January 17, 1982: The day head-hunting Lendl won the most dramatic duel with Gerulaitis

Every day, Tennis Majors takes you back in time to look back at an important moment in tennis history. On this day in 1982, Vitas Gerulaitis was in the driver’s seat against Ivan Lendl in the 1982 Masters Cup Final in New York, but things fell apart after the American made a move he’d forever regret

Ivan Lendl Ivan Lendl

What happened on that day?

On this day, January 17, 1982, in the Masters Cup final , Ivan Lendl came back from two-sets-to-love down, saving a match point against Vitas Gerulaitis to claim the biggest title of his career yet (6-7, 2-6, 7-6, 6-2, 6-4). It was during this memorable final that Lendl famously aimed a passing shot straight at Gerulaitis to save a breakpoint in the third set, almost knocking out the American.

The players: Ivan Lendl and Vitas Gerulaitis

  • Ivan Lendl: The Czech who set new standards in men’s tennis

Ivan Lendl was born in 1960 in Ostrava, Czechoslovakia. After turning pro in 1978, he was among the top four players in the world since 1980, along with Bjorn Borg, John McEnroe and Jimmy Connors. He had won nine ATP titles already, seven of them in 1980. In 1981, he  reached his first Grand Slam final at Roland-Garros, where he defeated McEnroe in the quarter-finals (6-4, 6-4, 7-5) before losing in five sets against the great Bjorn Borg (6-1, 4-6, 6-2, 3-6, 6-1). 

Lendl set new standards in the baseline game, with a very powerful topspin forehand that allowed him to play aggressively while staying extremely consistent, dragging his opponents into the toughest of physical challenges. He also set new standards in work ethics, practicing harder and more efficiently than anyone before, paying attention to his fitness and to his diet in a way tennis players had not done before.

Lendl Roland Garros 1984
  • Vitas Gerulaitis: the 1977 Australian Open champion

Vitas Gerulaitis was born in 1954 in New York. The “Lithuanian Lion” climbed as high as world No 3 in March 1978, after a fantastic 1977 season, during which he won his first and only Grand Slam title at the Australian Open, defeating John Lloyd in the final (6-3, 7-6, 5-7, 3-6, 6-2). A few months earlier, he had reached the semi-finals at Wimbledon, defeated by his friend Bjorn Borg in one of the greatest matches in the tournament’s history (6-4, 3-6, 6-3, 3-6, 8-6).

Gerulaitis finished runner-up to John McEnroe at the 1979 US Open (7-5, 6-3, 6-3), and he reached his last Grand Slam final at Roland-Garros in 1980, defeated by Borg (6-4, 6-1, 6-2). The American was famous for his off-court personality. According to The Independent, “nobody contributed more to making tennis the coolest sport in town. “Broadway Vitas”, the ultimate tennis playboy, dated actresses and models, played in a rock band, partied till the small hour.” Gerulaitis was also known for his sense of humor: in 1980 after he ended a run of 16 consecutive losses to Connors, he commented: “Nobody beats Vitas Gerulaitis 17 times in a row.” 

Borg - McEnroe - Gerulaitis - Wimbledon

The place: Madison Square Garden, New York

Founded in 1970, the year-end Masters Cup was the final showdown between the eight best players in the world. Held in a different location every year from the start, it settled at the Madison Square Garden in New York in 1977. In the “World’s Most Famous Arena”, the Masters Cup became more than just a tennis tournament – it was a spectacle. Tickets were sold out well in advance, with more than 18,500 spectators packing the stands. The tournament director, Ray Benton, had moved the event to January, in order to avoid competition with American football, and, before the upcoming Super Bowl, the Tennis Masters Cup was the main sports event in the United States that week.

The facts: Lendl saves match point to win in five sets

At the 1981 Masters Cup, held in January 1982, the New York crowd didn’t get the expected final between John McEnroe and Jimmy Connors. Defeated twice in the round-robin stage, Connors hadn’t made it into the semi-finals while McEnroe was ousted in the semi-finals by Ivan Lendl (6-4, 6-2). 

In the final, Lendl faced Vitas Gerulaitis. The American had defeated the Czech in a five-set battle at the US Open a few months earlier, but in their round-robin clash, Lendl had prevailed easily (6-4, 6-1). It was hard to pick a favourite.

If the spectators were disappointed to have been deprived from a McEnroe-Connors classic clash, they got their money’s worth thanks to Lendl and Gerulaitis, who played one of the most dramatic matches in Masters Cup history. 

Gerulaitis won the two first sets, constantly attacking the net, taking advantage of Lendl’s inability to hit backhand passing shots. Showing great anticipation, the American even obtained break points at 2-0 in the third set, but it was maybe in that game that a turning point occurred. 

After having chipped and charged on Lendl’s backhand, Gerulaitis hit a first volley that went way too high, and his opponent took the opportunity to aim at him with full power. Although Lendl was just inside the baseline, he hit the ball so hard that his opponent couldn’t avoid it and was hit in the head. Gerulaitis didn’t stay long on the ground and didn’t try to confront Lendl, walking back to his baseline as if nothing had happened, although he would admit later that he was “left with a little headache”. 

”I didn’t want to go two breaks down,” Lendl said afterward, according to The New York Times. ”I just wanted to come back. All you can do is keep fighting and fighting and fighting.”

Gerulaitis’ main regret in that match would remain the match point that he blew in the third set tie-break, where he didn’t chip and charge after Lendl’s second serve: ”I should have come in and let him try to pass me,” Gerulaitis said. ”If he passes me, he deserves to win the point.”

Almost 30 years later, his coach, Fred Stolle, would still be bitter: “Lendl was serving at 5-6 in the third set tie-break, down two sets to love. Having missed a first serve, Vitas took a step forward and played a backhand return. He looked to be chip-charging en route to the net, forcing Lendl to pass him on match point. But Vitas took two steps forward, and then four backwards. Lendl would clinch the tie-break 8-6 and go on to win in five sets.”

In fact, once the third set was sealed, the Czech dominated the next two sets and finally prevailed (6-7, 2-6, 7-6, 6-2, 6-4), claiming the most significant title yet of his young career.

What next? Murray recalls Lendl’s love for aiming for his opponents in practice

Lendl’s triumph in 1982 would be the first of his five Masters Cup titles, a tournament where he would reach nine consecutive finals.

In 2012, Andy Murray, who had enlisted Lendl to help him win Grand Slams, would reveal that his coach at the time had kept the habit of aiming at his opponents at the net, even at practice: “All he wants to do is hit people he’s practising with,” Murray said to The Independent. “He’s been trying to get me to do it. I’ve hit a few guys, but not like the way he hits them. If I was at the back of the court and they were at the net, I’d just be hitting hard at them. I’ve always done that. But if a ball pops up on top of the net [his aim] is just to absolutely nail them. I’m sure you’ve seen the videos of him hitting [Vitas] Gerulaitis on the forehead in matches. That’s what he loved doing. Almost every player I’ve spoken to has a story about him hitting them in practice. It’s what he did.”

Reaching the 1981 Masters Cup final would remain Gerulaitis’ last big result He would die tragically on September 17, 1994, at the age of 40, from carbon monoxide poisoning.

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