A noisy Chinese restaurant. Suburban Long Island, New York. “I see things in Vitas that you just don’t find in a lot of guys,” says actress Janet Jones, biting into a slippery sparerib. “I’ve never realized how important it is to be around someone who makes you laugh.” Mulling the explanation for his attraction to Jones, Vitas Gerulaitis crosses his eyes and pokes at his teeth with a chopstick. “They make awfully big toothpicks in this restaurant,” he observes, “awfully big,” whereupon Janet dissolves into sultry laughter.
Jones, who is 25 and fresh from co-starring with Olympic gymnast Mitch Gaylord in American Anthem, and Gerulaitis, 32, who was once the tennis world’s No. 4 player and is now contemplating life after the game, are engaged—sort of. Vitas cannot quite recall when it was he asked for Janet’s hand. “After 14 years on the tennis circuit, my memory has been blotted out,” he says. “Help me out, honey.”
“It was on Valentine’s Day 1985.”
“Right,” he says. “I remember, but I’ve got a little headache. Where were we?”
“Right. I gave you a nice little gift.”
“He gave me a necklace [a gold choker that comes together in a diamond-studded V] and said, ‘I hope that next year on Valentine’s Day, this will mean so much more, like marriage.’ ”
Valentine’s Day 1986 came and went. A wedding date has not yet been set, but Gerulaitis’ mother, Aldona, confirms that, yes, Vitas is in love. “All his life he’s lived alone, gone to parties and had women around him,” she says. “For my son to spend two years with one person—this is something. He is lucky to have such a natural, giving girl.” One friend calls Janet “Kryptonite,” since she is apparently the first woman to have emotionally jellied the man-about-town who once proclaimed, “If I could be as successful on the tennis court as I am off it, I would be No. 1.”
Don’t ask Vitas how Jones got to be his No. 1. “It can’t be explained,” he says. “Something just clicked. I do know that when you fall in love, you don’t hear bells—that’s baloney.”
“You did too,” Janet interrupts.
“No, no,” says Vitas, “it was more like a slap in the face.”
Gerulaitis has hair like shredded wheat, the face of an exotic bird, and he keeps a pace that does not allow for introspection. Vitas is Vitas without pretense: amiable, generous and always whirring—ever ready for the next party, rock concert or platter of pork fried rice. “If I could change anything about Vitas,” says Janet, “it would be to get him to sit still for 20 minutes; he makes me nervous.” Says Gerulaitis: “There is nothing I would change about Janet. She’s perfect. That’s what’s so irritating.” Jones has Bambi eyes and a dancer’s grace. Unlike Vitas, she is more conscious of projecting an image. At the moment she is committed to building a successful acting career, but not at the expense of a secure home and family. By 40, she says, “I’d like to have four kids.” Teases Vitas: “I’d like to have six wives.”
Theirs is a relationship that seems to flourish on verbal volleying. He baits her; she giggles and parries. He calls her “Bonehead.” (Why, honey?) “Well, if you must know…you’re a bone-head.” She marvels at his wit. They met briefly at a New York discotheque seven years ago but did not fall in love until last year—shortly after Jones and Dick Van Patten’s son, Nels, broke off a relationship that lasted nearly five years.
Jones and Gerulaitis have united at a point when their careers are taking disparate turns. “I’ve won some major tournaments,” says Vitas, “but the training, the travel, the sitting around in hotels just isn’t as much fun as it was when I was 21. My career is coming to an end, but Janet’s is just getting started. There’s no guarantee that she’s going to be a great actress. She’s doing so well now, she should give it a chance. If she doesn’t, she’s going to regret it.”
Gerulaitis might have missed his own calling. “I used to hate tennis,” he recalls. “Do you know how many people played tennis in Brooklyn? Me and my dad.” Vitas Sr. was a tennis champion in his native Lithuania before immigrating in 1949 to New York. There he opened a travel agency and prodded both Vitas and his sister, Ruta, to play tennis. (Ruta also turned pro and is now semiretired). “At 15, I went into overdrive,” Vitas says. “Tennis was all I wanted.” Co-ranked (with Patrick DuPre) the nation’s No. 1 junior in 1972, Gerulaitis turned pro two years later. By 1978 he had earned a place in the world’s Top 5 and acquired a house on Long Island with a multimirrored bedroom, a Mercedes, a Porsche and two Rolls-Royces.
While the Lithuanian Lion was roaring through his 20s on the international tennis circuit, Jones was a competitive tomboy with a singular passion for softball and no urge ever to leave St. Louis. The sixth of seven children, she began dancing—ballet, then jazz—at 14. Four years later, shortly after her father, a business executive, died of cancer, she was crowned Miss Dance of America. That led her to New York. “My career really took off after that,” she says. “Sometimes I wish my dad could be here with me, but I feel like he’s there guiding me.” She danced in Snow White at Radio City Music Hall, modeled briefly and canceled college plans.
Jones met Van Patten when she moved to Los Angeles to become a regular on Dance Fever. In 1983 Garry Marshall discovered her playing in a celebrity tennis tournament and cast her opposite Matt Dillon in The Flamingo Kid. The movie of A Chorus Line followed, then a co-starring role in American Anthem. The last two films were dismissed by critics, but Jones is not an actress knotted by insecurities. “I want to be good,” she says. “I want to be liked, but if I’m not happy in my personal life, glamorous premieres and making movies isn’t gonna do much for me.”
Last fall, while Jones was shooting American Anthem, Vitas was jetting from Rome to Tokyo on what may have been his final professional world tour. “When I was playing my best [1976-79], the tennis group was smaller and friendlier,” he says. “I saw Borg, McEnroe, Connors, Vilas week after week. We’d have more fun just sitting around the locker room talking. But now the game is totally different,” he says. “There’s no respect. You draw guys you’ve never heard of. These kids get so much money in the beginning, they think they’re much better than they are.” He concedes, “Once you hit 30, your body changes. It’s hard because you want to do exactly what you were doing at 20, when your body takes an awful lot of punishment.”
Gerulaitis was ranked in the Top 20 for 10 years—a testament both to his talent and his durability. But since the early ’80s he has been losing more and enjoying the tour less. Today he continues to play exhibition matches as well as select tournaments like this month’s U.S. Open in Flushing Meadow, N.Y.
Music is Gerulaitis’ new passion; he practices acoustic and electric guitar up to four hours a day and often jams late into the night with rock musician friends. His projected business ventures include opening a nightclub-restaurant in Dallas and the Gerulaitis Tennis Academy near Malibu, where he will be the resident pro. “I want it to be the best facility for juniors in America,” he says, “and a luxurious place for adults.” Janet Jones is also a fixture in his future.
“Janet is one of my best pals and the first girl I’ve ever lived with,” says Gerulaitis. “We’re nonliving together,” Jones lobs back. “We’ve seen each other for a long time, but I have my place in L.A. [a loft she shares with her sister] and he has his in New York [a cavernous slate-and-glass dwelling overlooking Long Island Sound].” Pause. “Well,” says Vitas, “when we’re in New York, we live together, and when we’re in California, we live together, so then when don’t we live together?”
“When we’re together, we’re together,” Janet agrees, “but it’s not good to say you live with a person until you’re married.”
The evening’s fortune cookies hold no clue as to a wedding date. “It’s coming soon,” says Janet. “We had to let John and Tatum do it first.” Sultry laugh.