Happy Birthday Pancho Gonzalez

Written by: on 10th May 2013
gonzalez
Happy Birthday Pancho Gonzalez  |

By Raymond Lee

He never took a formal tennis lesson in his life, yet
he struck some of the smoothest strokes the sport has ever seen. He
didn’t pick up a tennis racquet until the late age of 12 and a half and
played few junior tournaments, but became one of the fiercest
competitors to ever step foot on a tennis court.

He was a self-taught player who grew up playing on a public park court
in South Central Los Angeles, but produced the type of textbook tennis
that made him completely comfortable playing on the game’s greatest
stages.

Standing 6-foot-2 he had the commanding physical presence of a colossus
yet covered the court with the grace and speed of a sprinter. He
supplemented the strongest serve of his era with fine finesse of an
artist whose canvas was the court.

Richard Alonzo Gonzalez, better known as “Pancho”, was a charismatic
champion, who contradicted conventional wisdom in his approach to
tennis, alienated opponents with his raging will to win, but was as good
as any player who ever lived and just possibly the greatest player ever.

If you find that concept hard to believe while watching 15-time Grand
Slam champion Roger Federer work his magic in Melbourne this week,
consider some of the former champions who saw Gonzalez in action.

“Pancho Gonzalez had a great heart,” former Wimbledon champion Bobby
Riggs once said. “He loved to play tennis, he loved to win and he loved
the game itself. I think Gonzalez, under the right rules and format,
might be the greatest tennis player of all time.”

Many of Pancho’s peers agree with Riggs’ assessment. His superior size
and speed would make him one of the best athletes even in today’s game
of goliaths.

“Gonzalez was a super athlete,” long-time friend and rival Pancho
Segura said. “He had such a great serve – he aced you a lot. If you lost
your serve against Gonzalez, you were in big trouble.”

His story is that of a proud, gifted and driven man who never forgot
his roots as the son of Mexican immigrants sometimes subject to bias in
the largely white, elitist world of tennis at the time.

Gonzalez got into the game almost accidentally. As a child, he pleaded
with his parents – Manuel and Carmen – to buy him a new bicycle. On
Christmas morning, his mother presented him with a 51-cent tennis
racquet that turned out to be one of the greatest investments in tennis
history. It was a purchase that would alter both Gonzalez and the game
forever.

Armed with the new racquet, Gonzalez began teaching himself tennis on
the courts of South Central Los Angeles’ Exposition Park. He quickly
became consumed by the game and dropped out of high school after two
years to pursue his passion.

Local officials used Gonzalez’s departure from high school against him
and banned him from playing both junior and men’s tournaments for almost
three years. A frustrated Gonzalez soon found trouble off the court and
at 15 was arrested for burglarizing houses. As part of his punishment,
Gonzalez served nearly a year in detention and shortly after his
release, joined the Navy at the age of 17.

The disciplined life of military service did not exactly appeal to the
free-spirited teenager who spent nearly two and a half years without
playing any competitive tennis. Gonzalez missed the game greatly, went
AWOL once and eventually earned a bad conduct discharge from the Navy in
1947.

Returning home to Southern California, he entered into the first of six
marriages in 1948 and though he had played little tennis in the previous
years, Gonzalez soon began his climb up the amateur rankings.It was then
that the unheralded Gonzalez exploded onto the elite scene, storming
through the Forest Hills field as the 17th-ranked amateur player to
score a 6-2, 6-3, 14-12 victory over South Africa’s Eric Sturgess to
capture the 1948 U.S. Nationals, which is the equivalent of the U.S.
Open today. He was 20 years old and a Grand Slam champion.

A year later, Gonzalez turned the final into a showcase for his fierce,
fighting spirit. Facing a two-set deficit against top-seeded Ted
Schroeder, 16-18, 2-6, 6-1, 6-2, 6-4 to successfully defend his
championship. The victory gave Gonzalez the credibility to turn pro and
play a long tour of 123 matches with the veteran world champion of
tennis, Jack Kramer, who was then the world’s best player.

At this point of his tennis career Gonzalez only had been playing for
five years, not counting his years in the Navy, and lacked the extensive
junior tournament experience of his rivals. In tournament play, he was
vulnerable to the veterans who had twice as much experience. By playing
Kramer at this point of his career it was like feeding a lamb to a lion.
Naturally he was crushed by Kramer, who posted a 96-27 against Gonzalez
on their initial tour. Amazingly, some wrote Gonzalez off as washed up
by the age of 21! Despite this less than stellar start to his pro
career, Gonzalez eventually compiled a record as great as any player.

How can Gonzalez possibly be called the greatest?

Let’s look at the facts and the records.

In those old prehistoric days before the Open Era, there were three
major professional tournaments: the U.S. Pro, the French Professional
Championships and the Wembley Professional Championships. Gonzalez
claimed 12 professional majors, that plus his two U.S. Nationals makes
14 majors tournaments. When you consider that it was at most three pro
majors in a year (sometimes two) as opposed to the four majors we are
accustomed to in the Open Era, you realize Gonzalez’s accomplishments in
winning majors are all the more impressive.

Some may argue that today’s players are better and that the depth of
the game is superior. Yet the old professional tour Gonzalez played on
featured some of the best players in tennis history.

Generally speaking, the best players in the amateur ranks had to turn
pro in order to make a living at tennis. In those days of the old pro
tour, even the top stars very rarely had an easy match.

On the pro tour in the 1950s, Gonzalez faced not just exceptional
opponents, but Hall of Fame greats. Consider that Gonzalez played
legends like Lew Hoad, Tony Trabert, Ken Rosewall, Jack Kramer, Frank
Sedgman, Pancho Segura and Alex Olmedo. It was one of the most elite
caliber of competitors tennis had seen yet Gonzalez was able to defeat
them all and was considered the top professional player in the world for
an eight-year period that spanned the mid 1950′s and into part of the
early 1960′s.

Gonzalez was the professional world’s champion for eight years.  The
“official” Open Era record for most consecutive years at No. 1 is held
by Pete Sampras, who held the top spot for six straight years. Gonzalez
won tours over Sedgman, Segura, Rosewall and Hoad, players often cited
on the lists of the top players in tennis history.

One of the indications of true greatness in any sport is longevity.
Pancho Gonzalez’s championship career spanned nearly 25 years from the
late 1940s to the early 1970s as he played against the game’s greats
ranging from Don Budge to Rod Laver to Jimmy Connors.

“I don’t think I’ve seen a serve hit more accurately or with more speed
than when I turned pro in 1963 and saw Gonzalez facing me on the other
side of the net,” Laver said.

Even in the late stages of his career after his 40th birthday, Gonzalez
was capable of defeating any player in the world on any given day. For
example, in 1969 in Pancho’s 41st year, he defeated tennis legends John
Newcombe, Ken Rosewall, Stan Smith and Arthur Ashe in succession to win
the Howard Hughes tennis tournament in Las Vegas.

Perhaps his most grueling match was his first rounder against Charlie
Pasarell at Wimbledon in 1969. Pancho lost the first two sets, 22-24 1-6
and play was suspended because of darkness. Pancho didn’t seem to have a
chance. Incredibly he rallied the next day to win the next three sets,
16-14, 6-3 and 11-9, saving seven match points in a gritty, gutsy effort
that remains the longest Wimbledon singles match ever played in terms of
total time and games. The match lasted five hours and 12 minutes and
spanned 112 games. With today’s tiebreak rules, it is unlikely we will
ever have a longer match at Wimbledon. Not bad for a guy who was 41!
Gonzalez is estimated to have won over 120 tournaments. The “official”
record holder since 1968 is Jimmy Connors with 109.

If we look at players and judge them strictly by the number of majors
they win, we will of course rank 15-time Grand Slam champion Federer as
the top player of all time. But is it fair to judge by this criteria of
majors when you realize that professional tennis players have only been
allowed to compete in majors since 1968? Thirty-five plus years is a
mere fraction of tennis history. Does Federer, with his 15 majors,
really outdistance Pancho Gonzalez’s 120 plus titles, tours victories
over many of the all-time greats, two majors (all at 21 or before) and
12 professional majors?

One may also assert the supposedly physical superiority of today’s
players, but Pancho Gonzalez was a big, explosive athlete with a
devastating serve. The renowned tennis instructor, Vic Braden considers
Gonzalez’s serve to be the smoothest and perhaps greatest serve in
history. According to Braden in his book Tennis 2000, there was no
stress on the shoulder and upper arm when Gonzalez served so he could
serve as hard in the fifth set as in the first set. Braden was convinced
that Gonzalez could easily serve greater than 140 miles per hour with
today’s rackets.

“Your service usually determines whether you will win or lose a match,”
Gonzalez said. “You may be over hitting your first service every time or
perhaps you are merely trying to put the ball in play. In either case,
the error is fatal. Make a conscious effort to put more sting on the
ball. Put your wrist, shoulder and entire body weight into the serve
every time you hit it.”

Gonzalez was known for his fluid strokes, his movement, and his
fighting spirit. His great serve was backed by an outstanding volley and
superb controlled groundstrokes. He was able to hit with great power,
yet he had brilliant touch. He moved extremely well and could make great
recoveries in defensive positions.

To say it is a combination that is tough to beat is an understatement.

To sum up Pancho Gonzalez, you have a man who won more tournaments by
far than any player of the Open era. He won more total majors titles
(including the old professional majors) than any player of the open era
besides Pete Sampras, with whom he is tied with and won tours over many
of the all time greats. His career spanned much of tennis history and he
defeated players from Bill Tilden to Jimmy Connors!

Clearly Pancho Gonzalez in record and skill is arguably as great or
better than any player that ever lived. He was the living breathing
tennis version of “The Natural.”

My thanks to the Gonzalez family, David Hernandez and Robert Geist for
their great help in getting me much of this information. I would also
like to give special thanks to the late great Joe McCauley and his wife
Rosemary for their wonderful book “The History of Professional Tennis”
for filling in much of the gaps in tennis history.

Raymond Lee is a tennis historian and writer
from New York.

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