Richard “Pancho” Gonzalez would have been 82 years old on Sunday, May 9, if he was still with us. Here’s his biography as it appears in my book THE BUD COLLINS HISTORY OF TENNIS ($35.95, New Chapter Press, www.NewChapterMedia.com)
Very much his own man, a loner and an acerbic competitor, Richard “Pancho” Alonzo Gonzalez was probably as good as anyone who ever played the game, if not better. Most of his great tennis was played beyond wide public attention, on the nearly secret pro tour amid a small band of gypsies of whom he was the ticket-selling mainstay.
His rages against opponents, officials, photographers, newsmen and even spectators were frequently spectacular—but they only served to intensify his own play, and didn’t disturb his concentration, as fits of temper do most others. Pancho got mad and played better. “We hoped he wouldn’t get upset; it just made him tougher,” said Rod Laver. “Later when he got older, he would get into arguments to stall for time and rest, and we had to be careful that it didn’t put us off our games.”
Gonzalez, a right-hander, born May 9, 1928, in Los Angeles, was always out of the tennis mainstream, a fact that seemed to goad him to play harder. Because he came from a Chicano family, he was never acceptable in the supposedly proper upper circles of his city’s tennis establishment. And because he was a truant, he wasn’t permitted to play in Southern California junior tournaments. Once he got out of the Navy in 1946 there was no preventing him from mixing in the game, and beating everyone. He had a marvelously pure and effortless serving action that delivered thunderbolts, and he grew up as an attacker on fast West Coast concrete.
Although not regarded as anything more than promising on his second trip East in 1948, he was at age 20 ready to win the big one, the U.S. Championship at Forest Hills. Ranked 17th nationally at the time, and seeded No. 8, he served and volleyed his way to the final, where he beat South African Eric Sturgess with ease, 6-2, 6-3, 14-12. The following year, Gonzalez met the favorite, a Southern California antagonist, top-seeded Ted Schroeder. It was one of the most gripping finals. Schroeder won the first two sets as expected, but they were demanding and exhausting, 18-16, 6-2, and after that Gonzalez rolled up the next three, 6-1, 6-2, 6-4, for the title. In 1949, Pancho also helped the U.S. hold the Davis Cup against Australia, then went for the money, turning pro to tour against the monarch, Jack Kramer. Gonzalez was too green for Kramer, losing, 96-27, and he faded from view for several agonizing years.
When Kramer retired, Gonzalez won a tour over Don Budge, Pancho Segura and Frank Sedgman in 1954 to determine Jack’s successor. He stood forth himself as Emperor Pancho, proud and imperious, for a long while, through the challenges of Tony Trabert, Ken Rosewall, Lew Hoad, Ashley Cooper, Mal Anderson, Alex Olmedo and Segura. For a decade, Gonzalez and pro tennis were synonymous. A promoter couldn’t hope to attract crowds unless Pancho was on the bill. During his reign Pancho won the U.S. Pro singles a record eight times of 11 finals between 1951 and 1964, and Wembley in London, considered the world pro championship, four times of five finals between 1950 and 1956.
By the time Rosewall and Laver were reaching their zeniths during the mid-and-late-1960s, the aging Gonzalez hung on as a dangerous foe, still capable of defeating all. In 1964, his last serious bid for his ninth U.S. Pro title, he lost the final to Laver in four hard sets on grass in a rainstorm. Yet there was still much more glory ahead. In 1968, at 40, he beat the defending champion, 31-year-old Roy Emerson, 7-5, 6-3, 3-6, 4-6, 6-4, to attain the semis of the first major Open, the French, to be beaten by Laver. Three months later, at the initial U.S. Open, he toppled No. 2 seed Tony Roche (the 23-year-old Wimbledon finalist) to make the quarters, where he was defeated by Tom Okker,14-16, 6-3, 10-8, 6-3. A year later, this grandfather (literally) electrified Wimbledon by overcoming Charlie Pasarell in the tournament’s longest match, 112 games, a first-rounder that consumed five hours, 12 minutes, a major tourney record that stood for 20 years until 1989 , eclipsed by 16 minutes at Wimbledon as Greg Holmes beat Todd Witsken in 5:28.
The marathon with Pasarell began one afternoon and concluded on the next after darkness intervened. In winning, 22-24, 1-6, 16-14, 6-3, 11-9, Gonzalez served out of seven match points in the fifth set.
Later that year, he beat John Newcombe, Rosewall, Stan Smith and Arthur Ashe in succession to win $12,500, the second-highest prize of the year, and the title in a rich tournament at Las Vegas. Early in 1970, in the opener of a series of $10,000 winner-take-all challenge matches leading to a grand final, he toppled Laver. The Aussie, just off his second Grand Slam year (and the eventual winner of this tournament), was clearly No. 1 in the world, but Pancho warmed a crowd of 14,761 at New York’s Madison Square Garden with a 7-5, 3-6, 2-6, 6-3, 6-2 victory. Three months before his 44th birthday, in 1972, he was the oldest to record a tournament title in the Open era, winning Des Moines (Iowa) over 24-year-old French Davis Cupper Georges Goven, 3-6, 4-6, 6-3, 6-4, 6-2. That year, he was No. 9 in the U.S., the oldest to rank so high, and equaled Vic Seixas’ Top 10 longevity span of 24 years. As for the world’s Top 10, he is alone in that he was a member in 1948-49 and again in 1968-69, ranking No. 1 in 1949 and No. 6 in 1969.
In 1968, though still active, he was named to the Hall of Fame, and he was a consistent winner on the Grand Masters tour for over-45 champs beginning in 1973. Although his high-speed serve, so effortlessly delivered, was a trademark, Gonzalez, a 6-foot-2, 180-pounder, was a splendid athlete and tactician who excelled at defense, too. “My legs, retrieving, lobs and change-of-pace service returns meant as much or more to me than my power,” he said. “But people overlooked that because of the reputation of my serve.” He won $911,078 between 1950 and 1972, and crossed the million mark as a Grand Master. Altogether as an amateur and a pro, he won 74 singles titles. He was married six times, the last to a good player, Rita Agassi, sister of another all-timer, Andre Agassi, by whom he had a son. Not a bad tennis bloodline for the young man, Skylar Gonzalez. Gonzalez died on July 3, 1995, of cancer in Las Vegas, where he had been a teaching pro for some time.
MAJOR TITLES (4)—U.S. singles, 1948-49; French doubles,1949; Wimbledon doubles, 1949. OTHER U.S.TITLES (17)—Indoor singles, 1949; Clay Court singles, 1948-1949; Indoor mixed, 1949, with Gussy Moran; Pro singles. 1953, 1954 1955, 1956 1957, 1958, 1959, 1961; Pro doubles, 1953, with Don Budge; 1954, 1958, with Pancho Segura; 1957, with Ken Rosewall; 1969, with Rod Laver. DAVIS CUP—1949, 2-0 singles. SINGLES RECORD IN THE MAJORS—Australian (2-1), French (9-2), Wimbledon (10-5), U.S. (23-7).