The magic I almost missed
By Mike Lupica
The call came about five o'clock in the afternoon on the second Tuesday of last year's U.S. Open, in what was supposed to be a day off. It seemed a good way for me to take off. The only match of interest was Pete Sampras against Jaime Yzaga, and that was a match Sampras absolutely could not lose. So I had been out with my three boys, doing all manner of wonderful late-summer boy things with them and had not been near a TV or a radio all day until I came into the office I keep in my home and the phone was ringing and it was my newspaper calling.
One of the editors said, "We've been trying to reach you for an hour." I told her I had been out.
"Sampras might lose."
"Sampras can't lose to Haime Yzaga."
"Turn on the TV."
I did. Sampras was limping around in obvious distress and down 5-2 to Yzaga in the fifth set of a match -- and a U.S. Open -- he was not supposed to lose.
"If he loses, we're going to need something from you."
I hung up and watched the end of the match, taking notes, not sure what was wrong with Sampras. I live in a town in Connecticut that is about an hour from the USTA National Tennis Center in Queens. That is with no traffic.
The office called back as soon as the match ended, Yzaga winning 7-5 in the fifth. On TV it looked as if Sampras wasn't going to be able to make it off the court without assistance.
I told them I would get into the car and see if I could make it to Flushing Meadow before Sampras left the grounds and the 1994 Open. These are the very best days for this kind of job, even if you get a later start on them.
I started for the tennis center about 6 p.m. I have a phone in the car. I kept calling the CBS production office, which I try to appropriate as my own office at every U.S. Open. Somebody told me Sampras had collapsed in the office next door as soon as he got off the court. Yzaga was already in the interview room.
When I called back, I got Mary Carillo on the phone. She is not only the best tennis analyst working on TV, she is the best reporter. I told her the deal about getting the call an hour or so ago and about now trying to break all of David Letterman's land-speed records coming down the Merritt Parkway.
Carillo said, "If you get here in time, I think Vitas will have you covered."
She was talking about the late Vitas Gerulaitis, a friend of mine for nearly 20 years and a friend for Mary's life, all the way back to the Port Washington Tennis Academy. Last year's Open was the one during which Vitas finally became a TV star, also working for CBS.
"What's Vitas been doing?"
Mary said, "He's been with Pete since the time the match ended. He'll be able to tell you all about it."
I said, "If Vitas tries to leave the grounds, tackle him."
I pulled into the parking lot right across from the stadium, next door to the CBS trucks, at 7:11. I remember the time because I was hoping it meant I was lucky.
Which I was.
I jumped out of the car and there was a maroon courtesy car directly across from the trucks. As I came up on the car I heard applause from people gathered there and saw Tim and Tom Gullikson already in the car and Gerulaitis, God rest his wonderful soul, helping Sampras, the outgoing champion, into the car.
The courtesy car was an Infiniti, No. 17 on the side. Tim Gullikson is Sampras' coach. Before the year was out, he would be diagnosed with brain cancer. He would be sick and Vitas would be dead, dead because of a terrible carbon monoxide accident at a friend's summer home in Southampton, N.Y. There are days and nights in sports that you remember a little better than the others, for all kinds of reasons, not all of them good ones. Tim Gullikson got into the front seat and his brother, Tom, Sampras' Davis Cup captain, got into the back.
Vitas took Sampras as far as the gate and then let him go. There are rules for champions, even in defeat. Even when they are wounded. So Sampras, unaided, came around the back of the car, his hand on the fender to steady himself. It had been a day at the U.S. Open when everything had given out on Sampras except his heart. The car pulled away. It was about 7:15 p.m. now on the second Tuesday at the Open, and Gerulaitis and Carillo stood near the entrance to the President's Box and watched the car go.
"You never saw feet like this," Gerulaitis said quietly. "The bottoms were raw, like he was down to his second layer of skin."
Coming into the Open, Sampras had not played tennis for 44 days because of a bad ankle. And across five sets with Yzaga, a tough little ground-stroker ranked No. 23 in the world, Sampras simply had broken down. His back went and his whole left side was cramping up by the end. And his feet were raw.
And Sampras would not quit.
Yzaga beat him 3-6, 6-3, 4-6, 7-6, 7-5. When the match was over, Tim Gullikson and Gerulaitis took Sampras into the referee's office, which is maybe 50 feet from the court and put some towels down on the floor for him. Sampras took off his socks and shoes and lay down on the floor of the referee's office, and people left him there, with his coach and his friend Vitas, who held his head while Gullikson rolled up towels to use as pillows. So much humanity in one room.
"He's my friend," Vitas said later, and it explained everything better than a speech would have.
When Sampras felt well enough, Gullikson walked him back to the locker room. A few minutes later, Gerulaitis collected Sampras' racquets from the referee's office and brought them up to the locker room and dropped them off at Sampras' locker.
"There were days when I needed someone to carry my racquets and I was just a contender," Gerulaitis said to me that day. "Today I carried the champion's racquets."
Vitas did not make it out to be anything special, and now it always will be one of the gestures I will best remember him for, because it told more about him than all the money he made or all the drug problems he had later in his life, all the cars and big homes and big matches.
Carrying those racquets back to the locker room for Sampras on the day when Sampras was not strong enough to do that himself.
At about 7:20 that night, Vitas leaned against a wall in a hallway behind the stadium court at the Open, as people started to fill up the seats for a night match. Vitas had his own racquets now. He was in the veterans' doubles and was playing the second match that night in the grandstand. I had my notebook out, and he was starting to tell me a lot of the details you have just read here. Carillo was with him, smiling at her friend. She had been doing this since they were teenagers. I believe she always will do it at the mention of Vitas' name.
"So anyway," Vitas says, "Gully and me get him into the referee's office...."
I stop him. "Which Gully?" I ask.
I am ready with my pen, ready to scribbles another note on this column Vitas is helping me write.
Only Vitas pauses.
"Which Gully, Vitas?" I repeat.
Vitas is frowning now.
Finally he says, "Which one is Pete's coach and which one is the Davis Cup captain?"
Carillo bursts out laughing.
"It's an ongoing problem," she says.
Now we all laugh in the hallway at the end of the day. It seemed to happen that way a lot, if Vitas was anywhere around. Sampras had lost this match, lost his chance to repeat as Open champion, but somehow he had won the crowd that day. Just because he had not quit. Now his Open was gone and the courtesy car was off the grounds and Vitas was on his way to practice. He was 40 and everything was ahead of him now, the way it had been in tennis once.
He walked off into the night, grinning, talking to himself for our benefit.
"Tim's his coach," he said, "Tom's his captain. Tim's his coach, Tom's his captain...."
He looked over his shoulder, to make sure he got one more laugh. It was one of the last times I saw him, carrying his own racquets on the day when he carried the racquets of a champion. It is funny the things you remember. It is funny how things turn out. Vitas wasn't supposed to be the story. It wasn't supposed to be his day at all.