Gonzales, Richard Alonzo ("Pancho")

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GONZALES, Richard Alonzo ("Pancho")

(b. 9 May 1928 in Los Angeles, California; d. 3 July 1995 in Las Vegas, Nevada), tennis champion who was the first Hispanic player to achieve outstanding success in tennis, and one of the most graceful athletes ever seen on the tennis court.

Born in southern California to a Mexican-American working-class family, Gonzales was the son of Manuel Gonzales, a furniture fitter and set painter, and Carmen Gonzales, a seamstress. Gonzales never had a formal tennis lesson but practiced with other local boys, playing on the Har-Tru courts that made California tennis distinctive. He quit school at the age of fifteen to begin his tennis career.

For most of its early years, the men's tennis tour had been seen as an elite institution, dominated by young white men who could afford to play for years without remuneration. While there were some exceptions to the general rule, there were few minority players in the game until the emergence of Gonzales. Two attributes distinguished him from the start: he had natural, graceful strokes—especially his overhead and serve, which became classics of their type—and he was a ferocious competitor, always trying to gain the net and put away the point. Unlike many serve-and-volley players of the 1980s and 1990s, Gonzales had terrific ground strokes as well as an aggressive attack, and his catlike quickness earned him nicknames like "The Tiger."

What he most lacked was a sense of humor. Given his struggle to make it in tennis, Gonzales was completely unable to laugh at himself, to shrug off a bad match or a bad day. He never became a regular member of the tour's social scene. Much as this isolation may have served his competitive spirit, it ill-served his attempt to be an ambassador for minorities in the game.

When Gonzales won the U.S. National Championship at Forest Hills in 1948 and 1949, he decided to turn professional. Older players, Don Budge and Bobby Riggs among them, tried to dissuade him, urging him to stay amateur for a few additional years to continue his development. Not surprisingly, Gonzales could not resist the $85,000 offered if he would go head-to-head with Jack Kramer in a series of exhibition matches.

Kramer was the best in the game. While tennis aficionados did—and still do—debate the virtues of their favorite players, it seems fair to say that Gonzales had the greater natural talent but that Kramer had both the strategy and determination to outlast him. In his autobiography, Kramer emphasized the importance of diet and nutrition and hinted that Gonzales's fondness for soft drinks and fast food were part of the reason Kramer bested him in the yearlong competition.

In retrospect, it is clear that the decision to turn professional was disastrous for Gonzales's career. Until 1968, when the "Open Tennis" era began, there was a strict delineation between amateur and professional competition in tennis. It was customary to turn professional in order to make money after winning Wimbledon and Forest Hills in the same year. Gonzales had won Forest Hills twice, but he turned professional at a young age and would long be remembered as "the greatest player who never won Wimbledon." Kramer later estimated that Gonzales might have won as many as seven Wimbledons had he remained an amateur through the 1950s.

Gonzales dominated the professional tour from 1954 until 1962. He faced and defeated a string of worthy opponents, among them Tony Trabert, Frank Sedgman, and Ken Rosewall. Only once during these eight years was Gonzales overmatched, and that time fortune smiled upon him.

Rosewall and Lew Hoad had burst onto the tennis scene in 1952. Young Australians who had been raised on grass courts, they brought an incredible zest for the game and increased crowds wherever they went. They could not have been more different. Rosewall was small, trim, dignified, and played an elegant game. Hoad was large, strong, brash, and utterly lovable. Even Gonzales, who seldom tried to make friends, liked Hoad, and came to admire him for this uncanny shotmaking.

In 1958 Gonzales went on tour against Hoad, who had recently turned professional. For those who witnessed the matches, it was among the most memorable of all rivalries. Gonzales had the more elegant strokes and probably covered the court better, but Hoad had immense physical strength and could turn baseline shots into surprise winners. By late in the year, Gonzales had fallen behind; as in 1949, he seemed destined to become the victim of another prodigy. Instead, Hoad's back began to give him serious trouble. He pulled out of the competition and was never the same again as far as tennis was concerned. Gonzales remained the king of professional tennis. His competitors called him "Gorgo," meaning "gorilla."

Professional success did not mellow Gonzales. He remained feisty, fiery, and continually suspicious both of his rivals and the tour, which he believed paid him less than he deserved. Following a dispute with Kramer (who was by then the tour's preeminent promoter and organizer), Gonzales retired abruptly in 1963.

Five years later, tennis became "open" for the first time. The major tournaments were thus open to both amateurs and professionals. Hungering for the Wimbledon title he had never won, as well as a last burst of glory, Gonzales entered Wimbledon in 1968. In the first round he drew Charlie Pasarell, a young American player. Gonzales was forty-one, and a grandfather, but he was not yet ready to step aside.

The match was one of the best ever seen at Wimbledon. It took five hours and twelve minutes and spanned two days. Gonzales emerged the victor, 22–24, 1–6, 16–14, 6–3, 11–9. Tennis no longer sees matches like this because of the twelve-game tiebreaker, instituted in 1970. Today's fans, who grew up watching tennis on television, applaud the tiebreak rule, which makes for swifter, more decisive tennis. Purists, however, lament the days when a match took as long as necessary to declare a winner. Gonzales was among the purists. He had won (and lost) many such titanic matches and believed they called for a higher level of play.

The match with Pasarell was the last hurrah. Gonzales played off and on for another two years, but the magic was gone. He had slowed noticeably, and his still elegant game could not contend with the faster variety played by Stan Smith, John Newcombe, and later by Jimmy Connors. Gonzales retired yet again.

He wrote two books outlining his classic tennis style. Tennis fans still find it hard to comprehend that Gonzales never had formal lessons; he seemed to develop tennis strokes in the way that others learn to walk. In 1968 he was elected to the International Tennis Hall of Fame. Gonzales died in Las Vegas, Nevada, in 1995. He was sixty-seven and had been battling stomach cancer.

Gonzales's personal life was at least as stormy as his career. He married a total of six times, twice to the same woman: Madelyn Darrow. His last marriage was to Rita Agassi, sister of tennis great Andre Agassi. Gonzales was survived by seven children.

One of the great questions is, How does Gonzales compare to other great champions? He had one of the most fluid games of any time period; only Pete Sampras could rival him in that category. He was a ferocious competitor, an artist on the court. It is sad that the division between professional and amateur tennis cost him so dearly. One measure of his greatness is that he competed on nearly equal terms with Hoad, who, most keen observers believe, had the most natural talent and the strongest game that tennis has ever seen. Gonzales's career was marred by his decision to turn professional; Hoad's was ruined by back trouble. Such are the vicissitudes of tennis at its highest level.

Gonzales's life is chronicled in Man with a Racket: The Autobiography of Pancho Gonzales, as Told to Cy Rice (1959). See also Pancho Gonzales and Dick Hawk, Tennis (1962), edited by Gladys Heldman. Other references to his career can be found in Bud Collins, My Life with the Pros (1989), and Jack Kramer, with Frank Deford, The Game: My 40 Years in Tennis (1979). Gonzales's career statistics are listed in the Official Encyclopedia of Tennis (1962). The match with Hoad is reported in "Hoad vs. Gonzales," Sports Illustrated (16 June 1958). An obituary is in the New York Times (5 July 1995).

Samuel Willard Crompton

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Gonzales, Richard Alonzo ("Pancho")

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Gonzales, Richard Alonzo ("Pancho")