Ricardo "Pancho" Gonzáles
May 9, 1928 - July 3, 1995
Birth place: South Central, Los Angeles (Mexican descent)
Height: 5'10" Weight: 180
Inducted into the Tennis Hall of Fame - 1968
"Next to Jackie Robinson, Pancho Gonzáles was the most competitive athlete I've ever known" Legendary sports broadcaster, Howard Cosell.
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When Ricardo Alonzo "Pancho" Gonzáles was the age of 12, he asked his mother for a bike for his birthday. His mom thought riding a bike was too dangerous so she bought him a tennis racket instead. Richard fell in love with the racket and the game of tennis and began playing as often as he could.
Pancho slowly mastered the game as a youth. After winning a few boy's tournaments, George Davis, sports editor of the Los Angeles Herald Express, mentioned Pancho in an article entitled 'Southern California - Cradle of Tennis Champions'. Frank Poulain cut the article out and took Pancho to see Perry T. Jones, President of the Southern California Tennis Association and a very influential tennis figure in US tennis at the time. Poulain persuaded Jones to take a look at Pancho playing but Jones said there was nothing more he could do with the boy because he did not attend school regularly.
Undettered, Pancho was determined to succeed without Jones' backing. Jones, who ran most of the tournaments in the area, banned him from entering tournaments because of his school truancy. After a spell in the US Navy from 1945-6, during which time he played little tennis, the ban on Pancho was lifted as he had reached the age of 18.
Pancho entered his first senior tennis tournament in May 1947 in the Southern California Championships at the Los Angeles Tennis Club. In his first Grand Slam event at the US Championships later in the year, Gonzáles beat British Davis Cup player Derek Barton before losing to fourth seed Gar Mulloy in the second round. In the Pacific Southwest tournament in Los Angeles Gonzáles beat Jaroslav Drobny, Bob Falkenburg and Frank Parker before losing in the final to Ted Schroeder. At the end of the year Gonzáles was ranked 17 in the US.
On March 23rd 1948 Gonzáles married Henrietta Pedrin and learned shortly afterwards that his wife was pregnant with their first child. He won the US Clay court championships a few months later. On the Eastern circuit Gonzáles showed only flashes of brilliance. At Long Island he beat Budge Patty but lost to Gar Mulloy in the opening round at Orange, New Jersey. At Newport, Rhode Island, Gonzáles lost to the unseeded Sam Match.
Seeded eight for the US Championships at Forest Hills, Gonzáles, after a bye, won his second round match easily against Ladislav Hecht and had no problems in his third round match against Gus Ganzenmuller. His first real test came in the fourth round against the wily left hander Art Larsen. The match began late in the afternoon on Field court 16. Gonzáles was struggling with his game and wasn't helped by the sinking sun getting in his eyeline as he went two sets to one down. During the interval before the fourth set, tournament officials asked both players if they would like to resume their match on Stadium Court, which was now vacant. Gonzáles didn't mind either way but Larsen, who always loved the big arena, was keen to move courts so they did. The high concrete stadium shielded the sun from the players' eyes and Gonzáles, spurred on my the big arena went on to take the fourth and fifth sets to win the match. In the quarter finals Gonzáles met top seed Frank Parker and Gonzáles won in four sets.
In the semis Gonzáles met the second Foreign seed Jaroslav Drobny. Drobny took the first set and had a break in the second before Gonzáles clawed his way back into contention. He took the second set 11-9 and seemed to break Drobny's reserve as he won the third and fourth sets 6-0, 6-3 to book his place in the final. Gonzáles was in top form in the final against Eric Sturgess and as dusk fell on the centre court he watched as Sturgess netted a half volley to give him the title 6-3,6-3,14-12.
A few weeks after winning the US title, Gonzáles traveled home to Los Angeles to compete in the Pacific South West championships. He lost in the semis to Ted Schroeder in four sets. The following week Schroeder beat him again in the National Hard court championships in San Francisco, again in four sets. A few weeks later Gonzáles lost in the semis of the Pan American championships in Mexico City to Eric Sturgess. Gonzáles finally beat Schroeder in the La Jolla Beach Club invitation tournament, despite the fact he had a broken nose! "I'll gladly break my nose every day of the week if I can be sure I'll play as well as I did today" Gonzáles told reporters.
Gonzáles began 1949 well with victory in the National Indoor Championships in New York, beating Billy Talbert in the final. However, at the River Oaks tournament in April, Gonzáles was thrashed by Sam Match. Making his first trip overseas, Gonzáles reached the semis of the French championships, where he lost to Budge Patty. At Wimbledon he lost in the fourth round to the Australian Geoff Brown. On returning to the States Gonzáles returned to form by successfully defending his National Clay court championship over Frank Parker. However, Gonzáles' form deserted him on the Eastern circuit. Bill Talbert beat him in Spring Lake (New Jersey) and Long Island. He beat Vic Seixas to win the Pennsylvania Grass Court title and beat Gar Mulloy in the final at Newport, Rhode Island. Then came the Davis Cup Challenge Round against the Aussies in New York. Gonzáles won both his rubbers against Frank Sedgman and Billy Sidwell without dropping a set and the US won the Cup 4 matches to 1.
Gonzáles had a lot at stake as he prepared to defend his US title. First, he had to prove that he was not the 'cheese' champion that some unkind pundits had named him, and secondly, if he successfully defended his title then a lucrative professional contract would almost certainly be his.
Despite the fact he was defending champion Gonzáles was seeded 2 behind Ted Schroeder, who was making his first appearance in the event since he won the title in 1942. Pancho breezed through the early rounds dispatching Jack Gellar, Straight Clark and James Brink without losing a set. In the quarter finals Gonzáles faced Art Larsen. Just like their encounter of twelve months earlier, the match went to five sets before Gonzáles won. In the semis he faced Frank Parker. Parker began well by taking the opening set and was within two points of a two sets to love lead before Gonzáles took the set 9-7. Pancho took the next two sets easily for a four set victory. Ted Schroeder was his opponent in the final. Schroeder took a marathon first set 18-16, achieving the decisive break on a questionable call. In the second set the umpire gave Schroeder permission to wear spikes, and it clearly aided him as he took the set 6-2. Gonzáles fought back in the third set and won it easily 6-1. He took the fourth set 6-2 to level it at two sets all. Schroeder had a reputation of being unbeatable in the fifth set but Gonzáles by now was playing the better tennis of the two of them. He broke Schroeder's serve in the ninth game and serving for the match at 5-4 he held his serve for a memorable five set triumph. Just days later Gonzáles received a phone call from Bobby Riggs and he signed a professional contract.
Gonzáles the reigning amateur champion faced Kramer, the professional champion in a long gruelling head to head tour in 1950. Kramer was at the top of his game and drubbed Pancho 96 matches to 27. This effectively curtailed Gonzáles' career for several years as Kramer toured against the years' new signing. Gonzáles has to console himself by entering the few pro tournaments there were. In 1950 he took the first of his four titles at the British Pro Championships in Wembley. In 1953 he beat Don Budge in the final of the Pilsner World Championship (more commonly known as the US Pro Championship). In 1954 the ageing Kramer decided his playing days were over, which left the door open for Gonzáles to tour once more. He beat Frank Sedgman, Ken McGregor and Pancho Segura in a round robin tour in 1954 and in 1956 he beat Tony Trabert 74 matches to 27. Ken Rosewall was the challenger to Pancho's crown in 1957, and Gonzáles won the tour 50 matches to 26. The following year Gonzáles beat Lew Hoad 51 matches to 36. In 1959 he won a round robin tour over Hoad, Mal Anderson and Ashley Cooper and in 1960 he won another round robin tour against Rosewall, Segura and Alex Olmedo. In 1961 Gonzáles took his sixth and last US Pro Championship title, beating Frank Sedgman in the final. He retired for a couple of years but returned to reach the final of the same event in 1964, losing to Rod Laver. Gonzáles did not play much tennis over the next four years.
In 1968 the game went open and the forty year old Gonzáles returned to the major championships for the first time in nearly two decades. At the first Open Grand Slam event, the 1968 French Open, Gonzáles, the 5th seed, beat defending champion Roy Emerson in a five set quarter final before losing to Rod Laver in the semis. At the first Open Wimbledon he lost in the third round to Alex Metreveli. At the US Open he beat second seed Tony Roche in the fourth round before going out to eighth seed Tom Okker in the quarters. Making his debut in the Australian Championships in 1969, Gonzáles, the sixth seed, lost in the third round to defending champion Bill Bowrey.
Gonzáles' opening round match at Wimbledon 1969 against Charlie Pasarell, a man half his age, will live long in the memory of those who saw it. The forty one year old Gonzáles dropped the first two sets 22-24,1-6 and was constantly going up to the umpires chair complaining of bad light. Finally, after the conclusion of the second set, the umpire relented and play was suspended until the next day. The following day Gonzáles was refreshed and took the third set 16-14. He raced through the fourth set 6-3 to level the match at two sets all. In the fifth set Gonzáles was three match points down as he served at 4-5 and 0-40. A missed lob from Pasarell saved the first match point, a service winner saved the second and a Pasarell lob landed just out on the third match point to make it deuce and Gonzáles went on to take the game.
He then beat Ove Bengston and Tom Edlefsen in straight sets before falling in four sets in the fourth round to Arthur Ashe.
At the 1969 US Open, Gonzáles survived two five setters against Ray Ruffels and Torben Ulrich before losing in the fourth round to third seed Tony Roche. At the US Open in 1970, Gonzáles lost in the third round to Nikki Pilic. The following year he made the third round again but lost to Manuel Orantes.
In 1972 the 44 year old Gonzáles became the oldest man to win a tournament when he took the title in Iowa beating Georges Goven in the final. The same year he was involved in a controversial incident at the British Hard Court Championships in Bournemouth. He was playing his semi final against John Paish. One of his serves was called a fault and Gonzáles shouted at the linesman saying "That makes four in this goddam game". The referee Bea Seal came to the court and Gonzáles demanded that the linesman be changed. The stand up row ended when Mrs. Seal pointed a finger and Gonzáles shouted "Don't come too close to me lady or I might lose my temper". Mrs. Seal then disqualified Gonzáles from the tournament. Gonzáles retired from the circuit in 1974 and played the senior Grand Masters tour instead. Gonzáles made his film debut in the 1979 box office flop 'Players', where he played a tennis coach. In real life he was the professional coach at Ceasers Palace, Las Vegas for over twenty years.
Gonzáles died of cancer on 3rd July 1995 in Las Vegas. He was married six times and leaves behind 8 children in addition to his siblings.
Pancho Gonzáles will be remembered forever as a fiery competitor, a fearsome opponent with lots of charisma and a strong nerve. Though he had a powerful service, Gonzáles was not the greatest of volleyers or groundstrokers. It was his sheer passion for the game and will to win that made him a champion. In many ways he epitomised what the word champion means. He fought racial prejudice, overcame the stigma of being a school truant and the snobbery of the tennis hierarchy to become one of the game's great champions. Gonzáles was perpetual motion. He never sat still and wasn't happy unless he was on the move. He loved drag racing and poker, but his passion for tennis was second to none.
It is a shame that he was robbed of further Grand Slam success by turning professional. If the game had gone open twenty years earlier then the record books would undoubtedly show the name of Richard Alonzo Gonzáles in the top five on the Grand Slam singles titles leaderboard.
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