October 25, 1981: The day Gerulaitis was disqualified in Melbourne

Every day, Tennis Majors takes you back in time to look back at an important moment in tennis history. On this day in 1981,Vitas Gerulaitis got into trouble with the umpires and was defaulted in a match against Aussie Peter McNamara

What exactly happened on that day?

On this day, October 25 in 1981, in the final of the Miracle Indoor Tennis Championships in Melbourne, Vitas Gerulaitis, who was facing Peter McNamara, was defaulted after he refused to play after a controversial line call. The incident happened at 5-4 in the deciding third set, when Gerulaitis was broken back after his passing shot had been called out particularly late. The American simply refused to play on and left the court. 

The players involved: Vitas Gerulaitis and Pete McNamara

  • Vitas Gerulaitis: tennis’ cool Grand Slam champion

Vitas Gerulaitis was born in 1954 in New York. The “Lithuanian Lion” climbed as high as world No 3 in March 1978, after an excellent 1977 season that saw him claim his first and only Grand Slam title at the Australian Open by 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 late hour.” Gerulaitis was also known for his sense of humour – after he ended a run of 16 consecutive defeats in 1980 against Jimmy Connors, he commented: “Nobody beats Vitas Gerulaitis 17 times in a row.” 

  • Pete McNamara:

Peter McNamara, from Australia, was born in 1955. Ranked No 11 in the world in October 1981, the Aussie had briefly entered the top 10 earlier, coming off his most important of his three titles, beating Jimmy Connors in the final of the German International Championships in Hamburg (7-6, 6-1, 4-6, 6-4). His best Grand Slam performance occurred at the 1980 Australian Open, where he reached the semi-finals, defeated by Brian Teacher (6-7, 7-5, 6-3, 6-4). McNamara was more successful in doubles, where, partnering Paul McNamee, he had clinched two Grand Slam titles, the first one in Australia in 1979, and the second one at Wimbledon in 1980.

The place: Melbourne, Australia

The Melbourne Indoor was a men’s tournament established  in Melbourne, Australia, in 1980. The event was part of the Grand Prix tennis circuit and was played on indoor carpet courts. In the final of the first edition, Vitas Gerulaitis had defeated Peter McNamara in the final, 7-5, 6-3.

The facts: Gerulaitis calls for Australia to use younger officials

On October 25, 1981, the final of the Melbourne Indoor Championship was the rematch from the 1980 final with Gerulaitis facing McNamara. 

This time, the Australian, playing in front of his home crowd, started strong by taking the first set 6-4. Gerulaitis completely flipped the script and took control of the match, winning the second set 6-1. He then took a 4-0 lead in the deciding set. However, McNamara didn’t give up and managed to survive, forcing his opponent to serve for the match at 5-4. It was in this game that things got ugly. McNamara earned a break point, on which he came to the net, only to be passed by Gerulaitis. Unfortunately for the American, his shot was called out particularly late by the chair umpire. Gerulaitis, not only contested the decision, but also argued that it had been made too late, as he called for the officials and asked for the removal of the umpire. 

Officials turned down the request and Gerulaitis sat down, refusing to resume the match. The umpire gave him a time warning, awarded two penalty points against him, followed by a game penalty. Eventually he had no choice but to default the defending champion,  who then stood up, shook hands with McNamara, and simply left the court.

Gerulaitis later said that this was the worst officiating he had ever experienced.

“Australia should follow the example of the United States and use younger officials,” he said, according to upi.com. “You have three ladies there who have to be over 60 years of age. I mean, I love my grandmother, she’s 92, but when I get too old two years from now and I can’t make the cut in a tournament, nobody’s going to feel sorry for me. So why can’t we keep at least guys that are sharp, that are used to officiating and that are on the ball. And if they make mistakes, fine, but these people have been making mistakes for 60 years and that’s just not fair.”

What’s next? Gerulaitis gets fined for the incident

Gerulaitis would later be fined $15,000 by the Men’s International Professional Tennis Council: $10,000 for the Melbourne incident and $5,000 for an incident at the US Open in September. Gerulaitis would achieve his last remarkable performance on the tour at the 1981 Masters Cup, finishing runner-up to Ivan Lendl after a legendary final lost 6-7, 2-6, 7-6, 6-2, 6-4, during which Lendl famously aimed at him on an easy passing shot.

Sadly, Gerulaitis died on September 17, 1994 at the age of 40, from carbon monoxide poisoning.

Peter McNamara would claim a third major doubles title at Wimbledon in 1982. His career would then be interrupted by a serious shoulder injury. McNamara died on 20 July 2019 at the age of 64 from prostate cancer.

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