmy Connors is the best tennis player in the U.S. Brian Gottfried, Dick Stockton or Eddie Dibbs might be next best. So might Gerulaitis. In the past few months he has beaten Ilie Nastase, Manuel Orantes, Adriano Panatta, Harold Solomon and Jan Kodes. He won the Ocean City, Md. indoor tournament, and with Panatta as his partner, was second in the World Championship Tennis doubles tournament. He played Bjorn Borg in the semifinals at Wimbledon, losing in an epic five-set struggle that even people with long memories say may well have been the best in Wimbledon history. That match elevated Gerulaitis to new heights and it seemed somehow fitting that his opponent was Borg, whom he closely resembles. Once they merely looked alike; now Vitas is beginning to play tennis at Bjorn's level, too. Gerulaitis is hot and on his way up, but then he always has been able to accomplish almost anything he wanted. Five years ago he was only the sixth-ranked junior player in the U.S. But he is named after Vytautas, a 15th-century Lithuanian king, and the let balls always seem to fall right for him.
Gerulaitis is sprawled on a disheveled motel-room bed in Dallas. He is there for the annual eight-man WCT championships, having finished second in four of his last five WCT tournaments. He is on the phone telling a friend how this girl he knows had wanted to see him the night before. He had begged off by saying he was not feeling well, whereupon she went to a party where press people flocked around her because the side of her dress was slit to the waist and, well, this morning everyone is calling Gerulaitis and asking the same question—because he is ill, will he withdraw from the tournament? "Can you believe it?" Gerulaitis shouts into the phone, laughing.
"You have to meet this guy," he says after hanging up. "He owns a disco and knows every girl in town. But don't play him backgammon. He's a hustler." Vitas has a scouting report on everybody.
Later, in the motel lobby, he stops and talks to a friend about a $10,000 fine that the WCT slapped on him for skipping a tournament in Monte Carlo. "I just want an explanation from them," he says with a so-what grin. "I know I'm not going to get the money back. But I'd like a $10,000 explanation."
Then he climbs into a Cadillac courtesy car with his name on the side. A local newspaper reporter is with him, exploring rumors that Gerulaitis is a bit of a ladies' man on the circuit. Gerulaitis scoffs at the very idea, assuring his questioner that on the road he spends all his time hanging out in motel lobbies playing electronic video games.
"What about girls?" the reporter persists.