Born: May 9, 1928
in Los Angeles, California
Died: July 3, 1995
In a sport that embraces the amount of major titles won, Richard “Pancho” Gonzales collected only four – two each in singles and doubles – but when conversations arise about what players are considered the best in history, Gonzales’s name always surfaces to the top.
He didn’t earn this distinction for longevity on the amateur circuit – he was wooed away by Jack Kramer’s professional contract in 1949, just three years into his amateur career – but for his abundance of natural gifts exhibited as a professional for 17 years (1950-67). Once the Open Era arrived in 1968, Gonzales returned the major competition – his longevity as impressive as his playing acumen – and when he finally hung up his competitive racquet in 1973 for the Grand Masters Circuit, he had won more than 100 titles in 25 years.
Gonzales had an arsenal of shots coiled in his athletic 6-foot-3, body. He played with a chip on his shoulder that caused many of his opponents to find him an intimidating presence. He was relentless, forceful and hard-charging. Gonzales’s on-court persona was intense. “He gets meaner every time you play him,” Rod Laver told the New York Times.
Gonzales was known for possessing one of the game’s finest serves – it was big and powerful, a precise and potent offensive weapon. “Pancho gets 50 points on his serve and 50 points on terror,” Kramer once said. Gonzales himself embraced Kramer’s assessment, saying, “the great champions were always vicious competitors. You never lose respect for a man who is a vicious competitor and you never hate a man you respect.”
Gonzales’s groundstrokes were balanced well enough to keep his opponent guessing as to what was coming next – was it a stinging forehand crosscourt or sliced backhand down the line? – and his net game was tightly constructed with deft angles and superior touch. Gonzales was a stylish, savvy player, the complete package. He was a fan favorite, an attraction everywhere he played. While emoted toughness on court, he was a player thousands paid to watch.
His list of accomplishments is significant, and perhaps the only blemish on his career might be labeled as the best player in history never to have won Wimbledon.
Gonzales’s opening round match against Charlie Pasarell at Wimbledon in 1969 went into the record books as the longest match in Wimbledon’s history at the time, surpassed in 2010 by John Isner and Nicholas Mahut. Gonzales was 41-years-old and nearing the end of his career. contrarily, Pasarell was 25-years-old and just starting his. The younger Pasarell prevailed in a slugfest that took 112 games, 5 hours and 12 minutes and spanned two days, 22-24, 1-6, 16-14, 6-3, 11-9.
The Mexican-American Gonzales grew up in Los Angeles, California, had no formal tennis training, and never took a lesson. Outside of a few tips from a high school friend who was the one to dub Richard as “Pancho,” he taught himself tennis; Gonzales had intangible gifts only the greats possess.
Prior to turning pro, Gonzales won six U.S. championships, two U.S. National Men’s Singles Championships in 1948 and 1949; two U.S. Clay Court Singles titles (1948-49), the U.S. Indoor Singles (1949), and the U.S. Indoor Mixed Doubles in 1949 with Gussy Moran. He won the 1949 Wimbledon and French Doubles Championships. On the pro circuit he won 15 major championships, including the U.S. Pro Championship eight times – 1953-1959 and 1961 – and rose to the world No. 1 ranking, holding that lofty perch for a record eight years from 1952 to 1960.
In its 20 Favorite Athletes of the 20th Century Issue in 1999, Sports Illustrated listed Gonzales No. 15. The editors wrote, “If earth was on the line in a tennis match, the man you want serving to save humankind would be Ricardo Alonso Gonzales.”
In 1948, Gonzales, who was ranked 17th nationally, was seeded No. 15 at the U.S. Nationals. In the quarterfinals, he defeated No. 1 seed Frank Parker, 8-6, 2-6, 7-5, 6-3. He played a crazy four-setter against Jaroslav Drobný in the semifinals, winning a topsy-turvy match 8-10, 11-9, 6-0, 6-3. Against No. 10 South African Eric Sturgess in the final, Gonzales cooked in the first two sets, 6-2, 6-3, and won the championship 14-12 in the third set. The following year, Gonzales was seeded No. 3 and had barricades in nearly every round to reach the final against No. 1 American and fellow Californian Ted Schroeder. In the quarterfinals, No. 11 Arthur Larsen forced him into a fifth set, 4-6, 6-1, 6-3, 2-6, 6-1. No. 9 Parker pushed Gonzales into another four-setter in the semifinals and Schroeder had him pinned down leading 2-0 before he roared back to victory, 16-18, 2-6, 6-1, 6-2, 6-4.
At just 21-years-old, too young and inexperienced many felt, Gonzales turned professional. His first opponent was none other than Kramer who taught the youngster a lesson, winning 96 of their 123 matches. Kramer knew that despite his success against Gonzales, “At five-all in the fifth, there’s no man in the history of tennis I’d bet against him,” Kramer said. Within four years, Gonzales found his groove and began throttling his opponents. In head-to-head competition, he defeated Tony Trabert 74-27, Ken Rosewall 51-25, and Lew Hoad 51-36. He won the Wembley Pro four times and three consecutively (1950-52, 1956), was a finalist at the French Pro (1956, 1961) and won the Tournament of Champions three straight times (1956-58).
Gonzales had remarkable stamina, competing with younger players into his 40s. In 1970, at age 42, he defeated Laver in a $10,000 winner-take-all match played in Madison Square Garden before 15,000 people. In 1972, he won the Des Moines ATP Tournament.