Pancho Gonzales

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Ricardo Alonso González, or Richard Gonzalez (May 9, 1928, Los Angeles, California – July 3, 1995, Las Vegas, Nevada), who was generally known as Pancho Gonzales, was the World No. 1 tennis player for a number of years in the 1950s and early 1960s and, prior to the Open era, was considered by many observers to be the greatest player in the history of the game. Because of the strict segregation of tennis into amateur and professional ranks during most of his career, however, as well as the paucity of some of the professional records, it is difficult to determine precisely how many years Gonzales was the world's best player.

Playing as a professional, Gonzales was unquestionably the top player, either amateur or professional, for a minimum of 6 consecutive years, 1955 through 1960. Strong arguments can be made that he was also the best player, or, at the very least, the Co-Number 1 player, for a number of other years, in particular 1952, 1954, and 1961. If this is indeed the case, Gonzales would have been the world's greatest player for a still-unequalled 9 years; his nearest rivals would be Bill Tilden, who was unquestionably the best for 7 years, and Rod Laver, who was arguably also the best for 7 years. The top-ranked American amateur in 1949, twenty years later Gonzales was still the sixth or seventh best player in the world in 1969 and, in 1972, was the ninth-ranked American player at the age of 44; in the entire history of tennis, only Tilden and Ken Rosewall approach such a sustained level of greatness over a similar period of time. Interviewed in the mid-1980s, the great player Bobby Riggs assessed Gonzales as being the greatest player ever over a 20-year period.[1]

Gonzales had a lucrative endorsement contract with Spalding for many years

Raised in modest circumstances in the Latino community, where he had to surmount the racist obstacles of 1930s and 1940s Los Angeles, the tempestuous Gonzales was completely self-taught but unexpectedly became a successful amateur player in the late-1940s, twice winning the United States Championships. In his 1985 interview, Riggs said that in a theoretical tournament for the greatest players on their best days, "Suppose you say the winner gets the money and the losers have to jump off the Golden Gate Bridge. On those terms I would take Gonzales."[2] A 1999 Sports Illustrated article about the magazine's 20 "favorite athletes" of the 20th century said of Gonzales (their number 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." The noted tennis commentator Bud Collins echoed this in an August 2006 article for MSNBC.com: "If I had to choose someone to play for my life it would be Pancho Gonzalez."[3]

Career

Amateur

Gonzales was given a 51-cent racquet by his mother when he was 12 years old and taught himself to play by watching other players on the public courts at nearby Exposition Park in Los Angeles. Once he discovered tennis, he lost interest in school and began a troubled adolescence in which he was occasionally pursued by truant officers and policemen. He was befriended by the owner of the tennis shop at Exposition Park and sometimes slept there. Because of his spotty school attendance and occasional minor brushes with the law, he was ostracized by the exclusively white, and predominantly upper-class, tennis establishment of 1940s Los Angeles, which was headquartered at the Los Angeles Tennis Club and which actively trained other top players such as the youthful Jack Kramer. Eventually Gonzales was arrested for burglary at age 15 and spent a year in detention. He then joined the Navy just as World War II was ending and served for two years, finally receiving a bad-conduct discharge in 1947.

According to his autobiography, Gonzales stood 6'3" (1.91 meters) and weighed 183 pounds (83 kg) by the time he was 19 years old. Other sources generally credit him as being an inch or two shorter but in any case he would enjoy a clear advantage in height over a number of his most prominent rivals, particularly Pancho Segura, Ken Rosewall, and Rod Laver, all of whom were at least 5 or 6 inches shorter. Tony Trabert, who was badly beaten by Gonzales on their 101-match tour and who disliked him intensely, nevertheless once told the Los Angeles Times: "Gonzales is the greatest natural athlete tennis has ever known. The way he can move that 6-foot-3-inch frame of his around the court is almost unbelievable. He's just like a big cat... Pancho's reflexes and reactions are God-given talents. He can be moving in one direction and in the split second it takes him to see that the ball is hit to his weak side, he's able to throw his physical mechanism in reverse and get to the ball in time to reach it with his racket."[4] The flamboyant Gussie Moran, who briefly toured with the Gonzales group, said that watching Gonzales was like seeing "a god patrolling his personal heaven."[5]

In spite of his lack of playing time while in the Navy, and as a mostly unknown 19-year-old in 1947, Gonzales achieved a national ranking of number 17 by playing primarily on the West Coast. He did, however, go East that year to play in the United States Championships at Forest Hills. He surprised the British Davis Cup-player Derek Barton, then lost a five-set match to the number-3 seed, Gardnar Mulloy. Following that, in the last major tournament of the year, the Pacific Southwest, played at the Los Angeles Tennis Club, he beat three internationally known names, Jaroslav Drobny, Bob Falkenburg, and Frank Parker, before losing in the finals to Ted Schroeder.

The following year, 1948, Perry T. Jones, the head of the Southern California Tennis Association, and the most powerful man in California tennis, relented in his opposition to Gonzales and sponsored his trip East to play in the major tournaments. The top-ranked American player, Ted Schroeder, decided at the last moment not to play in the United States Championships and Gonzales was seeded number 8 in the tournament. To the surprise of most observers, he won it fairly easily by a straight-set victory over the South African Eric Sturgess in the finals with his powerful serve-and-volley game. His persona at the time was strikingly different from what it would become in future years. American Lawn Tennis wrote that "the crowd cheered a handsome, dark-skinned Mexican-American youngster who smiled boyishly each time he captured a hard-fought point, kissed the ball prayerfully before a crucial serve, and was human enough to show nervousness as he powered his way to the most coveted crown in the world." This was Gonzales's only major tournament victory of the year, but it was enough to let him finish the year ranked as the number one American player.

The following year, 1949, Gonzales did badly at Wimbledon and was derided for his performance by some of the press. A British sportswriter called him a "cheese champion" and, because of his name, his doubles partner of the time, Frank Parker, began to call him "Gorgonzales", after Gorgonzola, the Italian cheese. This was eventually shortened to "Gorgo", the nickname by which he was later known by his colleagues on the professional tour. (Jack Kramer, in his autobiography, says that it was Jim Burchard, the tennis writer for the New York World-Telegram who first called him a "cheese champ".)"[6]

In 1949, Gonzales returned to the American championships and, once again to the surprise of many observers, repeated his victory of the previous year. Ted Schroeder, the number-1 seed, had beaten Gonzales 8 times in 9 matches during their careers and was heavily favored—the single time Gonzales had beaten Schroeder, he was playing with a nose that had been broken the day before by his doubles partner's tennis racquet during a misplayed point at the net. In a tremendous final that has been called the 11th greatest match of all time",[7] Gonzales lost a 1-hour and 15-minute first set 16-18 but finally managed to prevail in the 5th set. Once again he finished the year as the number-one ranked U.S. amateur. Gonzales also won both his singles matches in the Davis Cup finals against Australia. Having beaten Schroeder at Forest Hills, he was clearly the best amateur in the world. Bobby Riggs and Jack Kramer, who had been counting on signing Schroeder to play Kramer on the professional tour, were then forced to reluctantly sign Gonzales instead.

Professional

Kramer

Gonzales was badly beaten in his first year on the professional tour, 96 matches to 27, by the reigning king of professional tennis, Jack Kramer. During this time, Gonzales's personality changed from that of a friendly, happy-go-lucky youngster to the hard-bitten loner he became known as for the rest of his life. According to Kramer in his 1979 autobiography, "The worst thing that ever happened to Gonzales was winning Forest Hills in 1949... At a time when Gorgo wasn't mature as a player he was pitted against Kramer, an established pro at his peak." Moreover, says Kramer, "Pancho had no idea how to live or take care of himself. He was a hamburger-and-hot-dog guy to start with and had no concept of diet in training... On the court Gorgo would swig Cokes through a match... Also Gorgo was a pretty heavy cigarette smoker. He had terrible sleeping habits made even worse by the reality of a tour."

Kramer won 22 of the first 26 matches and 42 of the first 50. Gonzales improved enough to win 15 of the remaining 32 but it was too late. Bobby Riggs, the tour promoter, told Gonzales that he was now "dead meat": Kramer would need a new challenger for the next tour. As compensation, however, Gonzales had made $75,000 in his losing efforts. Kramer also said that "his nature had changed completely. He became difficult and arrogant. Losing had changed him. When he got his next chance, he understood that you either win or you're out of a job." He was now "a loner," said Ted Schroeder, "and always the unhappiest man in town."[8]

Semi-retirement

From 1951 to 1953 Gonzales was in semi-retirement. He bought the tennis shop at Exposition Park and ran that while playing in short tours and occasional professional tournaments throughout the world. In spite of his infrequent play, he had nevertheless raised his game to a higher level than before and once again was winning most of his matches. Precise records of this time are difficult to locate but Gonzales asserts in his autobiography that after his decisive loss to Kramer in their 1949-1950 tour he then beat his old antagonist 11 times in their next 16 matches.

In the Southern Hemisphere summer of 1950-1951 Gonzales toured Australia and New Zealand with Dinny Pails, Frank Parker, and Don Budge. In December of 1950 Pails won the short tour in New Zealand but in January and February 1951 Gonzales won a second and longer tour in Australia. Though Gonzales also won Wembley (where Kramer was not entered) in the fall of 1951, it is probable that both Kramer and Segura were marginally better players that year. In 1952, however, Gonzales reached the top level of the pros. In 1952 he entered 5 tournaments and captured 4: the Philadelphia Inquirer tournament, where he beat both Segura and Kramer; Scarborough, where he defeated Budge and Segura; Wembley, by again beating Segura and Kramer; Berlin, where Segura and Budge lost again to the American; he was also a finalist in the United States Professional Championships against Segura. In all, Gonzales beat Segura 4 matches out of 5 and Kramer twice in two matches. This was the first year that "Big Pancho" (Gonzales) dominated "Little Pancho" (Segura) in their head-to-head matches, and thereafter his superiority over Segura never wavered through their long careers.

Although the Professional Lawn Tennis Association issued rankings at the end of 1952 in which they called Segura the World No. 1, with Gonzales 2nd, the PLTA rankings were notoriously quirky—the year before, for instance, when Kramer had beaten Segura 64 matches to 28 (or 58-27 according to Kramer) in their championship tour, they had nevertheless ranked Segura as the World No. 1 player. A strong case can therefore be made that Gonzales was actually the World No. 1 player for 1952 or, at the least, shared that position with Segura.

At a professional event in 1951 the forehand drives of a number of players were electronically measured. Kramer was particularly known for his fine forehand, but Gonzales was recorded as hitting the fastest one, 112.88 mph, followed by Kramer at 107.8 and Welby Van Horn at 104. Since it was generally assumed at the time that Pancho Segura's two-handed forehand was the hardest in tennis, it is possible that he was not present at that event.[9]

In late 1953, Kramer, then a temporarily retired player due to back troubles, signed Gonzales to a 7-year contract. In an initial 1954 U.S. tour featuring Segura, Frank Sedgman, and Don Budge, Gonzales beat both Segura and Sedgman by 30-21 and lost only once to Budge. By the end of the year Gonzales had clearly established himself as the top player in the world.

Dominance

Gonzales was now the dominant player in the men's game for about the next eight years, beating such tennis greats as Sedgman, Tony Trabert, Ken Rosewall, Lew Hoad, Mal Anderson, and Ashley Cooper on a regular basis. Forty years after his matches with Gonzales, Trabert told interviewer Joe McCauley "that Gonzales' serve was the telling factor on their tour—it was so good that it earned him many cheap points. Trabert felt that, while he had the better groundstrokes, he could not match Pancho's big, fluent service."[10]

In that period, Gonzales won the United States Professional Championship eight times and the Wembley professional title in London four times, plus beating, in head-to-head tours, all of the best amateurs who turned pro, which included every Wimbledon champion for 10 years in a row. During this time Gonzales was known for his fiery will to win, his cannonball serve, and his all-conquering net game, a combination so potent that the rules on the professional tour were briefly changed in the 1950s to prohibit him from advancing to the net immediately after serving. Under the new rules, the returned serve had to bounce before the server could make his own first shot, thereby keeping Gonzales from playing his usual serve-and-volley game. He won even so, and the rules were changed back. So great was his ability to raise his game to the highest possible level, particularly in the fifth set of long matches, that Allen Fox has said that he never once saw Gonzales lose service when serving for the set or the match.

Trabert and Rosewall

In late 1955 and early 1956 Gonzales beat the athletic Tony Trabert by 74 matches to 27, a series made more compelling by the fact that the two players disliked each other intensely. At the end of 1956 Kramer signed Ken Rosewall to play another long series against Gonzales. In early 1957 Gonzales flew to Australia for the first 10 matches against Rosewall in his native country. Gonzales had developed a "half-dollar"-size cyst on the palm on his right hand and there was speculation in the newspapers that his tennis career might be over. Kramer's personal physician began to treat it with injections, and it gradually began to shrink. It was still painful, however, when Gonzales beat Rosewall in their initial match and eventually won their brief Australian tour 7 matches to 3, with Rosewall beating Gonzales in a tournament whose results did not count towards the series total. By the time the tour opened in New York in late February the cyst had shrunk considerably and Gonzales went on to beat Rosewall by a final score of 50 matches to 26.

Kramer has written that he was so worried that Rosewall would offer no competition to Gonzales and would thereby destroy the financial success of the tour that, for the only time in his career as a player or promoter, he asked Gonzales while in Australia to "carry" Rosewall in return for having his share of the gross receipts raised from 20 percent to 25 percent. Gonzales reluctantly agreed. After 4 matches, with Gonzales ahead 3 to 1, Gonzales came to Kramer to say that "I can't play when I'm thinking about trying to carry the kid. I can't concentrate. It just bothers me too much." By this time, however, it was apparent that Rosewall would be fully competitive with Gonzales, so Kramer told Gonzales to return to his normal game—and that he could keep his additional 5 percent.

Later that year Gonzales sued in California superior court to have his 7-year contract with Kramer declared invalid. As proof of his claim, Gonzales cited being paid 25 percent of the gate instead of the stipulated 20 percent. Judge Leon T. David found Gonzales's reasoning implausible and ruled in favor of Kramer. Gonzales remained bound to Kramer by contract until 1960."[11]

Hoad

The most difficult challenge that Gonzales faced during those years came from Lew Hoad, the very powerful young Australian who had won five Grand Slam titles as an amateur. In the 1958 tour, Gonzales and Hoad played head-to-head 87 times. Hoad won 18 of the first 27 matches and it appeared that he was about to displace Gonzales as the best in the world. Gonzales, however, revamped and improved his backhand during the course of these first matches, just as Bill Tilden had had to do in 1920 in order to become the best in the world, and then won 42 of the next 60 matches to maintain his superiority by a margin of 51 to 36.

Much of Gonzales's competitive fire during these years derived from the anger he felt at being paid much less than the players he was regularly beating. In 1955, for instance, he was paid $15,000 while his touring opponent, the recently turned professional Tony Trabert, had a contract for $80,000. Gonzales had an often bitter adversarial relationship with most of the other players and generally traveled and lived by himself, showing up only in time to play his match, then moving on alone to the next town. Gonzales and Kramer, the long-time promoter of the tour, were still bitter enemies from the days when Kramer had beaten the youthful Gonzales on his initial tour. Now they fought incessantly about money, and Kramer openly rooted for the other players to beat Gonzales. As much as he disliked Gonzales, however, Kramer knew that Gonzales was the star attraction of the touring professionals and that without him there would be no tour at all.

Regarding the tour, Kramer writes that "even though [Gonzales] was usually the top name, he would almost never help promote. The players could have tolerated his personal disagreeableness, but this refusal to help the group irritated them the most. Frankly, the majority disliked Gonzales intensely. Sedgman almost came to blows with Gonzales once. Trabert and Gorgo hated each other. The only player he ever tried to get along with was Lew Hoad."

Trabert also told McCauley in their interview that "I appreciated his tennis ability but I never came to respect him as a person. Too often I had witnessed him treat people badly without a cause. He was a loner, sullen most of the time, with a big chip on his shoulder and he rarely associated with us on the road. Instead he'd appear at the appointed hour for his match, then vanish back into the night without saying a word to anyone. We'd all stay around giving autographs to the fans before moving on to the next city. Not Pancho. But on court he was totally professional as well as a fantastic player."[12]

Life on the tour was not easy. "One night," Gonzales recalled later, "I sprained an ankle badly. The next night in another town I was hurting. I told Jack I couldn't play. He said to me, 'Kid, we always play.' Jack had a doctor shoot me up with novocaine, and we played. That's just the way it was. The size of the crowd didn't matter. They'd paid to see us play."[13]

The rigors were not only physical ones. In the 1963 United States Professional Championship, which were held on grass that year at the hallowed Forest Hills courts, Gonzales both dismayed and infuriated his colleagues by being the only player who was paid for his participation. Having learned by bitter experience about the exigencies of the pro tour, Gonzales had demanded, and received, $5,000 in advance for his appearance in the tournament. An out-of-shape, semi-retired Gonzales was beaten in the first round. Ken Rosewall eventually beat Rod Laver in the finals but neither of them collected a penny: the promoter had failed to meet his costs and couldn't pay any of the other players.

Open tennis

Most of Gonzales's career as a professional fell before the start of the Open era of tennis in 1968, and he was therefore ineligible to compete at the Grand Slam events from 1949, when he turned pro, through 1967. As has been observed about other great players such as Rod Laver, Gonzales almost certainly would have won a number of additional Grand Slam titles had he been permitted to compete in those tournaments during that 18-year period. Jack Kramer, for instance, has speculated in an article about the theoretical champions of Forest Hills and Wimbledon that Gonzales would have won an additional 11 titles in those two tournaments alone.

The first major Open tournament was the French Championships in May 1968, when Gonzales had just turned 40. In spite of the fact that he had been semi-retired for a number of years and that the tournament was held on slow clay courts that penalize serve-and-volley players, Gonzales beat the 1967 defending champion Roy Emerson in the quarterfinals. He then lost in the semi-finals to Rod Laver. He lost in the third round of Wimbledon but later beat the second-seeded Tony Roche in the fourth round of the United States Open before losing an epic match to Holland's Tom Okker.

One of the most famous matches ever played

In 1969, however, it was Gonzales's turn to prevail in the longest match ever played till that time, one so long and arduous that it resulted in the advent of tie-break scoring. As a 41-year-old at Wimbledon, Gonzales met the fine young amateur Charlie Pasarell and beat him in a 5-set match that lasted five hours and 12 minutes and took 2 days to complete. In the fifth set Gonzales won all seven match points that Pasarell had against him, twice coming back from 0-40 deficits. The final score was an improbable 22-24, 1-6, 16-14, 6-3, 11-9. Gonzales went on to the fourth round, where he was beaten in four sets by Arthur Ashe. The match with Pasarell, however, is still remembered as one of the highlights in the history of tennis and has been called one of "The Ten Greatest Matches of the Open Era" in the November/December 2003 issue of TENNIS magazine. [4]

Final professional years

Later that year Gonzales won the Howard Hughes Open in Las Vegas and the Pacific Southwest Open in Los Angeles, beating, among others, John Newcombe, Ken Rosewall, Stan Smith (twice), Cliff Richie, and Arthur Ashe. He was the top American money-winner for 1969 with $46,288. If the touring professionals had been included in the United States rankings, it is likely he would have been ranked number 1 in the country, just as he had been two decades earlier in 1948 and 1949. He could also beat the clear number-one player in the world, Rod Laver, on an occasional basis. In their most famous meeting, a $10,000 winner-take-all match before 15,000 in Madison Square Garden in February 1970, the 41-year-old Gonzales beat Laver in five sets.

Gonzales continued to play in the occasional tournament and became the oldest player to have ever won a professional tournament, winning the Des Moines Open over 24-year-old Georges Goven when he was three months shy of his 44th birthday. In spite of the fact that he was still known as a serve-and-volley player, in 1971, when he was 43 and Jimmy Connors was 19, he beat the great young baseliner by playing him from the baseline at the Pacific Southwest Open.

Roy Emerson, the fine Australian player who won a dozen Grand Slam titles during the 1960s as an amateur when most of the best players in the world were professionals, turned pro in 1968 at the age of 32, having won the French Open the year before. Gonzales, 8 years older, immediately beat him in the quarter-finals of the French championships. In the following years, Gonzales beat Emerson another 11 times, apparently losing very few matches to him, one of which was In the Champions Classic of 1970 in Miami, Florida, where Emerson beat Gonzales in straight sets, 6-2, 6-3, 6-2.[14]

Another great Australian player was Ken Rosewall, who won 8 Grand Slam titles during his long career, first as an amateur, then as a professional in the early years of Open tennis. Gonzales played 160 matches against Rosewall, winning 101 and losing 59.

Personal and family life

Gonzales's parents, Manuel Antonio González and Carmen Alire, migrated from Chihuahua, Mexico to the U.S. in the early 1900s. Gonzales was born in Los Angeles, the eldest of seven children. Kramer writes that "Gorgo was not the poor Mexican-American that people assumed. He didn't come from a wealthy family, but from a stable middle-class background, probably a lot like mine. He had a great mother and there was always a warm feeling of family loyalty. If anything, he might have been spoiled as a kid. It's a shame he suffered discrimination because of his Mexican heritage."

Gonzales had a long scar across his left cheek that, according to his autobiography, some members of the mass media of the 1940s attributed to his being a Mexican-American pachuco and hence involved in knife fights. This was one more slur that embittered Gonzales towards the media in general. The scar was actually the result of a prosaic street accident in 1935 when he was 7 years old: pushing a scooter too fast, he ran into a passing car and had his cheek gashed open by its door handle. He spent two weeks in the hospital as a result.

Although his name was properly spelled "González", during most of his playing career he was known as "Gonzales". It was only towards the end of his life that the proper spelling began to be used. Kramer, however, writes that one of his wives, Madelyn Darrow, "decided to change his name. Madelyn discovered in the Castillian upper-crust society, the fancy Gonzales families spelled their name with a z at the end to differentiate from the hoi polloi Gonzales. So it was Gonzalez for a time, and even now you will occasionally see that spelling pop up. I don't think Pancho gave a damn one way or the other."[15] In his ghost-written 1959 autobiography, "Gonzales" is used throughout.

For decades Gonzales had made $75,000 a year from an endorsement contract with Spalding for racquets and balls but was unable to get along with the company personnel. Finally, in 1981, after nearly 30 years, Spalding refused to renew the contract. He had also been the tennis director and tournament director at Caesar's Palace in Las Vegas for 16 years, another lucrative job. In 1985 he was fired after refusing to give private lessons to the wife of his boss.[16] As S. L. Price wrote about Gonzales in a 2002 Sports Illustrated article, "There was no more perfect match than Pancho and Vegas: both dark and disreputable, both hard and mean and impossible to ignore."

Gonzales married and divorced six times and had seven children: he wed his childhood sweetheart, Henrietta Pedrin, on March 23, 1948; they had 3 children. He married actress (and Miss Rheingold of 1958) Madelyn Darrow twice; they had 3 children, including twin girls. He married his dental hygenist, Betty, in Beverly Hills and had one daughter. His last wife, Rita, is the sister of Andre Agassi. According to Price's article, Rita's father, Mike Agassi, a 1952 Olympian on the Iranian boxing team who had become a successful casino greeter in Las Vegas, hated Gonzales so much that he considered having him killed. Gonzales had coached the young Rita until she had rebelled against her father's 5,000-balls-a-day-regimen and first moved in with, then married, on 31 March 1984, the much older Gonzales. Years before, Mike Agassi, already a tennis fanatic, had once served as a linesman for one of Gonzales's professional matches in Chicago. Gonzales had upbraided Agassi so severely for perceived miscalls that Agassi had stalked away and gone to sit in the stands.

Kramer says that "Gonzales never seemed to get along with his various wives, although this never stopped him from getting married... Segura once said, 'You know, the nicest thing Gorgo ever says to his wives is "Shut up."'" Gonzales died in penury and almost friendless, estranged from his ex-wives and children except for Rita and their son, Skylar, and daughter, Jeanna Lynn. Andre Agassi paid for his funeral.

Place among the all-time great tennis players

For about 35 years from around 1920 to 1955, Bill Tilden was generally considered the greatest player of all time. From the mid-1950s to about 1970, many people thought that Gonzales had claimed that title. Since then, champions of the Open era such as Rod Laver, Björn Borg, Jimmy Connors, John McEnroe, Ivan Lendl, Pete Sampras, and Roger Federer have been considered by many of their contemporaries to be greater players than either Tilden or Gonzales.

However, some people connected with the game still consider Gonzales to be the best male player in tennis history, primarily because he was the World No. 1 tennis player for at least 8 and possibly more years. Pancho Segura, who played, and frequently beat, all of the great players from the 1930s through the 1960s has said that he believes that Gonzales was the best player of all time. Other tennis greats such as Lew Hoad, and Allen Fox have agreed with this assessment. In a 1972 article about an imaginary tournament between the all-time greats, Gene Scott had the fourth-seeded Gonzales upsetting Bill Tilden in the semi-finals and then using his serve to destroy Rod Laver in the finals.

Bud Collins, the editor of the massive Total Tennis, The Ultimate Tennis Encyclopedia, is guarded. He writes on page 673 that Gonzales was "probably as good as anyone who ever played the game, if not better." On page 693, however, he writes that Rod Laver would "be known as possibly the greatest player ever." And on page 749 he calls Bill Tilden "perhaps the greatest player of them all."

In 2005 a tennis historian who visited the International Tennis Hall of Fame interviewed several great Australian players who had toured against Gonzales. Who, they were asked, was the best player they had ever played against?[17]

Mal Anderson named Gonzales, who "was very difficult since if you did get ahead, he had a way to upset you, and he could exploit your weaknesses fast. Though over the hill, he beat Rod [Laver] until Rod lifted his game." He added, "Lew Hoad, in his day was scary, though Gonzales was best day in and day out." Ashley Cooper also named Gonzales, whom "I never beat on the tour. But I did beat him a couple of times on clay where his serve wasn’t as good." Gonzales's frequent opponent Frank Sedgman said, "I played against probably the greatest of all time, Jack Kramer. He could put his serve on a dime and had a great first volley. The second best was Gonzales. I played him a lot—a great competitor—a great athlete.”

Jack Kramer, on the other hand, who became a world-class player in 1940 and then beat Gonzales badly in the latter's first year as a professional, has stated that he believes that although Gonzales was better than either Laver or Sampras he was not as good as either Ellsworth Vines or Don Budge. Kramer, who had a long and frequently bitter relationship with Gonzales, rates him only as one of the four players who are second to Budge and Vines in his estimation.[18] Kramer also, perhaps surprisingly, writes that Bobby Riggs would have beaten Gonzales on a regular basis.

Early in 1986 Inside Tennis, a magazine edited in Northern California, devoted parts of four issues to a lengthy article called "Tournament of the Century", an imaginary tournament to determine the greatest of all time. They asked 37 tennis notables such as Kramer, Budge, Perry, and Riggs and observers such as Bud Collins to list the 10 greatest players in order.[19] This was probably as prestigious and knowledgeable a group of tennis experts as has ever been assembled.

Twenty-five players in all were named by the 37 experts in their lists of the 10 best. The magazine then ranked them in descending order by total number of points assigned. The top eight players in overall points, with their number of first-place votes, were: Rod Laver (9), John McEnroe (3), Don Budge (4), Jack Kramer (5), Björn Borg (6), Pancho Gonzales (1), Bill Tilden (6), and Lew Hoad (1). Gonzales was ranked the sixth-best player, with only Allen Fox casting a vote for him as the greatest of all time.

George Plimpton, the American man of letters who enjoyed a secondary literary career by writing about his efforts in the world of sports to box such greats as Archie Moore and Sugar Ray Robinson, to quarterback the Detroit Lions professional football team, and to play golf on the PGA tour among other exploits, wrote that: "After being demolished at tennis by Pancho Gonzales I wrote that I considered himself to be a fairly accomplished tennis player and that the drubbing by Gonzales was the most surprising of my ventures against the great athletes of my time."[20]

Gonzales's views of other players, 1995

In March, 1995, when Gonzales had been diagnosed with the cancer from which he would die four months later, the New York Times had a long article about him by Dave Anderson called "The Lone Wolf Faces a Match Point".[21] In a side box to the main article called "A Champion Looks at Champions", Gonzales gave his assessment of 10 other great players. The side box is not available at the online site of main article; here are short excerpts of his views of nine of the 10 players:

  • Pete Sampras: "I rate him potentially with anybody, including Lew Hoad."
  • Andre Agassi: "He was a natural but when he turned pro at 15, he couldn't cover the court."
  • Björn Borg: "He was tough. I played him when he was 18 and I was 42... and beat him 6-1, 6-1. My best game against his best game, he would be one of the toughest. One of the all-time greats."[22]
  • Jimmy Connors: "My wide serve would've been effective against his two-handed return."
  • John McEnroe: "He's right up there behind Hoad, except that he didn't hit the ball quite as hard."
  • Rod Laver: "At his best, I think I might've had too much court coverage for him. He was a great athlete, but he didn't have the thinking part."
  • Ken Rosewall: "With the exception of me and Frank Sedgman, he could handle everybody else... but he had a forehand weakness and a serve weakness."
  • Lew Hoad: "He was the only guy who, if I was playing my best tennis, could still beat me. I think his game was the best game ever. Better than mine."
  • Don Budge: "Even now, I think he had the best backhand ever developed... His ball off the backhand was the heaviest ball I can remember."

Gonzales died in Las Vegas four months after the article appeared.

International Tennis Hall of Fame

Gonzales was inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame at Newport, Rhode Island in 1968.

Notes

  1. Once a Champion: Legendary Tennis Stars Revisited, by Stan Hart, Dodd, Mead & Co., New York, 1985, page 428. He rated Bill Tilden as the greatest player before 1930, then Ellsworth Vines as the greatest player for one year, Don Budge for three years, Jack Kramer for five years, Rod Laver for 10 years, and Ken Rosewall for 25 to 30 years.
  2. Once a Champion: Legendary Tennis Stars Revisited, by Stan Hart, Dodd, Mead & Co., New York, 1985, page 428
  3. The Collins article: http://msnbc.msn.com/id/14489546/
  4. Man with a Racket, The Autobiography of Pancho Gonzales, as Told to Cy Rice (1959), page 129
  5. The Lone Wolf, by S. L. Price, Sports Illustrated, 26 June 2002
  6. The Game, My 40 Years in Tennis (1979), Jack Kramer with Frank Deford (ISBN 0-399-12336-9), page 177
  7. Tennis Magazine, on page 330 of The Tennis Book, Edited by Michael Bartlett and Bob Gillen
  8. The Lone Wolf, by S. L. Price, Sports Illustrated, 26 June 2002
  9. The History of Professional Tennis, Joe McCauley, page 57
  10. The History of Professional Tennis, Joe McCauley
  11. All information about the Australian tour with Rosewall is from The Game, My 40 Years in Tennis, pages 225-228
  12. The History of Professional Tennis, Joe McCauley
  13. The History of Professional Tennis, Joe McCauley
  14. World of Tennis Yearbook 1971, by John Barrett, page 142
  15. The Game, My 40 Years in Tennis (1979), Jack Kramer with Frank Deford (ISBN 0-399-12336-9), page 201
  16. The Lone Wolf, by S. L. Price, Sports Illustrated, 26 June 2002
  17. Interviews by tennis historian Rich Hillway in 2005 at the International Tennis Hall of Fame.
  18. In his 1979 autobiography Kramer considered the best ever to have been either Don Budge (for consistent play) or Ellsworth Vines (at the height of his game). The next four best were, chronologically, Bill Tilden, Fred Perry, Bobby Riggs, and Pancho Gonzales. After these six came the "second echelon" of Rod Laver, Lew Hoad, Ken Rosewall, Gottfried von Cramm, Ted Schroeder, Jack Crawford, Pancho Segura, Frank Sedgman, Tony Trabert, John Newcombe, Arthur Ashe, Stan Smith, Björn Borg, and Jimmy Connors. He felt unable to rank Henri Cochet and René Lacoste accurately but felt they were among the very best.
  19. The 37 were: Vijay Amritraj, Arthur Ashe, Lennart Bergelin (Björn Borg's coach), Nick Bollettieri, Norm Brooks, Don Budge, Nick Carter, Bud Collins, Allison Danzig, Donald Dell, Cliff Drysdale, Allen Fox|Allen Fox, John Gardiner, Dick Gould, Slew Hester, Bill Jacobsen, Alan King, Jack Kramer, Art Larsen, Rod Laver, Bob Lutz, Barry MacKay, Marty Mulligan. Yannick Noah, Manuel Orantes, Charlie Pasarell, Fred Perry, Whitney Reed, Bobby Riggs, Vic Seixas, Stan Smith, Bill Talbert, Eliot Teltscher, Ted Tinling, Tony Trabert, Dennis van der Meer, Erik van Dillen.
  20. From his profile at MySpace at [1]
  21. The article can be found at the New York Times article of March 12,1995. [2]]
  22. Gonzales had the details slightly wrong. He was 44 and a half when he defeated Borg, then 16 and a half, on December 6, 1972, by a score of 6-1, 6-1, in the $75,000 Clean Air Classic at the Seventh Regiment Armory in New York City. [3] Gonzales lost in the finals of the tournament to Charles Pasarell in three sets.

Most significant results

Grand Slam Tournament wins:

  • US Open (tennis)|United States Championships:
    • Men's Singles champion - 1948, 1949
  • Wimbledon Championships|Wimbledon:
    • Men's Doubles champion - 1949
  • French Open|French Championships:
    • Men's Doubles champion - 1949

Professional World Singles Tournament wins:

  • Wembley Arena|Wembley, England
    • Singles champion - 1950, 1951, 1952, 1956, 1966
    • Singles runner-up - 1953
  • United States Professional Championship
    • Singles champion - 1953, 1954, 1955, 1956, 1957, 1958, 1959, 1961
    • Singles runner-up - 1951, 1952, 1964
  • U. S. Professional Indoor Championship at White Plains, N. Y
    • Singles champion - 1964
  • French Professional Championship
    • Singles runner-up - 1953, 1956, 1961
  • World Professional Championship
    • Singles champion - 1964
  • Howard Hughes Open
    • Singles champion - 1969 (over Arthur Ashe), 1970 (over Rod Laver)
  • United States Professional Doubles Championship
    • Doubles champion - 1953, 1954, 1957, 1958, 1969

Professional Tour Results:

Gonzales won 7 major pro tours in 1954, 1956, 1957, 1958, 1959, 1960 and 1961, more than anyone else before the Open era.

  • 1949-1950 — Beginning October 25, 1949, at Madison Square Garden in New York City, Jack Kramer beat Gonzales 96 matches to 27, the last match being on May 21, 1950, in Dayton, Ohio.
  • 1950 — In March, at the Philadelphia Pro Championships, beat Kramer in finals, 7-5, 6-3, 6-4. Won his first major Pro title at Wembley, England, in October, beating Welby Van Horn in the finals, 6-3, 6-3, 6-2. At the end of 1950 toured New Zealand briefly with Dinny Pails, Frank Parker, and Don Budge. Pails beat Gonzales 4 matches to 3. Results against the others are unknown.
  • 1951 — In early 1951 the New Zealand tour continued into Australia. Gonzales had 36 wins, Pails 27, Parker 14, and Budge 9. In his autobiography Gonzales says that he was 45-7 against Pails and Parker in Australia and New Zealand but he is not precise about the year or years. In the Philadelphia Round Robin Kramer was 5-0, Gonzales 4-1, Segura 3-2, Kovacs 2-3, Van Horn 1-4, and Riggs 0-5. In the United States Pro Championships at Forest Hills on July 4 Segura defeated Gonzales in the finals 6-3, 6-4, 6-2. In the Wembley, England, championships, Gonzales defeated Segura in the finals 6-2, 6-2, 2-6, 6-4. In September, in the German International Round Robin in Berlin, Gonzales finished third in an 8-man field behind Segura and the little-known American Carl Earn.
  • 1952 — There was no headline tour. Gonzales, however, played a minor one, touring with Frank Parker, Bill Tilden, and George Littleton-Roger, a relatively unknown player. The only known result is when Gonzales beat Tilden, aged 59, 6-1, 6-2. In the Philadelphia Round Robin Gonzales beat Kramer and finished first, with Segura second. In June, the U.S. Pro. Championship was combined with the World Pro. Championship in Lakewood, Ohio, and Segura beat Gonzales in the final 3-6, 6-4, 3-6, 6-4, 6-0. Gonzales had an upset stomach throughout the match. In July Gonzales won the Slazenger Professional Championship in Scarborough, England, by beating Segura 15-13, 6-3, 6-3. Also in England, he won the Wembley championship for the second year in a row, coming back to beat Kramer in a bitterly fought battle 3-6, 3-6, 6-2, 6-4, 7-5. Kramer cried in the locker room afterwards. Finally, in the Berlin Pro. Championship late in the year Gonzales beat Segura in the semifinals and Budge in the finals, 8-6, 7-5.
  • 1953 — Gonzales played relatively little. He won the U.S. Professional Championship for the first of 8 times, defeating Budge 4-6, 6-4, 7-5, 6-2 in the final, but the field was very weak, without Kramer, Segura, or Sedgman. Sedgman beat him in the finals at Wembley, 6-1, 6-2, 6-2 and also in the French Professional Championship, 6-1, 6-3. Gonzales won two minor titles, the California State Pro against Budge, 5-7, 6-3, 6-4, and the Canadian Pro Championship at Quebec City, against Riggs, 6-0, 6-4, 6-4.
  • 1954 - Sources are unclear and contradictory about Gonzales's record in late 1953 and all of 1954. One source says that he played a short Australian tour in 1953, beating Sedgman 15 matches to 9, and beating McGregor 15-0. Since these same figures are also repeated for 1954, in which it is also said that Gonzales beat Sedgman 30-21 and Pancho Segura 30-21 in a series of round-robin matches, it is difficult to establish the precise record, but it is likely that they represent matches in 1954. It is also said that Gonzales beat Dinny Pails 47-7 in 1954. Kramer says in his autobiography that the American tour was a "mini-tournament" format between Gonzales, Sedgman, Segura, and Budge. He reports that Gonzales beat Sedgman 30-20 and Segura by the same score, with Budge winning only a few times. In any case, it is clear that Gonzales was the dominant player in the world in 1954.
  • 1955-1956 - Gonzales beat Tony Trabert 74-27
  • 1957 - Gonzales beat Ken Rosewall 50-26
  • 1958 - Gonzales beat Lew Hoad 51-36
  • 1959 - Gonzales beat Mal Anderson, Ashley Cooper, and Hoad in round-robin matches
  • 1959-1960 - Gonzales beat Alex Olmedo, Segura, and Rosewall in round-robin matches
  • 1961 - Gonzales was the major winner in a tour that included Butch Buchholz, Barry MacKay, Andres Gimeno, Hoad, Olmedo, Sedgman, Trabert, and Cooper.

Davis Cup:

  • Member of the U.S. Davis Cup winning team in 1949 (won two singles rubbers in the final against Australia).

Sources

  • Once a Champion: Legendary Tennis Stars Revisited, by Stan Hart, Dodd, Mead & Co., New York, 1985
  • The Game, My 40 Years in Tennis (1979), Jack Kramer with Frank Deford (ISBN 0-399-12336-9)
  • The History of Professional Tennis (2003), Joe McCauley
  • Man with a Racket, The Autobiography of Pancho Gonzales, as Told to Cy Rice, A. S. Barnes and Company, New York, 1959
  • Rich Hillway, tennis historian http://www.coloradotennis.com/cta/website.asp?Dept=News&Sec=Features&Page=Rich%20Hillway
  • The Tennis Book (1981), Edited by Michael Bartlett and Bob Gillen ISBN 0-87795-344-9
  • The Lone Wolf, by S. L. Price, Sports Illustrated, 26 June 2002
  • World of Tennis Yearbook 1971 (1971), by John Barrett, London

See also


Preceded By
Jack Kramer
Years in Office
1952, 1954-1961
Succeeded By
Ken Rosewall