It’s hard to believe that it’s been 20 years since the untimely and tragic passing of tennis great Vitas Gerulaitis. Only because it doesn’t seem that long ago that the player known as the “Lithuanian Lion” loomed larger than life during an era of very big egos and star power during the late 1970s and early 1980s.
Gerulaitis, who reached a career high ranking of No. 3 in the world and won the Australian Open, was one of the most charismatic and entertaining competitors ever to play the game. While he may have never achieved the huge results of his contemporaries Bjorn Borg, Jimmy Connors, and John McEnroe, all ranked him a true friend during a time when pros played hard on the courts and perhaps played even harder afterwards during their jet-setting escapades around the world.
After losing to Connors 16 times in a row, Gerulaitis finally beat Connors in the semifinals of the 1980 Masters. That inspired the now famous quip, “And let that be a lesson to you all. Nobody beats Vitas Gerulaitis 17 times in a row.” A phrase often reused and repurposed in various ways throughout the years, but never as original as when he said it first.
Gerulaitis, who won 25 career titles, retired in 1985. He spent his time after that as a tennis commentator and player on the Seniors Tour. On September 17, 1994, Gerulaitis was found dead inside a friend’s guest house in Southampton, NY due to accidental carbon monoxide poisoning. He was only 40 years old.
Connors took to Twitter to relay his remembrance of his friend.
20 yrs ago tennis lost a competitor- a champion- & a great ambassador for the game—- I lost a friend—– RIP Vitas!!!!!!
— Jimmy Connors (@JimmyConnors) September 17, 2014
A look back from those who knew Gerulaitis best can be found in a new post on ATP.com.