December 31, 1977: The day Vitas Gerulaitis won his first and only Grand Slam

Every day Tennis Majors takes you back in time to recall an important moment in tennis history. On this day in tennis history, a flamboyant American player needed five sets to beat a little known Brit to win the Australian Open

Vitas Gerulaitis Vitas Gerulaitis | © Panoramic / Tennis Majors

What exactly happened on that day?

On this day, December 31 in 1977, Vitas Gerulaitis made his New Year’s Eve extra special by clinching his first and only Grand Slam title, defeating John Lloyd in the final of the Australian Open (6-3, 7-6, 5-7, 3-6, 6-2). The American, who had lost an epic semi-final at Wimbledon to Bjorn Borg just a few months earlier, was the favourite at the tournament which had been deprived of the world’s best players, even though the victory nearly slipped out of his hands at the last minute against the unheralded Brit.

The players involved: Vitas Gerulaitis and John Lloyd

  • Vitas Gerulaitis: the champion who made tennis cool

Born in 1954, Vitas Gerulaitis 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 early hours.”

Nicknamed “the Lithuanian Lion” because of his family origins, the New Yorker embraced that reputation. “If I could be as successful on the tennis court as I am off it, I would be No 1,” he once said. Nonetheless, Gerulaitis was a great player, who claimed the first of his seven titles in Vienna, defeating Andrew Pattison in the final (6-3, 3-6, 6-4, 6-2). In 1977, he took his career to the next level, winning the most important tournament of his career yet at the Monte-Carlo Open (defeating Antonio Zugarelli in the final, 6-2, 7-6, 3-6, 7-6). Now a member of the top 10, he reached the Wimbledon semi-finals, where he played one of the greatest matches in the tournament’s history, going down to Bjorn Borg after a five-set battle (6-4, 3-6, 6-3, 3-6, 8-6). During the year-end Australian tour, he added two titles to his list of achievements, triumphing in Perth and in Brisbane, and by the time the Australian Open came around, he was ranked No 5 in the world. 

  • John Lloyd: The serve-volleying Briton, ranked 40

John Lloyd, from Great Britain, was born in 1954. He followed the path of his older brother, David, who was also a tennis player. Lloyd claimed his first and only title in 1974, in Merion, defeating John Whitlinger in the final (6-0, 4-6, 6-3, 7-5). His best Grand Slam result was reaching the third round, which he achieved at Wimbledon in 1973 (lost to Vijay Amritraj, 7-5, 6-4, 3-6, 2-6, 7-5) and at the 1976 US Open (lost to Bjorn Borg, 6-3, 6-3). In 1977, Lloyd had reached two finals on the tour, in Basel and Wembley, each time defeated by Borg in straight sets. In December 1977, he was ranked No 40 in the world.

The place: Melbourne, Australia

Unlike the other Grand Slam tournaments, the Australian Open (first known as the Australasian Championships and later, the Australian Championships) had moved several locations throughout the years. In fact, the event switched cities every year before settling in Melbourne in 1972, and no fewer than five Australian cities had hosted the event at least three times: Melbourne, Sydney, Adelaide, Brisbane and Perth. The event was held on grass at the Kooyong Stadium in an affluent suburb of Melbourne. Its position in the tennis calendar had changed several times as well, between early December and January, going from being the first Grand Slam of the year to being the last. At the time, many of the top players skipped the Australian Open, mainly because of the remoteness and the low prize money. In 1977, in order to attract the top players, the board decided to hold a second tournament earlier in December.

The facts: Vitas Gerulaitis overcomes cramps to win in five sets

At the 1977 Australian Open, the organisers’ attempts to attract the best players in the world by holding a second event before Christmas didn’t work. Bjorn Borg and Jimmy Connors did not show up, and even Guillermo Vilas, runner-up at the last edition, was absent. The top seeds were Vitas Gerulaitis and Roscoe Tanner, followed by Aussie veterans Tony Roche and Ken Rosewall (who was already 43 years old).

After Tanner’s loss in the first round, Gerulaitis became the heavy favourite at the tournament. He proved himself equal to the task, dropping just one set (against Ray Ruffels in the quarter-finals) on the way to the final, where he faced little known John Lloyd, from Great Britain. 

The two players had already faced each other a couple of weeks earlier in Sydney and Gerulaitis had easily prevailed, 6-2, 6-2. This time though, Lloyd gave the American a much harder time. Although the world No 5 won the two first sets and seemed to be cruising for an easy win, the Brit clawed his way back into the match, and pushed his opponent into a dangerous fifth set. Gerulaitis was now cramping and his chances to lift the trophy seemed jeopardised. 

However, the Lithuanian Lion managed to overcome his cramps while Lloyd ran out of fuel at the start of the decider. Gerulaitis eventually prevailed (6-3, 7-6, 5-7, 3-6, 6-2). 

“Today was my lucky day and the Good Lord looked down on me,” Gerulaitis said after the match, according to “The pain was dreadful, and I remember looking up toward the sky in the fourth set and saying to myself I couldn’t win without some sort of help.”

“If I had fallen over in those last two sets I could not have got back to my feet again,” he added, according to Mike Rowbottom. “I almost walked off the court at the end of the fourth set – but hell, this was a Grand Slam tournament and I was not going to give in easily.”

What next? Vitas Gerulaitis dies tragically at the age of 40

Reaching world No 3 in 1978, Gerulaitis would finish runner-up to John McEnroe at the 1979 US Open (7-5, 6-3, 6-3), and he would reach a last Grand Slam final at Roland-Garros in 1980, defeated by Borg (6-4, 6-1, 6-2). Aside from that, he would also make his way six times into the final four of a major tournament and finish twice runner-up at the season-ending Masters. One of those Masters losses came to Ivan Lendl in 1982 after a legendary match during which Lendl famously aimed an easy passing shot (6-7, 2-6, 7-6, 6-2, 6-4) at Gerulaitis. However, the American’s life was tragically cut short as he passed away on September 17, 1994, at the age of 40, from carbon monoxide poisoning.

John Lloyd would remain famous in tennis history for his marriage with Chris Evert, which lasted from 1979 until 1987. He would climb as high as No 21 in 1978 and would claim three Grand Slam titles in mixed doubles, partnering Wendy Turnbull. In singles, he would obtain his last remarkable result at the 1985 Australian Open where he reached the quarter-finals (defeated by Lendl, 7-6, 6-2, 6-1).

It would be another 31 years before a Brit would make his way to a Grand Slam singles final again: Andy Murray, who would finish runner-up at the 2008 US Open, before he went on three major crowns and reach the world No 1 ranking in 2016.

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