Gonzalez, Richard Alonzo (“Pancho”)

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Gonzalez, Richard Alonzo (“Pancho”)

(b. 9 May 1928 in Los Angeles, California; d. 3 July 1995 in Las Vegas, Nevada), tennis champion who dominated professional tennis from the mid-1950s through the early 1960s and continued to play top-caliber tennis into the early 1970s.

Gonzalez, whose last name was frequently spelled “Gonzales” during his playing career, was the eldest of the seven children of Manuel Gonzalez, a movie-set and house painter, and Carmen Alire, a seamstress, both immigrants from Chihuahua, Mexico. His interest in tennis began when he was twelve years old and his mother gave him a tennis racket purchased, legend has it, for fifty-one cents. Gonzalez taught himself the game at the public courts, where he also picked up the nickname “Pancho.” He began playing in junior tournaments and did well enough to attract the attention of Perry Jones, who, as secretary of the Southern California Tennis Association, made top-level facilities available to promising youngsters. Unfortunately, Gonzalez had developed a habit of skipping school to practice tennis. When Jones discovered that Gonzalez had not been attending school regularly, he barred Gonzalez from junior tournaments. Gonzalez responded by dropping out of Manual Arts High School entirely at age fifteen, when he was in the eleventh grade. (He had skipped a grade earlier, so he was ahead of this age group.) The result was that he neither played tennis nor attended school but instead hung out on the streets.

Gonzalez entered the U.S. Navy in the fall of 1945, at the age of seventeen, and served as a seaman on transports in the Pacific. After his discharge from the navy in January 1947, he began playing tennis again. In May 1947 he entered the Southern California Tennis Championships. Advancing all the way to the finals, he managed to take a set from Jack Kramer, the top amateur in the United States.

Jones, impressed by that performance, sponsored Gonzalez for an expenses-paid tour of major tournaments in the East. Although Gonzalez did not win any tournaments in 1947, he played impressively. But ignorance about an arcane U.S. Lawn Tennis Association rule almost cost him his amateur standing. Players were only allowed to receive expense money for eight tournaments a year; Gonzalez accepted invitations to ten. Jones interceded on Gonzalez’s behalf, and he was given a nominal punishment, suspension from tournament play outside Los Angeles from February to June 1948.

In March 1948 Gonzalez married Henrietta Pedrin; they had three sons. After his suspension Gonzalez won the 1948 clay court nationals, and in September, at the age of twenty, he stunned the tennis world by winning the U.S. National Championships at Forest Hills. Many felt, however, that Gonzalez had won the tournament over a lessthan-stellar field, since Ted Schroeder, who had replaced Kramer as the top amateur after Kramer turned professional, had not entered it.

Gonzalez started the 1949 season well, winning the indoor championships in March. He traveled to Europe, and he and Frank Parker won both the French and the Wimbledon doubles championships. In singles, however, Gonzalez lost in the semifinals at the French Championships and in the fourth round at Wimbledon. He was named to the Davis Cup defense team and won both of his matches for the victorious U.S. team. At the U.S. Championships he defeated Schroeder in one of the most closely fought finals in that tournament’s history. Gonzalez lost the first two sets, then came back to win the match 16–18, 2–6, 6–1, 6–2, 6–4. Two weeks later he defeated Schroeder at the Pacific Southwest Tournament.

Shortly afterward Bobby Riggs, a tennis champion who had become a promoter, offered Gonzalez the opportunity to turn professional. Gonzalez immediately accepted it. “You can’t hold a steady job and hope to be a top amateur player,” he later told the New York Times Magazine. “You have to keep in competition most of the year to keep your game up with the others’ and maintain the physical condition tennis requires. I just managed to get by when I was out of competition, but I had to scrape.”

At the time professional opportunities were limited to only a few players. Generally the reigning professional champion and the amateur champion from the previous year would face off against each other at more than 100 stops across the country. Gonzalez proved to be no match for the professional champion, Kramer, who won 96 of their 123 matches. Gonzalez earned close to $85,000, an extraordinarily high salary for an athlete at that time, but he was not signed for the next year’s tour. “People only pay to see winners,” Riggs told him.

For the next three years few opportunities came Gonzalez’s way. He bought and ran a tennis shop in Los Angeles, participated in a few minor tours, and played in the few professional tournaments that existed. In 1954 he got a second chance. Kramer, who had become a tennis promoter, experimented with a minitournament format featuring Gonzalez, Frank Sedgman, Pancho Segura, and Don Budge. The tour was a failure because the public was only interested in seeing the top professional, still Kramer, face a challenger. But Gonzalez established himself as the best in the group.

In 1955 Kramer signed Gonzalez to a seven-year contract, and Gonzalez took over Kramer’s role as the top professional, beating Tony Trabert 74 matches to 27 in the 1955–1956 tour. In 1957 he took on another amateur who had recently turned professional, Ken Rosewall, defeating him 50 matches to 26 matches. In 1958 Gonzalez took on Lew Hoad, defeating him 51 to 36. In 1959 they played a round-robin format, with Gonzalez again coming out on top. During that same period he won the World Pro Championships, run by Jack March in Cleveland, from 1953 to 1959 and again in 1961.

At six feet, three inches tall, Gonzalez was a striking figure on the court, where he was often likened to a panther. Contributing to the aura were his handsome face and a dangerous-looking scar on his cheek (from a scooter accident when he was seven years old). His biggest weapon was his serve, which, with a wooden racket, was clocked at 112 miles per hour. But he was also known for the sharp angles of his volleys, his court coverage, and his firm grasp of tactics. On court Gonzalez was moody and intense. He glowered at linesmen and was given to angry outbursts. “Pancho gets 50 points on his serve and 50 points on terror,” Kramer once said. But Kramer also said, “At 5-all in the fifth, there is no man in the history of tennis that I would bet on against him.”

On tour Gonzalez frequently traveled apart from the other players, and to the frustration of Kramer, he rarely saw any point in publicizing his matches. As his remarkable run as top player in the world continued, he grew increasingly bitter that Kramer frequently paid the challengers more than he paid his reigning champion. Gonzalez sued Kramer in an attempt to void his contract, but he lost the case.

In 1959 Gonzalez published an autobiography, Man with a Racket. That same year his marriage to Pedrin ended in divorce. In July 1960 he married Madelyn Darrow, a former Miss Rheingold. They had three daughters, one of whom died at age twelve in a horseback riding accident. Darrow preferred that Gonzalez pursue business opportunities rather than tennis, and in 1962 he went into semiretirement. He wrote an instruction book, Tennis (1962), with Dick Hawk, coached the U.S. Davis Cup team, and pursued various tennis-related business interests. Periodically he appeared in professional tennis tournaments. He often won, but his occasional losses set off speculation that he would soon retire for good.

In 1968 Gonzalez and Darrow divorced. That same year the major tennis tournaments were finally opened to professionals, and Gonzalez, forty years of age, came out of semiretirement. He reached the semifinals of the French Open, had a disappointing Wimbledon, but made it to the quarterfinals of the U.S. Open.

Gonzalez’s opening round match at Wimbledon in 1969 was the longest match in Wimbledon history, a record that the subsequent introduction of the tiebreaker has made virtually impossible to break. Charlie Pasarell, then twentyfive years old, won the first set 24–22. During the second set Gonzalez became increasingly outraged as the light faded and the referee refused to halt the match. After Gonzalez lost the second set 6–1, he threw his racket by the umpire’s chair and stormed off the court while the crowd jeered. The match resumed the following day. Gonzalez won the third set 16–14, took the fourth set 6–3, and hung on to win the final set 11–9. This time he walked off the court to a standing ovation. He won more matches that Wimbledon before losing to Arthur Ashe in the fourth round. He reached the fourth round at the U.S. Open that year as well.

In the fall of 1969 Gonzalez announced his retirement and remarried Darrow, but neither the retirement nor the marriage lasted. He and Darrow divorced in 1970. Also that year, in the first round of a series of $10,000 winner-take-all matches, Gonzalez upset Rod Laver, who was coming off a Grand Slam win in 1969. Two weeks later Gonzalez defeated John Newcombe in the same series. In 1970 Gonzalez became tennis director at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas, Nevada, a position he held for seventeen years. His last tournament win was at the Des Moines International in 1972, when he was nearly forty-four years old, making him the oldest man in the open era to win a tournament title. He continued to play in occasional tournaments until 1975.

In December 1972 Gonzalez married Betty Steward. They had one daughter before they divorced in the late 1970s. Gonzalez appeared in occasional Grand Masters tournaments, and he wrote two more instructional books, Winning Tactics for Weekend Singles, with Joe Hyams (1974), and Tennis Begins at 40, with Jeffrey Bairstow (1976). In 1982 he married Cheryl Duff, but the marriage lasted less than a year. In March 1984 he married Rita Agassi, the older sister of the future tennis champion Andre Agassi. They had one child but divorced in the early 1990s. Gonzalez died of stomach cancer and was buried in Las Vegas.

Comparing athletes across different eras is always difficult, and in Gonzalez’s case the difficulties are compounded. In tennis the customary measurement of greatness is the number of Grand Slam tournament victories. Gonzalez had only two, but he was shut out of Grand Slam play from age twenty-two to age thirty-nine. During the time he was shut out, he was unquestionably the best player in the world for eight years, from 1955 to 1962. Gonzalez is not the only player of the years before tournaments were opened whose accomplishments have been obscured because he spent his most productive years as a professional. However, no other player of that era combined such a short amateur career with such a long period in which he dominated the far tougher professional ranks.

Pancho Gonzales with CY Rice, Man with a Racket (1959), covers his early life and the first half of his career. Gonzalez’s brother Ralph is working on a biography. Jack Kramer with Frank Deford, The Game: My 40 Years in Tennis (1979), contains a good deal of information about Gonzalez and gives valuable background information about professional tennis in the 1950s, as does Will Grimsley, Tennis: Its History, People, and Events (1971). Valuable articles include Gene Farmer, “Pancho Gonzales: Amateur Tennis’ No. 1 Bad Boy Is Also Its No. 1 Star,” Life (6 June 1949); Allison Danzig, “Anyone for Tennis? Yes, Gonzales,” New York Times Magazine (19 May 1957); and Dave Anderson, “The Lone Wolf Faces a Match Point,” New YorkTimes (12 Mar. 1995). An article on Gonzalez is in Current Biography 1949. Obituaries are in the New York Times and Los Angeles Times (both 5 July 1995).

Lynn Hoogenboom

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