Vitas Gerulaitis dead at 40

September 19, 1994|By Thomas Bonk | Thomas Bonk,Los Angeles Times

Vitas Gerulaitis, the shaggy-maned, fun-loving artist with a tennis racket and once John McEnroe's Long Island boyhood chum, was found dead yesterday in a bedroom at the home of an acquaintance in Southhampton, N.Y. He was 40.

A preliminary medical examination indicated that he suffered a heart attack while sleeping, said his sister, Ruta. An autopsy was scheduled for today

"It appeared he had been there a while, like overnight," said Sgt. Lars King of the Southampton Village Police Department.

Gerulaitis won only one Grand Slam event singles title, the 1977 Australian Open, but reached the final in two others, losing to McEnroe in the 1979 U.S. Open and to Bjorn Borg in the 1980 French Open.

Although Gerulaitis won 27 singles titles, nine doubles titles, was ranked in the top 10 from 1977 to 1982 and reached as high as No. 4 in 1984, it is generally believed in tennis circles that his tennis achievements were curtailed by his carefree nature.

"Tennis has lost one of its great characters," said John Lloyd.

It was Lloyd who was beaten by Gerulaitis on the grass courts of Kooyong in Melbourne in the Australian Open final 17 years ago.

Lloyd also played Gerulaitis in his last match.

In a doubles match last Wednesday in Seattle, part of Jimmy Connors' Champions Tour for players over 35, Lloyd and Borg played Connors and Gerulaitis.

The production was pure Vitas, Lloyd said.

"He put on a performance that really was great entertainment," he said. "I told Jimmy during the match 'Well, there are three guys out there and there's Vitas.'

"He must have had 50 one-liners. Everything just clicked. He was on. We got a standing ovation when we left."

It was the last time Gerulaitis would step on a tennis court. He suffered a pulled muscle in his back during the match and withdrew from a singles match scheduled for Thursday.

Connors was unable to discuss Gerulaitis when reached by telephone at his Seattle hotel.

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