Sunday, October 2, 1994 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Gerulaitis Packed Lot Of Living Into 40 Years -- High-Profile Life Was Tennis Star's Trademark


NEW YORK - Janet Jones, when she was engaged to Vitas Gerulaitis in 1986, announced to him in the company of others during dinner at a Long Island restaurant, that she wanted to build a successful acting career but that, "by 40, I'd like to have four kids." Gerulaitis joked that, by 40, "I'd like to have six wives."

Gerulaitis died dead of carbon-monoxide poisoning at age 40 on Sept. 18. He never married; Jones married hockey's singular star, Wayne Greztky, instead. But Gerulaitis' links to celebrity and his high-profile way of life were among his trademarks through 15 years as a tennis professional and a second career as a TV commentator, along with his long, white-blond hair and his quick, sometimes-troublesome mouth.

Almost as soon as he experienced professional tennis success at 20, Gerulaitis got to know people intimately. He regularly was ushered personally into the most fashionable nightspots by the likes of Steve Rubell, when such places were called disco-teques and Rubell's Studio 54 was the most famous of them. Gerulaitis quietly dated tennis superstar Chris Evert for a while, but more often was seen in the company of models (Cheryl Tiegs), actresses (Jennifer O'Neill) and starlets (Janet Jones).

He was included among a dozen universally famous sports names - O.J. Simpson, Muhammad Ali, Jack Nicklaus and Bill Shoemaker among them - who were subjects of silkscreen portraits by the ridiculously large pop artist, Andy Warhol. At the end of his playing career, Gerulaitis opened a nightclub in Dallas, explaining his understanding of the demographics by saying, "I spent a lot of nights on the town in Dallas."

His long mane made him instantly recognizable and helped turn the spotlight on him - even to the point of obscuring his tennis accomplishments. From 1977 through 1979, during the period when he rose to No. 3 in the world and won his only Grand Slam title at the 1977 Australian Open, Gerulaitis brought to tennis an indomitable energy.

"I used to call him the Golden Retriever because of that flowing blond hair and the way he ran down every shot," said Peter Alfano, a vice president of the ATP men's tour. "He was the predecessor to Michael Chang." Competitive and tireless.

The hair helped to enhance a physical similarity to Sweden's Bjorn Borg, then the game's best player, so that comparing Borg's almost silent public demeanor with Gerulaitis' occasionally loutish outburts, Gerulaitis, in a way, was Bjorn Borg come to life, Bjorn Borg with a personality.

Sometimes, too much so. Gerulaitis once called officials of the All England Club, whose Wimbledon championships are the sport's most prestigious event, "arrogant," and said they treated players badly by, among other things, serving "measly little sandwiches" in the tea rooms.

He harumphed, amid discussion over whether women deserved prize money equal to the men's, that he would "bet my house that the men's No. 100 could beat Martina."

At the time, 1984, Martina Navratilova was the top-ranked woman, with a record of 86-1. "Ninety-five percent of the women really can't play," he argued, even though his younger sister, Ruta, was a touring pro herself.

Still, Gerulaitis forever was popular with fellow players, tennis fans and celebrity watchers. Despite being implicated, but never charged, in a drug case in the early 1980s, and despite his later admission that he had used cocaine, Gerulaitis remained a well-received entertainer on the exhibition tennis circuit. During his final such appearance, in Seattle last month, he repeatedly coaxed laughter and warm ovations from the crowd while playing doubles with Jimmy Connors against Borg and John Lloyd. Too, Gerulaitis often donated rackets to inner-city youth groups.

Dick Zausner, who runs the Port Washington Tennis Academy founded by his father, Hy, figures that Gerulaitis must have been about 13 years old when he first appeared at the academy. That would have been 1967. "He had long hair at that time, too," said Zausner. Gerulaitis' father, also named Vitas, "at all times was telling Vitas to get a haircut," Zausner said.

In fact, Gerulaitis' hair shared a major role in a television commercial done with Gerulaitis' father, in which the elder Gerulaitis, completely out of context, turned at one point to his son and said, in the heavy accent of his native Lithuania, "What for, Vitas, do you need to have this long hair?"

The two of them used to argue like the characters on the TV show "Sanford and Son," Gerulaitis once said. Both were named for a 15th-century Lithuanian king, Vytautas, and both of them used tennis as their ticket to a better lifestyle. The elder Gerulaitis had been national champion in Lithuania in the 1930s but fled the Soviet takeover of his country in 1944 and, in 1949, emigrated to metropolitan New York.

Young Vitas Kevin Gerulaitis was born in Brooklyn, raised in Howard Beach, Queens, introduced to tennis by his father, and perfected his game on the busy public courts of that borough. He already was a skilled player when his father brought him to the Port Washington Tennis Academy, where he later trained under legendary Australian Davis Cup captain Harry Hopman, and with a younger Queens player named John McEnroe.

"He was always flamboyant," Zausner said. "He was always a very generous soul, too. All the kids had certain obligations here, helping run the youth activities for the school district by teaching a few hours of tennis. Vitas always did his chores. But he certainly was one of the live wires. When he was 16 and went to Kalamazoo for the junior nationals, my father went with him, to make sure he didn't cut up too much."

About that time, Gerulaitis worked on the grounds crew at the tony West Side Tennis Club, which hosted the U.S. Open championships until the National Tennis Center opened in 1978. He once said he resented the well-born members he saw lazing around the club, and throughout his playing career, he fit the outlaw mold of players such as Jimmy Connors: an intense, emotional player who took no guff from authority figures or proven stars.

He won a healthy $70,000 in his first full season on the tour and threw himself into the celebrity swirl. He bought a $25,000 Lamborghini sports car that first year and, within three years, had added two Rolls Royces, a Mercedes and a Porsche, which he owned simulatenously. He also bought a mansion in Kings Point, where he moved himself, his father, mother and sister.

"I just always want to be invited to the parties," he told Sports Illustrated in 1977. He traveled the world and dined at the best restaurants, able to read menus in a dozen languages. He played guitar, like McEnroe, in jam sessions with the likes of Tina Turner's band. One former tour follower, asked to rate McEnroe and Gerulaitis as musicians, said, "They were great tennis players."

In 1984, Richard Evans wrote of Gerulaitis in World Tennis magazine, "He gives the impression of skating over the surface of life, leaving a mark to be sure, but never deep enough to do himself justice. He is a caring man who frequently behaves as if he doesn't care a damn, a fun-loving person who often gets himself into very unfunny trouble, both inside tennis and out, and a highly talented athlete who sometimes performs a long way beneath his true capability."

Of tennis and his fly-by-night lifestyle, Gerulaitis told People magazine in 1986, "If I could be as successful on the tennis court as I am off it, I would be No. 1."

Copyright (c) 1994 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.


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