I’ll be honest and say I’m a little tired of the joke. It is actually a tennis classic, built into the fabric of the sport.
But every. . .single. . .time someone ends a long losing streak against another player, it’s the same line. Nobody beats Tomas Berdych 18 times in a row. That’s what we heard after he beat Rafael Nadal at the Australian Open this week. And when Andreas Seppi beat Roger Federer, ESPN ran the same joke on the scroll across the bottom of the screen.
Going into Saturday’s women’s final between Serena Williams and Maria Sharapova, Williams has won the past 15 times in their rivalry. I’m just going to warn you now, in case Sharapova wins. The joke is coming again. For most tennis writers, it writes itself on the computer.
It was a Vitas Gerulaitis original, though it has been misreported so many times that the truth of the slump he ended is now confused in oral history. He did not beat Bjorn Borg to end the streak. He never beat Bjorn Borg, period. But in 1980 at the Masters Gerulaitis ended an 16-match losing streak by beating. . .
Jimmy Connors. And he came into the interview room carrying a bottle of champagne, according to reports from the time, and said it in his self-deprecating celebration: “And let that be a lesson to you all. Nobody beats Vitas Gerulaitis 17 times in a row.”
The funny thing is, it was the start of Gerulaitis’ five-match win streak against Connors.
And it appears that Gerulaitis was right. According to the official ATP record book, which is not perfect, his final record against Borg was 0-16.
And according to Matt Cronin’s book “Epic” about the Borg-John McEnroe rivalry, after Gerulaitis made the joke that lives in tennis history, someone asked him if he had broken into the Big Three of Borg, McEnroe and Connors. Gerulaitis said, “I’ve always had this potential, but there aren’t three. There are the rest of us. Then there’s Bjorn.”
More honesty: When I started writing this column, I planned on asking that we finally retire that joke. Then, I started looking up some stuff about Gerulaitis. I’m remembering, laughing. I remember
him cursing out loud after losing a tight match to McEnroe at the U.S. Open. I remember when I played in juniors, if I started double-faulting, I’d scream out that I’d come down with a serious case of Gerulaitis.
Maybe I’m not ready for that joke to go away afterall. It has lasted 35 years. And somehow, it keeps Gerulaitis fresh on our minds 20 years after he died. It keeps Gerulaitis in tennis.
New Yorker. Party guy. Studio 54. Hair. Tennis clinics for inner city New York kids. Flair and style. And being truthful, drugs, too. You take it all together. And he kept the game fun for the most part, which had a hand in the sport’s incredible popularity in the U.S. at the time. Back then, the game’s image was transitioning from a snooty country club game to one for the everyman.
He became great friends with Borg after their classic match in the 1977 Wimbledon semifinal, which Borg won 8-6 in the fifth set. Borg has told the story that the next day, Gerulaitis came out and practiced with him. It was the start of their friendship.
Gerulaitis reached No. 3 in the rankings and won the Australian Open in December of 1977. But he never beat Borg.
In his book “High Strung” also about the Borg-McEnroe rivalry, Stephen Tignor, details the Gerulaitis-Borg relationship and talks about how seriously it did frustrate and hurt Vitas that he couldn’t get that one win.
“I got to Connors. I got to McEnroe. But I couldn’t get Borg,” Gerulaitis told the Washington Post, according to Tignor’s book. “It got frustrating. I just got tired of chasing, chasing, not getting there. I took time off because I wanted to get away from tennis for a while.”
Tignor also says that at one point, Borg’s official record over Gerulaitis was listed as 20-0. Who knows how that changed?
Well, whatver it was — and whether someone really did beat Vitas Gerulaitis 17 times in a row — here’s a fun story: In May of 1978, Gerulaitis was set to try to break Borg’s streak against him. At the time, it was just eight wins for Borg.
Someone asked Gerulaitis if he’d ever finally beat Borg.
“If I have to invite him over to my house when I’m 95 and get him out of a wheelchair, I’m going to beat the guy,” Gerulaitis said. “If someone asks me how long I’m going to play tennis. . .until I beat Borg.”
Like I said: a tennis classic.