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Nobody Beats Vitas Gerulaitis 17 Times in a Row

Story by J. Bradley Minnick.




I had saved up all last year to buy the Snauwaert. I loved the feel of it, and the red and blue and white. It offered me so much more than my older brother Barry’s standard Jack Kramer racquet, which was chunky and, well, standardized—as if tennis was baseball—and the Kramer was boxlike, like my older brother. Barry was 17 and thought that anyone should be able to play tennis in Chucks with stalwart forbearance.


Shoes mattered, too. Shoes probably should have mattered the most, and yet, because they were so expensive—one had to make due with all-court treads, which though reliable on any surface weren’t particularly useful on any either. Jimbo, Mac, Borg, and Vitas knew better than to take shoes for granted. Shoes were their meal ticket—especially through endorsements—and although one could only wear one pair at a time, it sure must have been nice to have so many from which to choose.


Strings—well, there was gut and none of us—even the country clubbers—had the scratch to keep us in gut. Plus, because of the unpredictability of the Pittsburgh weather, gut took way too much care.


I wore my blond hair like my hero, Vitas Gerulaitis. Vitas, notorious playboy, rolled to tennis matches in a gold Rolls Royce, couldn’t be beaten by Jimmy Connors seventeen times in row and said as much—pushed himself with dogged determination.


Vitas, maybe if #1 and #2 and #3 weren’t your friends, you would have been the best, but #4 suited you. The pressure was on, and the Snau set you off. Jimbo played with the Wilson T-2000—steel that very nearly vibrated into your soul. Johnny Mac’s wooden Dunlop Maxply was a beast at the net.


I coveted tennis racquets—loved the feel of the different ones in my hands—begged my mother to take me to Tennis Haus so that I could examine the racquets that were carefully squeezed in between wooden dividers—not hanging from hooks and facing the customers like in the big box stores—where all that mattered about a racquet was if you could see it and balance it on your nose. Those box store racquets I had convinced myself were strictly for Sunday use with the croakers.


Borg used two racquets—the Donnay—sleek and small-headed, strung to 90 lbs. in Europe, and the Bankcroft Borg for the US Open, which he had never won. Borg’s Bankcroft was chunky black, but the grip could be easily doubled up on. It was not light, and it was unwieldy at the net—not as unwieldy as Wilson’s T-2000, which was uncontrollable and designed for max damage.


The T-2000 was a metal beast, with coils wrapped around the head as if to reinforce destruction. The ball pinged, ricocheting off the strings like it had hit a trampoline. There was no using it at the net because it felt like you were wielding a sword. This racquet was not for the meek but for the loud and brash. It did not have a sensitive side.

The Dunlop Maxply was oddly sleek and actually beautiful, with its various shades of wood, the laminates seamlessly glued together. It was a practical work of art, and one could do most anything with it, slice and dice, cut and spin, serve and volley. Its longevity in the backcourt, however, could not be sustained. It was for subtlety and manipulation.

Then, there was the Snau: Three-toned, laminated, sleek headed, poised, slender, well-balanced, perfect. I outfitted my Snau with cool-blue specked nylons that made a “ping” and terri-cloth grips, just like Vitas, who could wrap a grip in record speed during a change over. I used old washcloths that my patient mother sewed over the leather with a needle and thread.


During my 14th year, I borrowed Barry’s beloved Jack Kramer Autograph, which was heavy as hell, and during an autumn pick-up game, the bulky thing slipped out of my sweaty palm and came head-to-face with the pavement—and the racquet cracked. It was still playable, but Barry was steamed. He thought I was screwing around again and had let go of his Kramer on purpose. He pretty much accused me of throwing it down on the court just to spite him. Barry asked to borrow my beloved Snau for doubles with the croakers one Sunday morning. I pretty much had to concede, but I waited, sat on my hands, until he returned home in a bad mood, disparaging the washcloth grip, which had throttled around in his palm causing blisters. For spite, he had torn off the terri-cloth, which had ruined the leather underneath, and done damage to the look.


After that, like the tennis racquet companies, Barry and I were at war—Barry with his clunky and cracked Kramer—and I with the sleek wooden Snau, Vitas’ racket. I had just entered 9th grade. High school varsity tennis was pretty competitive—although in order to be spring competitive, one had to play winter ball. A great many tennis centers had sprung up for just that reason.


That winter, Tuesdays after school, I practiced with Barry at Windwood Courts. Windwood was cut rate—low budget. The courts had been constructed in an abandoned warehouse—but the cost was right: ten bucks an hour. It was hard to work up a sweat in Windwood. The air hung on you, and by the time your legs un-stiffened, there just wasn’t time to get warm. It wasn’t worth changing in the basement locker rooms, either, which were freezing. So, like everyone else, I wore my tennis clothes, sweats, and jacket right onto the courts. I didn’t like the green carpet either. It was slick and matted. Speed mattered on these courts—speed and reflexes.


Barry was a plugger: a solid straight-A type, who, when compelled to pick a sport, picked tennis. I had to hand it to him though. When Barry put his mind to something, he immersed himself in it completely. The method he had applied with great success to his schoolwork, his dogged grinding, he applied to his game.


Barry came right at you, and he never gave away a point: he never double-faulted; he never hit the ball into the net; and, he rarely hit wide or deep. If he got his racquet on it, one could be assured the ball was coming back loopy and without pace. He made you think you had the goods on him, and then he flipped a lob two or three feet from the baseline. His approaches were so calculated that he rarely lost any points at the net.

The energy of thinking so much, of keeping one’s mind perpetually present when playing him was exhausting. More discouraging, Barry’s game had no heft. It was more than sufficient, and he won a great deal, but his game was workmanlike. Try as he might, he could never find its heart.


My 14-year mind didn’t possess the patience to stay with him though, and my game usually fell apart right before a close of the second set. And after each successive win that winter, even with his cracked racquet, Barry became more confident—an ice-prince, so calculating and clever that he believed he couldn’t lose.


After an inevitable second set loss, tennis with Barry dissolved into “Battleball”—a game in which we took opposite sides, five feet from the net and tried to peg each other. The tennis balls came rapid fire, and you used your racquet to block the ball. The only way in or out was to hit or be hit. Simple. If the rock-hard balls didn’t hit you, they ricocheted off one of the back walls and rattled around under your feet.


Battleball was great fun—especially when those new pressure-less tennis balls that came in a box were absorbed into your skin, causing a compressed bruise that started small—was barely noticeable—but hurt like hell and overnight intensified and spread out like a blue rash. By the end of each week, Barry and I sported black welts all over our bodies. Mostly they hid beneath our shirts, but every so often the tentacles of one crept out under our shirt sleeves, a tattoo and testament to our hatred of each other.


When Mrs. Steinmetz, our History teacher, reported Barry’s bruises to Mr. Keefer, in Guidance, the world of Battleball collapsed around us. Mr. Keefer interviewed Barry, who said that while under the tennis lights, he been attacked by gypsy moths that had surged down and sent him running into the fence. Then, Keefer interviewed me, and I said I had been caught in the grips of a malfunctioning ball machine, whose stealth-like ways fired the rock soggy balls at will and without regard. Had it not been for the sanctity of Battleball, these fabrications would have bolstered our spirits but, we had the good sense to refrain from snickering.


Mr. Keefer sensed that he was over-matched and said flat-out that he didn’t have the time, nor the wherewithal, for games. This was a serious matter, he said and assured us the perpetrators would be held accountable.


We had a scare for a while and tried unsuccessfully (after I lost set two) to play doubles with the Windwood croakers, but by the middle of the first set, instead of hitting the ball back over the net, we would hit a kill shot at one another without regard for keeping the ball within the confines of the court. Still, the bruises, various shades of blue, purple, faded to green before they dissolved completely. And, as soon as the bruises faded, all of the hubbub and concern around Barry and me faded, too.


The last time I played Barry was on a particularly wintry day. The roads were crazy-covered and finding our way to Windwood was a challenge. We followed an old Toyota up the steep hill to the indoor courts, and I think without this tether we might not have made it at all.


Windwood’s inside was hollow, and except for one other couple hitting the ball back and forth, it was empty. And, because of this, I’m certain, my Snau sprang to life—each serve sounded like a cannon blast and Barry, gun-shy, could barely get his Kramer on most of my serves. Likewise, my returns were like Vitas’. Suddenly I was the playboy, cool, in control waiting for the Rolls to take me home.


Barry’s lobs seemed weighted down by the weather and hung in the air too long, drafted too low to keep my overheads at bay. I reveled as he ran from one side of the court to the other trying to smack the ball away as if he wanted no part of it. And the balls all bounced in my favor, "lets" dribbled over the net cord on important points, dropping to the carpet with barely a bounce. Match-point kicked off the top of the net and bounced over Barry’s leaping overhead attempt. Barry begged for a third set, but I’m sad to say that our 20 bucks had run out.


In the car on the way home, we didn’t speak. I kicked-up the am radio and hummed along to the static. Barry kept silent, stewing, pretending to be unflappable but his veneer was visibly cracking.

In the spring right before I tried out for varsity, I saw an exhibition match between Mac and Vitas in the Civic Arena— an igloo-like dome that was somehow transformed into a tennis court so very similar to the court I played on during the winter. During the match, Vitas was magnificent, hitting the ball from all angles and scooping it up from the carpet, even beating Mac to the net. What struck me and has stayed with me since was the change-over when Mac and alternately Vitas took off their shirts. Each was so thin, he was positively skeletal. And, these were the bad boys of tennis? Bad boys who had taken off their armor and given us a glimpse of their soft underbellies.


After the match as Barry and I were leaving the Arena, we watched as Vitas made his way through the city in tennis shorts with his Snau leading the way, his legs perfect scissors, his eyes singular and focused, as if making it downtown was all that should matter in the world. This was my one chance to say hello, and I imagined had I not been 14, Vitas would have seen a mirror of himself (I was wearing tennis shorts, too) and taken me clubbing. I hesitated and Vitas Gerulaitis slipped into the night.

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3 Comments


Guest
Aug 26, 2023

It’s not just the equipment that gets fetishized here but the entire experience of the game and the culture of tennis as a whole. Only someone with a bone-deep love of the game could compose this piece. Minnick weaves details together like the racquets he describes.

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Guest
Aug 20, 2023

I love all the intricate details in the little things that make the story even more enjoyable!!

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Guest
Aug 14, 2023

Great story Brad! So much wonderful detail about the game, balls, rackets, and even the strings. I could almost hear those strings. Masterfully done! It's easy to see your knowledge of the game.

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