Pancho Gonzalez: An iconic champion
Throughout its grand history, tennis has been represented by a cavalcade of luminous champions who have enriched the sport immeasurably. These standout performers have inspired the public with their extraordinary exploits and have transcended the game as larger than life individuals who are both iconic and enduring.
There have been a number of these towering figures looming large among fans, but no one in this celebrated circle has measured up in totality to Richard “Pancho” Gonzalez, the most evocative player—male or female—the game has ever known. Gonzalez was a confrontational fellow, stepping into the arena frequently wearing a menacing look, perceiving his opponents as uninvited guests at a party he felt belonged solely to him, but he balanced that aspect of his personality with a contagious sense of humor and an unmistakable congeniality under the right set of circumstances.
And most certainly, he established himself as one of the greatest ever to play the sport of tennis.
Indeed, there are many authorities who believe unequivocally that if you were looking for one man to play for your life on a big occasion, Gonzalez would be the one to choose. His ferocity as a competitor and capacity to compete under colossal pressure set him apart. He was, indisputably, an unshakable individual.
All top athletes are shaped predominantly by their upbringing, defined by their heritage. The learn to achieve and succeed to some degree because of who they are and how they were shaped growing up. So it was with Gonzalez.
He was born in Los Angeles in the spring of 1928, but his parents had moved to the U.S. from another country, migrating from the Mexican state of Chihuahua in the early 1900’s. Gonzalez was one of eight children, a complex man of many moods who was driven all across his life to excel at what he did and demonstrate that nothing and no one could prevent him from realizing his largest dreams and hitting his foremost targets.
For Gonzalez, that quest for greatness and exalted status was an arduous journey that only a man of his innate toughness could have endured. He was barred from junior tournaments in Southern California as a kid for a year or two when he wanted to drop out of school and devote himself to pursuing his tennis obsession. And for many years, he was considered an outsider in a sport that was not quick to allow many of his Hispanic heritage inside its lines.
But Gonzalez kept dedicating himself assiduously to his craft and he won the U.S. National Championships at Forest Hills at 20 in 1948. He defended his crown the following year and then turned professional. But he still lacked the polish and match playing prowess at that time to overcome his countryman Jack Kramer on their head-to-head pro tour. Kramer took apart Gonzalez in their serve-and-volley skirmishes 96-27 in total matches, but Pancho learned some hard and invaluable lessons from those many setbacks.
In the years to come, Gonzalez took over pro tennis prodigiously. In 1954, he defeated the esteemed Frank Sedgman and Pancho Segura in a combined round robin series 30-21. In 1955-56, he overwhelmed the well-rounded and formidable Tony Trabert, 74-27 in their matches. He defeated Australian Ken Rosewall, 50-26 in 1957, and finished 51-36 against the widely-revered Lew Hoad in 1958.
Gonzalez remained the best player in professional tennis into the early 1960’s, capturing eight U.S. Pro Championships between 1952 and 1961 and a cluster of other prestigious crowns in the pro game.
Unofficially, he was the best player in the world for six to eight years. But he was barred from the Grand Slam events along with all of his fellow professionals.
By the time “Open Tennis” arrived in the spring of 1968, Gonzalez was about to turn 40. He would surely have won a cascade of majors in the nearly two decades when he was ineligible. But— fortunately for the fans—Gonzalez retained some of his old magic in the late 1960s and early 70s as pros and amateurs were able to compete together at long last in the majors.
In the first French Open at Roland Garros, he surged into the semifinals on his least favorite surface. Later that summer, he toppled No. 2 seed Tony Roche to reach the quarterfinals of the US Open on grass courts, which suited his game to the hilt.
There was more. In 1969 at Wimbledon when he was 41, he gallantly overcame fellow American Charlie Pasarell in the first round, making a startling comeback and saving seven match points in the fifth set to prevail 22-24, 1-6, 16-14, 6-3, 11-9 in a contest exceeding five hours. The following year, he twice defeated Rod Laver only months after the left-handed Australian had secured a second Grand Slam.
Last, but not least, he won a tournament in Des Moines, Iowa when he was nearly 44 years old.
Gonzalez later taught tennis, coached the American Davis Cup team in the 1960’s, and advised many aspiring champions—most notably Jimmy Connors. He passed away at 67 in 1995 after battling stomach cancer.
Gonzalez was one of the most charismatic athletes of his or any era, and perhaps as daunting a tennis champion as the sport has ever seen. Esteemed writer Dick Schaap described Gonzalez as “the lone wolf of tennis; a dark, brooding figure silhouetted against a rococo backdrop of fame, fortune and talent.”
The renowned American player Gussie Moran once told Schaap, “Pancho would go out there with that forlorn look on his face and a chip on his shoulder. But when he stepped on a tennis court he was someone else. He was a god, patrolling his personal heaven.”
His run at and near the top as a tennis player is almost unparalleled. He was an insatiable competitor with one of the two or three best serves of all time. His motion was incomparably smooth, elegant, sustainable and economical. Moreover, he volleyed with both force and finesse, produced winning overheads effortlessly, displayed supreme touch on the return of serve and navigated match play as well as anyone ever has.
Inarguably, Gonzalez belongs among the top ten players of all time—a true champion and an American icon.