Gonzales, Richard "Pancho"
Richard "Pancho" Gonzales
American tennis player
The Mexican American tennis player Richard "Pancho" Alonzo Gonzales had only two major singles titles to his credit, yet he was considered by many to be one of the most influential players of the late 1940s and the 1950s. After winning consecutive singles titles at the U.S. Championships (later known as the U.S. Open), Gonzales joined the professional touring circuit—a move than banned him from the major tournaments but that proved him to be one of the most formidable players in the country. During his career, Gonzales often faced racism and discrimination in the predominantly white world of his chosen sport. Developing a tough skin and a defiant, lone-wolf attitude, he became infamous among his peers, but won over tennis fans with his deft game and larger-than-life charisma.
Taught Himself to Play
Richard Alonso "Pancho" Gonzales, born in Los Angeles in 1928, was the son of Mexican immigrants Manuel and Carmen Gonzales. When Manuel was a child, he walked with his father 900 miles, from Chihuahua, Mexico, to Arizona. He later settled in South Central Los Angeles, where he met and married Carmen, and worked as a housepainter. Despite his father's strictness, Gonzales, one of seven children, was often a wild and unruly child.
When Gonzales was twelve years old, he asked for a bicycle for Christmas, but his mother gave him a 50-cent tennis racquet instead. Gonzales instantly took to tennis, teaching himself how to play on the public courts of Los
Angeles. He played as often as he could, and by the time he was fourteen he was winning tournaments in his age group.
After two years of high school, Gonzales dropped out so that he could devote himself to tennis full time. The decision would hurt him, though, because as a dropout he was banned from many junior tournaments. Turned away from tennis, Gonzales became a trouble-maker. At fifteen he was caught burglarizing houses. "You don't know the thrill of going out the back window when someone's coming in the front door," he once told his brother Ralph, as quoted by S.L. Price in Sports Illustrated.
Gonzales spent a year in juvenile detention, then joined the U.S. Navy in 1945. After two years of swabbing decks in the Pacific, Gonzales—who had been AWOL (absent without leave) and had returned late from leave a few times too many—received a discharge for bad conduct. Returning to Southern California, he resumed playing tennis, making astonishingly quick progress in the sport. Within a year he was playing the major national men's tournaments. In March 1948 he married Henrietta Pedrin, learning soon afterward that she was pregnant with their first child. Together they would have three sons.
Gonzales shocked tennis fans around the world when, at age twenty and ranked only 17th in the country, he won the 1948 U.S. Championships. His opponents took note of Gonzales's deft, powerful serve, strong volleying skills, and fierce competitiveness. Yet Gonzales was in many ways a fish out of water in the predominantly white, Anglo-Saxon world of tennis; he was sensitive to any slights against him, and resented Anglos' habit of calling every Mexican male Pancho. Nevertheless, he thrived, defending his title at the 1949 U.S. Championships, where he prevailed in a five-set match against tennis great Ted Schroeder. Also that year, Gonzales took two doubles titles—the French Open and Wimbledon—with his partner Frank Parker. After these triumphs, Gonzales joined U.S. tennis's touring circuit, accepting a contract of $75,000 under tennis pro Bobby Riggs. As a professional player in the touring circuit, however, Gonzales was no longer eligible to play in the major tournaments.
At first, the career move nearly proved to be his undoing. The touring circuit paired Gonzales against 28-year-old champion Jack Kramer, considered to be the best player in the world. Gonzales, as the challenger, faced Kramer in 123 matches, of which he won a mere twenty-seven. His reputation tarnished by the losses, Gonzales took a four-year break from tennis, but by late 1954 he got a second chance. Kramer invited him to join another round-robin tour, and Gonzales was back playing tennis, and often winning. Among those he beat was Tony Trabert, winner of three Grand Slam titles in 1955; Gonzales took 74 out of 101 games. Yet "[Gonzales's] nature had changed completely," Kramer recalled to Price of Sports Illustrated. The once happy-go-lucky player became "difficult and arrogant. Losing had changed him. When he got his next chance, he understood that you either win or you're out of a job."
Prevailed in the Touring Circuit
Irascible and prone to raging against his opponents and umpires, Gonzales was nonetheless popular among tennis audiences, and he always drew a crowd. As the reigning champion, he trounced Ken Rosewall, Lew Hoad, and many others. Yet he was unhappy with his touring contracts, which always offered more money to the challenging player than to him, the reigning champion. Gonzales also faced marital troubles; he and Henrietta divorced in 1958. Soon after, he married Madelyn Darrow, with whom he had three daughters.
Gonzales prevailed in the round-robin tours until his contract expired in 1961. After briefly retiring, he returned to lose a humiliating first-round match at the U.S. Professional Grass Court Championships. For the next several years he turned his attention to coaching tennis, leading the U.S. Davis Cup team to the finals against Australia in 1963, and tutoring young American players, including Arthur Ashe .
When tennis "opened" in 1968, allowing amateurs to compete with professional players, 40-year-old Gonzales, no longer in the peak of his career, returned to play the major championships. A presence at all the major tournaments that year, he made a good showing but did not win a title. In what was perhaps his last moment in the spotlight, Gonzales won a grueling 112-game match against a player half his age, Charles Pasarell, in the first round of the 1969 Wimbledon tournament. The score stood at 22-24, 1-6, 16-14, 6-3, 11-9 after the five-hour and twelve-minute match—the longest in Wimbledon history. Gonzales continued playing well into his forties, becoming the oldest man to win a tournament, in Iowa, in 1972. He retired two years later, at age 46, and played senior events until the mid-1980s.
After he retired Gonzales joined Ceasers Palace in Las Vegas as a professional coach—a job that he loved, and would keep for nearly two decades. He and Madelyn had married and divorced twice, ending the relationship for good in 1980; between his two marriages to her, he had three others. His sixth and final marriage was to Rita Agassi, sister of the U.S. tennis star Andre Agassi ; the couple had a son, Skylar.
|1928||Born May 9 in Los Angeles, California|
|1940||Receives first tennis racquet as a Christmas present|
|1942||Wins first junior tournaments|
|1943||Drops out of high school; caught burglarizing houses|
|1945||Joins U.S. Navy|
|1947||Leaves Navy on a discharge; begins playing in men's tennis tournaments|
|1948||Wins men's singles title, U.S. Championships at Forest Hills|
|1948||Marries Henrietta Pedrin|
|1949||Wins men's singles title, U.S. Championships at Forest Hills|
|1949||Wins men's doubles title, Wimbledon, with partner Frank Parker|
|1949||Wins men's doubles title, French Open, with partner Frank Parker|
|1949-50||Loses to Jack Kramer in round-robin tour, 27-96|
|1953-59||Wins U.S. Professional Championships|
|1954-60||Dominates the round-robin tours, beating Frank Sedgman, Tony Trabert, Ken Rosewall, Lew Hoad, and others|
|1960||Marries Madelyn Darrow|
|1961||Wins U.S. Professional Championships|
|1963||Coaches U.S. Davis Cup team to final in Australia|
|1968||Returns to play major tournaments after tennis "opens" to allow amateurs to compete with professionals|
|1969||Plays longest Wimbledon match ever (five hours, 12 minutes), beating Charles Pasarell in the tournament's first round|
|1970||Remarries Madelyn Gonzales|
|1972||Becomes oldest man to win a tournament, in Iowa, at age 44|
|1974||Joins Caesars Palace in Las Vegas as a professional coach|
|1975||Divorces Madelyn for second time|
|1984||Marries Rita Agassi|
|1995||Dies of cancer, July 3, in Las Vegas|
Gonzales died of stomach cancer on July 3, 1995. He is survived by eight children—and by his legacy as one of the finest (albeit one of the most difficult) players of mid-twentieth-century tennis.
Awards and Accomplishments
|1948-49||Men's singles title at the U.S. Championships at Forest Hills|
|1949||Men's doubles titles at Wimbledon and the French Open, with partner Frank Parker|
|1969||Played longest Wimbledon match ever (five hours, 12 minutes), beating Charles Pasarell in the tournament's first round|
|1972||Oldest man to win a tournament, in Iowa, at age 44|
Flink, Steve. "Obituary: Pancho Gonzales." Independent (London, England) (July 5, 1995): 18.
Irvine, David. "The Tough Guy of Tennis." Guardian (London, England) (July 5, 1995): 15.
Price, S. L. "The Lone Wolf." Sports Illustrated (June 24, 1995): 68.
"Gonzales, 'Pancho' (Richard A.)." Hickok Sports.com. http://www.hickoksports.com/biograph/gonzalezp.shtml (October 15, 2002).
"Ricardo 'Pancho' Gonzales." Latino Legends in Sports. http://www.latinosportslegends.com/pancho_gonzales_&bio.htm (October 15, 2002).
Sketch by Wendy Kagan