Starting in the mid-1970s, Vitas Gerulaitis was recognized as a top American tennis player with a flamboyant style and a funny-sounding name. He only won one Grand Slam singles title because he was always competing against some of the game’s greatest in Jimmy Connors, John McEnroe, and Bjorn Borg.
After retiring from competitive action in 1986, he worked as a tennis commentator until 1994. That same year tragedy struck when he unexpectedly died in a bizarre incident of carbon monoxide poisoning. Here’s a look back at the career and untimely death of Vitas Gerulaitis.
Vitas Gerulaitis becomes top player and wins Australian Open
Vitas Gerulaitis arrived on the scene when World TeamTennis was becoming popular, increasing the profile and the prize money for the sport. In 1975, he led the Pittsburgh Triangles to the WTT championship title.
The 1977 season was the best of his career. Gerulaitis had a near-miss at Wimbledon, losing in the semifinals in a five-set thriller to Bjorn Borg. Later that year, he won his first and only singles title at the Australian Open, defeating John Lloyd in five sets.
Vitas Gerulaitis had a couple of other opportunities to capture Grand Slam singles titles but came up just short, losing in the finals to John McEnroe at the 1979 U.S. Open and again to Borg at the 1980 French Open.
Vitas Gerulaitis and Bjorn Borg’s special relationship
In addition to his long-flowing locks, Vitas Gerulaitis had something else that made him stand out amongst the competition. Gerulaitis was unique in that he could set aside those competitive juices, disconnect from the game, and befriend his competition like no one else.
He did just that following what many considered to be one of the best Wimbledon matches ever against Borg in the 1977 semifinals. The day after the match, Gerulaitis sought out Borg, who was about to start practicing for the finals.
“We started to talk about the match for a little bit,” Bjorg said in a Tennis Channel story on Gerulaitis’ career. “Then he said to me, ‘Anytime you want to practice, I’m willing to do it.’ That’s when everything happened with the relationship and friendship with me and Vitas. For Vitas to come down the next day, it surprised everybody. Vitas was not only a great tennis player, but he was a great person, too.”
His bizarre death from carbon monoxide
A couple of years after his retirement from playing in 1986, Vitas Gerulaitis moved up to the broadcast booth and joined USA Network as a commentator, where he worked for years.
On September 17, 1994, Gerulaitis went to visit with a friend in Southampton, New York, where he stayed in the friend’s guest house. Television sports commentator Jack Whitaker, who had worked with Gerulaitis at a tennis clinic earlier in the day, had expected him to show up to a party at his house that evening. When he didn’t, Whitaker assumed the former tennis star didn’t show up because he was nursing an ailing back.
The next day a housekeeper discovered his body. Vitas Gerulaitis had died from carbon monoxide poisoning due to an improperly installed pool heater, which allowed gas to leak into the guest house. A couple of years later, a jury acquitted the pool mechanic and the company he worked for of negligent homicide.
Vitas Gerulaitis was 40 years old.