The 2013 Pancho Gonzalez Scholar Athlete grant winners are Xavier Gonzalez of Houston and Jessica Perez of Laguna Niguel, Calif. Here is Xavier's winning essay:
By Xavier Gonzalez
I have been asked more than once whether I am related to the great Pancho Gonzalez. Some note my family name. Others see my coppery complexion. Still others marvel at how similar my "never-say-die" competitive spirit is to the great Pancho’s fierce determination and indomitable will.
I am honored by this association. Pancho Gonzalez may have been the greatest player of all time. There are three things that I admire most about him: 1. He played tennis as if his life depended on it; 2. He worked hard to perfect his game; and 3. He honored his ethnic heritage while also being a patriotic American. One area where I seek a different approach than his, however, is in how I treat opponents, umpires and family members.
A 1999 Sports Illustrated article about the magazine’s 20 "favorite athletes" of the 20th century said, "If earth was on the line in a tennis match, the man you want serving to save humankind would be Ricardo Alonso Gonzalez." In an August 2006 article for MSNBC.com, Bud Collins refined the line, saying, "If I had to choose someone to play for my life, it would be Pancho Gonzalez." In 1949, he defended his U.S. Championships title by coming back from two sets down to defeat Ted Schroeder in the final. In 1969, in the first round at Wimbledon, he again came back from two sets down – saving seven match points along the way – to defeat Charlie Pasarell in what was the longest match ever at Wimbledon until Isner and Mahut finally surpassed it in 2011.
I do not pretend to be anywhere near as clutch as Pancho. I do, however, strive to emulate his fighting attitude and absolute refusal to accept defeat. For example, in the summer of 2011 – one of the hottest summers in recent Texas history – I had a streak of three consecutive tournaments where I won a match after being down match point. An even better embodiment of this "gutsy Gonzalez play" was my come-from-behind win at a November 2012 National Open. After losing the first set, I came back in the second set to force the match to a third set. Unfortunately, I soon found myself down 2-4 and cramping. Nevertheless, I realized that I would rather suffer through the pain than give up, and I ended up winning the match, 6-4. I went on to win the tournament.
Pancho was largely self-taught. He learned the game on public courts in Los Angeles; yet, his technique was flawless. I wish I could hit the ball as smoothly as he did, but my strokes have a long way to go. Nevertheless, I take the same methodical approach he did, working on my shots and continually seeking the best way to improve. I even keep a tennis journal to try to streamline my thought processes towards improved stroke production. So far, I think it’s working. My highest national ranking in the Boys' 12 was No. 201. In the Boys' 14s, it was No. 28. In the Boys' 16, it has been No. 21. With the help of the Pancho Gonzalez Scholar Athlete Grant, I hope to crack the top 10 in the Boys' 18.
Pancho was proud of his Mexican-American heritage and never accepted any measure of discrimination against him. At the same time, he was also a patriotic American who served in the Navy and represented the U.S. in Davis Cup play. In the same way, I stay true to my roots by participating in my school’s Hispanic Affinity Group and pursuing Spanish at an advanced level. Nevertheless, I am also very proud of my Texas residence and American citizenship. I was honored to represent Texas on our Intersectional Team and at Kalamazoo. I made sure to support all of the Texas players in the 18s. Also, in school, one of my favorite classes is American History.
I never saw Pancho play, but I read that he sometimes could be rude to his opponents, verbally abusive to umpires and linesmen and unkind to family members. Perhaps this anger was a reaction to the discrimination that he faced as a Mexican-American youngster growing up in Los Angeles in the 1930s and 1940s. Fortunately, we have made great strides in the United States towards social justice since that time.
In any case, I try to treat my opponents, umpires and family members with respect and courtesy. Win or lose, I play fairly and honorably, but more times than not, I have found that integrity ends up winning the day because it allows me to focus on elevating my play in the game that I honor and love so much.