Editor's Note: This story was originally published on 17 September 2014.
Vitas Gerulaitis made everyone smile. Blond-haired, athletic and flamboyant, he walked about with a confident swagger and had a spark that could instantly energise any locker room.
Mary Carillo, who was 12 when she first met 15-year-old Gerulaitis and his sister, Ruta, a former pro, at the Port Washington Tennis Academy in New York, recalls her first meeting. “I was in proper awe of him. He was striking to look at — great clothes and carrying more racquets than any kid I’ve ever seen before. He had a mane of blond hair trailing behind him, and was friendly even though he was in a constant state of motion.”
John Lloyd remembers, “I think I first played him aged 17, alongside Billy Martin and Pat Dupre, in Torquay. Even then he was charismatic and he stood out. [A few years] later, I remember watching [the British comedy series] Fawlty Towers with him and he commented, ‘This is crap. You want to watch this?’ It was typical of him. He had a great sense of humour.”
Carillo fondly remembers partnering Gerulaitis against Ruta and her partner in a mixed doubles club-level final at the West Side Tennis Club, the former venue of the US Championships. “Once there, Ruta's partner took a dive for a volley and scraped himself up pretty badly, to which Vitas handed him a towel and said, ‘Hell, John — we're only playing for an ice bucket.’ My proud parents still have that ice bucket.”
To this day, the tennis world is quick to recall his quip after beating Jimmy Connors in the semi-finals of the January 1980 Masters. Although Gerulaitis had won their first meeting indoors at New York in 1972, Connors had gone on to claim their next 16 matches. At the press conference, a reporter asked Gerulaitis how he had finally managed to beat Connors after losing 16 in a row. Gerulaitis grinned and said, "And let that be a lesson to you all. Nobody beats Vitas Gerulaitis 17 times in a row." Veteran tennis writer Steve Flink, who was present, remembers, “The room erupted with laughter. He said it genially and everyone got a big kick out of it.”
Dashing and daring, Gerulaitis was born in Brooklyn, New York, to Lithuanian immigrants. He was the sport’s ultimate jetsetter in the late 1970s, adored by a legion of female fans, who screamed, “Take me