Tennis world mourns Gerulaitis

September 20, 1994|By New York Times News Service

For John McEnroe, Vitas Gerulaitis was "an inspiration," a kid from the old neighborhood who conquered the big time, a kid he "looked up to."

To Pete Sampras, who has found life lonely at the top, he became a best friend in a business where competition often prohibits friendship.

With his rival Bjorn Borg, he shared his home and backyard tennis court each year at U.S. Open time and was, Borg said yesterday, "like a brother to me."

In the eyes of Fred Stolle, he was a second son, and to Jimmy Connors, who played doubles with him at a Seattle exhibition just last Wednesday, he was a show-stopper and a perfectionist who had come to be as obsessed about his golf swing as he once had been about his serve.

The tennis world reacted yesterday with shock and regret to the death of Gerulaitis, 40, who was found dead early Sunday evening at a friend's ocean-front cottage in Southampton, N.Y.

In the past two years, Gerulaitis had seemed to emerge a victor from his decade-long battle with substance abuse and had begun a promising broadcasting career.

The preliminary findings of the autopsy were described as inconclusive.

No one who had spent time with Gerulaitis in recent months had seen any indication of trouble.

"From all the signs of what I saw in Seattle," said Connors, "he was back to being the old Vitas."

Charitable by nature, Gerulaitis didn't confine his acts to his heyday: on the day he died, he was in the Hamptons to help out at a benefit.

And on the day an ailing Pete Sampras, the defending champion, was upended by Jaime Yzaga in a five-set U.S. Open marathon, it was Gerulaitis who picked up the pieces.

"He was just there to get me better, and that's the memory I have of him," said Sampras, who sent everyone but Gerulaitis out of the trainer's room that day. "That's the sort of friend he was."

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