Hispanic Heritage Spotlight:
Mark Preston | October 11, 2017
Ricardo Alonzo “Pancho” Gonzalez was the first Hispanic man to win the U.S. Championships, taking back-to-back titles in 1948-49, and winning the first of those when he was just 20 years old. The self-taught Gonzalez, who learned to play tennis with a 50-cent racquet on the courts of Los Angeles, may well have been the most purely talented player ever to play the sport of tennis, his ferocious serve-and-volley style showcasing his remarkable athleticism and unrelenting will to win.
That desire drove Gonzalez in all that he did. Throughout his life and career, an intense inner fire always raged within him; a fire stoked by the fact that he was considered something of an outsider in a sport that was not quick to allow many of his Hispanic heritage inside its lines. As a result, Gonzalez would have to work harder, dig deeper and get tougher. ADVERTISEMENT In time, he was not just a part of the sport – he owned it.
“Next to Jackie Robinson, Pancho Gonzalez was the most competitive athlete I’ve ever known,” said the late broadcaster Howard Cosell.
In addition to his two U.S. Championships crowns, Gonzalez also captured the French and Wimbledon doubles titles in 1949. But after winning Forest Hills that year and leading the U.S. to victory in Davis Cup competition, Gonzalez turned pro, and it was on the fledgling professional tour where he would truly make his mark. After a rough start in which he was dominated by tour founder Jack Kramer, Gonzalez would go on to dominate the barnstorming tour for a full decade, topping such fellow Hall-of-Famers as Pancho Segura, Tony Trabert, Frank Sedgman, Ken Rosewall and Lew Hoad, aming others. He won the prestigious US Pro Championships eight times in the 1950s and 1960s.
"Jack [Kramer] set me a great example,” Gonzalez said years later. “For one thing, he showed me the value of the killer instinct, and I learned to develop mine. He drove me to improve my game.”
Indeed, a 1999 Sports Illustrated article on the magazine’s “20 “Favorite Athletes of the 20th Century” said of Gonzalez (SI’s No. 15 pick): “If earth was on the line in a tennis match, the man you want serving to save humankind would be Ricardo Alonso Gonzalez.”
When tennis’ Open era dawned in 1968, allowing professionals once again to compete at the majors, the 40-year-old Gonzalez showed he could still play with the best, taking out defending champion Roy Emerson en route to the semis of Roland Garros and knocking off second-seeded Tony Roche in advancing to the quarters of the inaugural US Open. That same year, he was elected into the International Tennis Hall of Fame.
In 1969, Gonzalez turned in one of the most memorable performances of his Hall-of-Fame career, as the now 41-year-old prevailed in a 22-24, 1-6, 16-14, 6-3, 11-9 first-round, two-day Wimbledon win over 25-year-old amateur Charlie Pasarell. It was a match that helped to usher in the tiebreak and further establish Gonzalez as one of tennis’ toughest talents. For years it stood as the longest match in Wimbledon’s history until the historic, 11 hour, five minute, 183-game John Isner–Nicoloas Mahut match at Wimbledon in 2010.
Gonzalez was the No. 1 player in the world in 1949, and two decades later, he was back in the Top 10, reaching No. 6 in 1969. In 1972, just three months shy of his 44th birthday, Gonzalez became the oldest man ever to win a tournament title, winning the championship at the Des Moines, Iowa, event
Gonzalez’ longevity in the sport was matched only by his love for it. Until his death in 1995, he remained involved in tennis as a coach, advisor and mentor for young players. Nearly seven decades have passed since his first U.S. Championships win, but Gonzalez’ indelible mark on the event – and the sport – remains. He will forever be remembered for his remarkable talent, as well as his singular passion and purpose – ingredients that created not only a tennis champion but also an American icon.