Gonzales, Richard: 1928-1995: Tennis Player
Richard Gonzales: 1928-1995: Tennis player
Richard "Pancho" Gonzales was known as the greatest male tennis player to never win Wimbledon. A self-taught tennis player, Gonzales became a champion at the age of 20. After winning the United States National Championship two years in a row, Gonzales turned professional. During this time the great tennis tournaments like Wimbledon did not allow professional players to compete. When Wimbledon finally became an open tournament, Gonzales was past his prime. Gonzales was known not only for his incredible serve and volley game, but also for his hot temper and fierce competitive spirit.
Accidentally Discovered Tennis Talent
Richard Alonzo Gonzales was born on May 9, 1928, in Los Angeles, California. He was one of seven children born to Manuel and Carmen Alire Gonzales. His parents had immigrated to the United States from Chihuahua, Mexico. Manuel Gonzales worked as a housepainter and Carmen worked as a seam-stress. The family did not have a lot of money, but the children were always well fed and well dressed.
Richard was nicknamed "Pancho" by his Anglo school friends, a name commonly given to Mexican Americans. The name stayed with him throughout his career.
Gonzales' introduction to tennis was a fluke. At the age of 12 Gonzales asked his mother for a bicycle. Carmen was afraid that her son might hurt himself on the bike, so she spent 51 cents at the May Company and bought him a tennis racket instead. Gonzales was not initially thrilled with his mother's gift, but he decided to try his hand at tennis. Gonzales walked to a public tennis court a few blocks away and began hitting the ball. "In the days, months, and years that followed the challenge of hitting a white, fuzzy ball squarely on the strings of a racket grew and grew. Such is the strange hand of destiny," Gonzales wrote in his 1959 autobiography titled Man with a Racket.
As a young teenager Gonzales was a good student who was especially interested in mechanical drawing and drafting. However, once he started to play tennis, Gonzales lost all interest in school. He became a chronic truant, much to the dismay of his parents and his educators. As Mexican immigrants, the Gonzaleses firmly believed that education was key to their children's success in America. They continually tried to encourage Gonzales to stay in school, but he only wanted to play tennis. His parents became less upset about his future when they learned that he was actually good enough at tennis to be able to make a profitable career of the game.
At a Glance . . .
Born on May 9, 1928, in Los Angeles, CA; died on July 3, 1995, in Las Vegas, NV; son of Manuel and Carmen Alire Gonzales; married Henrietta Pendrin, 1948 (divorced, 1958); married Madelyn Darrow, 1960 (divorced, 1968; remarried, 1970; divorced, 1972); married Betty Steward, December 31, 1972 (divorced); married Rita Agassi, March 31, 1984 (divorced); children: (with Pendrin) Richard, Michael, Daniel; (with Darrow) Mariessa, Christina, Andrea; (with Steward) Jeanna Lynn; (with Agassi) Skylar Richard. Military Service: United States Navy, 1945-47.
Career: Amateur tennis player, 1947-49; professional tennis player 1950-71; professional tennis coach, 1971-86; spokesperson for Spalding rackets; author, 1959-1974.
Awards: United States National Champion, 1948, 1949; Wimbledon doubles champion with Frank Parker, 1949; French doubles champion with Frank Parker, 1949; member of winning Davis Cup Team, 1949; eight professional singles titles, 1953-61; inducted into International Tennis Hall of Fame, 1968.
Became Self-Taught Tennis Champion
Gonzales taught himself how to play the game on the public courts at Exposition Park. "Many Mexicans and Negroes learned the game there," Gonzales explained in his autobiography. "Most of us at Exposition Park had two things in common—very little money and a love of tennis." Despite the lack of professional training, Gonzales began winning junior tournaments in southern California. However, when he dropped out of high school after only two years, he was banned from the junior tournaments. Without school and tennis tournaments, Gonzales had a lot of time on his hands and he got into some trouble. At the age of 15 he was arrested for burglary and sentenced to a year of detention. Afterwards he spent two years in the United States Navy in 1945 and 1946. Gonzales was not interested in the military and received a bad-conduct discharge in 1947.
At the age of 19 Gonzales was now eligible to play senior tennis tournaments. When he began playing tennis again, he started winning matches against top ranked players. He finished the 1947 season ranked number 17 in the country. However, he did not have a lot of tournament experience. In 1948 Perry Jones of the Southern California Tennis Association allowed Gonzales to play on the senior tennis circuit, paying for his travel and living expenses. That same year Gonzales married his first wife, Henrietta Pendrin and the couple was soon expecting their first child. Gonzales began to feel the pressures of supporting a young family.
Gonzales played inconsistently during his first year on the tour and he was seeded last at the United States National Championships at Forest Hills, New York in 1948. Nonetheless he managed to win the tournament and capture his first national championship just 16 months after becoming a senior tennis player. That year Gonzales had won the United States clay and grass court titles, but he lost the hardcourt title to Ted Schroeder. Despite an inconsistent year, Gonzales was ranked the number one male tennis player in the United States in 1948.
Gonzales was a good player, but he was so inconsistent that the media speculated his national championship in 1948 was a fluke. His goals for 1949 were to defend his national title and to win Wimbledon, which would be his first international competition. Gonzales proved the media wrong when he defended his title in 1949, defeating the top seeded player, and Gonzales' rival, Ted Schroeder. Although he did not win the Wimbledon singles title as he had hoped, he did win the doubles title with Frank Parker. He won another doubles title that year with Frank Parker in Paris. Gonzales was also a member of the 1949 winning Davis Cup team.
Following his second national championship Gonzales received an offer from Bobby Riggs to turn professional. By doing so Gonzales would give up his chance to win the most prestigious tennis title, Wimbledon. In the pre-Open era, professional tennis players were not allowed to play in amateur competitions such as Wimbledon and the United States Open. Since Gonzales and his wife were expecting their second child, he could not refuse the $75,000 professional contract. He agreed to play 123 matches against Jack Kramer, who was considered the world's best player. Gonzales went from champion to challenger over night. He lost 96 of the 123 matches against Kramer.
Gonzales was dropped from the tour the following year because he had lost so many matches to Kramer that he was no longer drawing large crowds. For the next few years Gonzales only played an occasional exhibition match. To occupy his time and support his family, he purchased the tennis shop at Exhibition Park, where he had played as a child. In 1952 he and his wife separated and Gonzales' career seemed to be over. However, in 1954 Jack Kramer took over promoting professional tennis from Bobby Riggs and he asked Gonzales to participate in a round-robin tour with Frank Sedgman, Pancho Segura, and Dick Budge. Gonzales dominated the tour that year. "It was good to be back in action again, on top, swatting the ball all over the world, playing before enthusiastic crowds," Gonzales wrote in his autobiography. Between 1953 and 1961 Gonzales won eight professional singles titles.
In 1956 Gonzales signed a seven-year professional contract with Jack Kramer and he toured the country defeating challengers such as Tony Trabert, Ken Rose-wall, and Lew Hoad. Despite his success on the court, Gonzales was bitter about his earnings. The challengers earned about $80,000 because they were considered the marketing tool to draw large audiences, while the champion was only guaranteed $15,000. Gonzales took his frustrations out on the court by becoming increasingly more agitated and violent.
Gonzales had earned a reputation as an exceptional tennis player with a fireball serve and excellent volleying skills. However, he was also well known for his emotional fits both on and off the court. "His Latin looks and hot temper made him a popular but controversial figure. Dogmatic, cocky, touchy and ruthless, he was one of the first players to smash his racket to pieces in a fit of anger," wrote the Times in July of 1995. "When Gonzales walked on a tennis court he was there to compete on his own terms and in his own way, vociferously confronting officials when questionable line calls went against him, releasing his rage one moment and then elevating his game markedly an instant later," explained Steve Flink of the Independent in July of 1995. "Few could match his powers of intimidation, his overwhelming presence on a public state, his extraordinary flair, passion, and originality."
His volatility was apparent in his personal life as well. Gonzales did not spend much time with his family, which now consisted of three children—Richard, Jr., Michael, and Daniel. Henrietta had reunited briefly with Gonzales, but the couple finally divorced in 1958. Just two years later Gonzales married his second wife, Madelyn Darrow. The couple had a rocky relationship. They divorced in 1968, remarried in 1970, divorced again in 1972, and almost remarried again in 1978. They had three daughters together—Mariessa, Christina, and Andrea.
Made Mark on Open-Era Tennis
Gonzales briefly retired from professional tennis in 1961 when his contract with Kramer ended. However, he could not stay away from the sport for long. He continued to play professional matches and in 1963 he served as coach for the Davis Cup team. The American team he coached reached the finals. Open tennis became a reality in 1968, allowing both amateurs and professionals to compete for the prestigious tennis championships of Wimbledon, Roland Garros, and the United States Open. Although Gonzales was past his prime, he could not pass up an opportunity to compete in these events. In 1968 Gonzales reached the semifinals of the first French Open at Roland Garros and he made it to the quarterfinals of the first United States Open at Forest Hills.
Although Gonzales never won a Grand Slam title, he did make his mark on Open tennis. In 1969 Gonzales was 41 years old and a long shot to actually win the title at Wimbledon. However, his performance at the tournament made it obvious that he would have held numerous Wimbledon titles had he been allowed to play earlier in his career. In the first round of competition Gonzales was matched against the Puerto Rican player Charlie Pasarell, who was just 25 years old. Gonzales and Pasarell played the longest match in Wimbledon history, a match that lasted five hours and 20 minutes. At this time there were no tie breaks, so each set of the five-set match had to be won by two games. Pasarell won the first two sets with a score of 22-24 and 1-6. Play was halted because the light was fading and Gonzales was complaining loudly that he could not see the ball. On the second day of play, Gonzales came charging back to win the match with a score of 16-14, 6-3, 11-9. "By virtue of its drama, emotional impact, and hair-raising excitement, it had provided the most perfect advertisement for open tennis and, although one felt for Pasarell, it was fitting that Gonzales, who had been denied the right to parade his greatness on the world's greatest tennis stage for so long, should have managed, in the dimming twilight of a great career to show Wimbledon of just what he was capable. And of what might have been," wrote Richard Evans of the Times in June of 1988.
Even late in his career, Gonzales was able to defeat younger tennis champions such as Arthur Ashe and Rod Laver. However, by 1971 Gonzales had retired from professional tennis, although he still played occasionally on the men's senior tour. On December 31, 1972, Gonzalez married Betty Steward. They had one daughter together, Jeanna Lynn. For the next fifteen years Gonzales worked as a professional tennis coach at Caesar's Palace in Las Vegas, where he met the Agassi family. On March 31, 1984, Gonzalez married Rita Agassi, the 23-year-old sister of tennis champion Andre Agassi. The couple also had one child together, Skylar Richard. During his retirement Gonzales also wrote several books about tennis and served as a spokesperson for Spalding rackets. Gonzales died of stomach cancer on July 3, 1995, at the age of 67.
(With Cy Rice) Man with a Racket: The Autobiography of Pancho Gonzales, A.S. Barnes, 1959.
Tennis, Fleet Publishing, 1962.
Winning Tactics for Weekend Singles, Holt, 1974.
Tennis Begins at Forty: A Guide for All Players Who Don't Have Wrists of Steel or a Cannonball Serve, Don't Always Rush the Net or Have a Devastating Overhead, but Want to Win, Dial, 1976.
Contemporary Authors, Gale Group, 2000.
Gonzales, Doreen, Richard "Pancho" Gonzales: Tennis Champion, Enslow Publishers, Inc., 1998.
Guardian (London), July 5, 1995, p. 15.
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Observer, June 20, 1999, p. 9.
Sports Illustrated, July 17, 1995, p. 13; June 24, 2002, p. 68.
Statesman (India), June 26, 2001.
Sunday Times, November 4, 1990.
Times, July 5, 1995.
Times (London), June 7, 1988.
"Pancho Gonzalez," International Tennis Hall of Fame, www.tennisfame.com/enshrinees/pancho_gonzales.html (March 24, 2003).
"Richard 'Pancho' Gonzales," Latino Sports Legends, www.latinosportslegends.com/pancho_gonzales_bio.htm (March 24, 2003).
—Janet P. Stamatel
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