Written by Mike Romeling
Hey Pancho Gonzales wherever you are, you would have been eighty years old if you were still with us and probably still capable of swinging a mean racket. I guess because your career lasted so long, it was easy to think your life would too. If it had, you would have had a chance to see this new guy Roger Federer play. He’s dominating men’s tennis now like no one has since…well… since you actually. I think you’d like his game because in many ways it resembles…well… yours actually.
Someone once said they’d never seen you make a move on the court that didn’t have grace and purpose. We say the same about Roger who also shares your uncanny ability to go from brilliant defense to devastating offence in the blink of an eye. Tony Trabert, the great player and later promoter for the professional tour once said this: “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. He instinctively does the right thing at the right time. Pancho’s reflexes and reactions are God-given talents. He can be moving in one direction and in the spilt 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. The way he murders that tennis ball, I think his name is Pancho Villa, not Gonzales.” It would have been the very definition of poetry in motion to have seen you and Federer on the same court
Federer probably has a small edge on you in terms of creative shot making while you have the edge on him in terms of your legendary serve. Roger’s first serve goes away on him for periods of time during some matches. But between a fine second serve and the rest of his brilliant game, he seldom pays a price for this. Your serve was so legendary that it’s tended to overshadow how complete a game you possessed. Efforts were son being made to measure its speed and a buzz went through the tennis world when it was reported that one of your serves clocked in at 154 mph. But with ball speed technology in its early stages and the fact that no one has matched that speed since, the claim has largely been forgotten. Nevertheless it was a powerful first serve and probably the most accurate and consistent the game has ever seen. Allen Fox, one of your fellow players on the professional tour said he never once saw you lose your serve when you were closing out a set or a match. Jimmy Connors, Bud Collins and Charlie Pasarell have all echoed the sentiment that if their lives were to depend on another player bringing home a match, they would pick you. Jimmy had some first hand knowledge because he came up against you in the quarterfinals of a tournament when you were 43 years old and he had arrived on the scene with his great baseline game. You announced not only your intention of winning but your intention of also playing strictly from the baseline too. You accomplished both intentions. More recently, Connors surprised and perhaps bewildered an interviewer who asked him whether Borg or McEnroe was the greatest player he ever faced. Connors replied they were tied for second behind you.
Other players you defeated in your forties (yes that’s right—your forties) included Rod Laver, Bjorn Borg, Arthur Ash, John Newcomb, and Tony Roche. The Nike Sports Research Laboratory once commissioned a study concerning the highest achievement in all sports by athletes of advanced age. Their conclusion: “Gonzales’s extended heyday could not, of course, last forever, but while it did it was incomparable.”
We wait now to see if Roger can keep going at his incredible pace for a few more years and perhaps be considered the premiere player of all time. And while we wait, the sports sites and tennis bloggers are throwing up a spate of “Best Ever” lists to determine the player Roger might supplant. And guess what? You are hardly ever there. Not at number one, not at number five, not at number ten. I saw you once listed at number twenty. Occasionally if I’ve got the time and am feeling sufficiently irritated, I fire off an e-mail to one or the other of these sites and state my opinion that any list without you AT LEAST in the top three is D.O.A.
What happened? Well, I suppose time itself is one easy answer. Many fans and bloggers would be of an age where you would seem to be back there somewhere in the ancient past. On the other hand, it’s less forgivable when professional sportswriters seem unaware of your place in the game’s history. After all, they are paid to do their homework.
Then there is the mistaken idea that the so-called modern game began with Open Tennis. Nothing could be further from the truth. You can’t even really say that modern tennis began anywhere; rather the game has evolved as all games do. That evolution was accelerated between the two World Wars when that unlikely rag-tag road show called The Professional Tennis Tour began. The greatest of the pre-World War II players were Ellsworth Vines, Fred Perry and Grand Slam winner Don Budge. If you had to pick a point where the game tipped into the modern era, this group of players would be likely choices as the catalysts. Indeed, Don Budge enjoyed a long reign as the consensus “best ever” but later graciously ceded that accolade to you. Jack Kramer dominated the tour for a while before you and was a brilliant player. When he retired and became the tour’s promoter, the two of you entered into what became a long, complex, and often contentious relationship.
Over the years and decades of the tour, it became increasingly obvious that the professionals were playing at a level far beyond the amateurs. Every time players (including you) came out of the amateur ranks to join the pro tour, the results were repeated defeats at the hands of the top pros, and frequently defeats of embarrassing dimensions. Some amateurs eventually adjusted and raised their games; some never could.
Besides the growing disparity between the two tennis worlds, there was a little secret going on in the amateur game. The players weren’t really amateurs any more. The top guys were receiving big sums of money under the table—what we might call appearance fees today. It could not remain a secret forever and beneath the weight of all these factors, the staid and straight-laced tennis world was dragged—not without some kicking and screaming—into the Open Era in 1968. By then Rod Laver (after frankly admitting he had needed to learn how to play tennis all over again to compete with the pros) had risen to the top of the professional ranks and he promptly went out and annihilated everybody to win his second Grand Slam. It was the final proof in the pudding of how superior the professional game was.
Before this happened though, you dominated professional tennis like no one before or after. You are officially credited with having been number one in the world for eight consecutive years. But there was a good deal of political hanky-panky that went on with the rankings back then, and some tennis historians credit you with as many as ten consecutive years at number one. To put this in some context, Pete Sampras achieved six consecutive years. Pete also won Wimbledon seven times, but as your fellow professional Alex Olmedo said, “Nobody mentions the fact that he [Gonzalez] beat every Wimbledon champion 10 years in a row . . . if there had been open tennis, he might have won 10 Wimbledons.”
Now we need to get a little personal if we want to fully explore why you seem have fallen by the wayside. If we go way back in time, we might choose the legendary Bill Tilden as the original “bad boy” of tennis, but instead you are usually pasted with that moniker. It was said you were a sullen loner, you were rude on and off the court, you never helped promote the tour, were dismissive of the press, a bad husband…well it goes on and on. Memories are long among the press, tennis officials, former players and ex wives. I’m afraid these aspects of your life still overshadow your tennis accomplishments. If you had been a baseball player, much would be forgiven by now as it has been for, say, Ty Cobb or Shoeless Joe Jackson or Mickey Mantle. But you were in the world of tennis , a beautiful sport, but in your time it had both feet still in the illusion of country club, after-you-Alphonse, lily-white propriety. Later “bad boys” like Jimmy Connors, John McEnroe and Ilie Nastase fared better. Forgiveness for you never truly came, though many would claim that was your fault.
Maybe it was. But we all want—perhaps need—to believe there are circumstances and experiences that explain, and even somewhat mitigate, the darkness in our lives. Let’s explore some possibilities.
You were a Mexican in a white man’s sport where even the clothes and the balls had to be white. Some say you ought to at least share the honors with Althea Gibson for breaking the color barrier in tennis. You were ostracized by the Los Angeles tennis establishment under the guise that you weren’t showing up enough at school. Even so, with no coaching of any kind, and denied entry into tournaments until you were 19, you nevertheless began beating the best players in the country and finally could no longer be ignored. The great sports writer, Dick Schapp was perceptive enough to engage with you in 1958 and explore the ways discrimination had colored your tennis career and your life. Those who believe a little cash and fame should be enough to erase those deep scars probably did not understand what you and Schapp were talking about, and perhaps still don’t. And speaking of scars, much of your animosity toward the press had to do with that scar on your face. It was from a mundane childhood accident, but the press quickly latched on to the falsity that it was from a knife fight you had engaged in as a Mexican gang member, known in those days as Pechecos. It was too good a story and too good a stereotype for many writers to let go of, and you rightfully resented that most never did. Your brother Ralph tried to help people understand: “He could be quite charming and many that saw that side of him loved him, but too many saw his bad side and had no idea what created it. Racism comes in many shapes and forms. Those who have not had to deal with it cannot even recognize it when it is an integral part of them.”
Wish I could tell you things were getting better but I can’t. The best our politicians seem able to come up with these days is to build silly fences to keep Mexicans out while many who—legally or otherwise—manage to cross the border are often kept in squalid poverty working our fields to put food on the tables of a nation with a massive obesity epidemic. Go figure.
Then there was the money thing. You were generally pretty savvy in money matters but that seven-year contract you signed with promoter Jack Kramer turned out to be a bad deal. Soon Kramer had to offer the top “amateurs” big bucks to lure them away from their lucrative under-the-table earnings and into the pro ranks to challenge you. In some cases you were regularly beating the pants off guys who were making as much as five times more money than you. At one point Kramer offered you more money if you would “carry” a recent recruit to make him seem more competitive with you. You agreed at first but soon told Kramer it was screwing up your game. To his credit, Kramer let you keep the money anyway. You went to court once to try to increase your take, but in those days the concept that contracts were made to be broken had not arrived yet. All this hardly helped your mood.
It was true you had rocky relations with many players, officials and promoters. Rod Laver said you were a jerk on the court. Jack Kramer thought the resentment among the players was a result of your failure to help promote the tour, though they all knew it was your star power that kept the whole enterprise afloat. You generally showed up for the matches, beat someone’s brains out and immediately disappeared. Still, this notion is overstated. You were always friends with Lew Hoad who later, when asked who he thought was the best ever, said jokingly, “That Mexican prick, Gonzales.” Your fellow pro, Allen Fox was a good friend too and stated, “I idolized, loved, and profoundly respected [Gonzalez] the man.” Another contemporary player of yours, Barry Mackay did some fine writing about the pro tour and wrote that after having some long late-night conversations with you, he came to a deeper understanding and affection for you than he had expected. And even after all the years of acrimony, Jack Kramer wrote that many years later, you two were able to meet on cordial terms and recall together those barnstorming years out on the pro tour. He said that was a great joy to him.
I hope it was a joy for you too, because what you guys did was pretty amazing and pretty gutsy. Not just you and Jack, but all the other half-forgotten great players, like Frank Sedgeman, Pancho Segura, Alex Olmedo, Allen Fox, Barry Mackay, Tony Trabert and so many others. You guys yanked tennis out of the safe and coddling arms it was so accustomed to and took it out on the road and up to a new level. And what a circus it could be sometimes as you crisscrossed the country to just about any town where you thought you had a chance to cover your nut. One night you told Kramer you weren’t feeling well and didn’t think you could play. He just laughed and said, “We always play, kid.” You guys needed to bring along the paraphernalia to set up your own court if necessary. If it were raining, you would set up on the floor of some nearby gymnasium. At least once, when the local courts looked more suitable for grazing goats than for playing tennis, you set up a court in a parking lot. And as you began to be surrounded by the arriving cars and pickup trucks, it could be said you probably created the first of what has now become a sports institution: the tailgate party.
Yes, the credit for what you did is shared by many, but former player and coach Ion Tiriac said it best when he spoke of those years and your premiere place in them: “Pancho was more the man of the day than anyone else. . . . He was the beginning of professional tennis as we know it. He was the father of everything we have today.”
I’m even going to throw in some kudos for the fans who came out and paid to see you guys. There were just enough of us to make it work, just enough of us who knew the greatest tennis was not being played amid the strawberries and cream at Wimbledon or the million dollar mansions of Long Island; it was being played in whatever town you and the other great professionals hung your hats on any given night. Thanks for the show.
Finally, it is said you were a bad husband to your various wives. It appears that’s more or less true although it would paint a more complete and fair picture to say that you shared an all too common human failing: you consistently picked partners with whom there was never a snowball’s chance in hell that a lasting loving relationship would result. Nevertheless, your last wife Rita and two of your eight children, Skylar and Jeanna Lynn, remained close to you until the end.
One could wish that the end of your life had been better for you. Over the later years you lost your endorsement deal with Spalding and your lucrative position as tennis director at Caesars Palace. When you died in 1995, you were flat broke. Andre Agassi, who was then your brother-in-law, paid for your funeral.
We might say we’ve come full circle here except for considering the initial question: were you the best ever or—as they say these days—the G.O.A.T. (greatest of all time)? Well, we’ve seen there is a lot of ammunition to fire in your direction. I wrote earlier that you should be AT LEAST in the top three because I see only two other contenders. Many would disagree, but it seems to me most other candidates fall into the “what if” category—what if Borg hadn’t burned out and retired early; what if Lew Hoad hadn’t suffered chronic injuries; what if Agassi hadn’t lost his focus for long periods; what if Connors had snagged a French Open to give him a career Grand Slam to go along with his incredible record of 120 tournament victories: and of course what if Federer continues on with his spectacular run. But if f we eliminate the “what ifs” and consider only the issues of accomplishment and dominance, it would seem we are left with you, Laver and Sampras.
The Rod Laver question seems easier to resolve than it might appear considering Rod’s two Grand Slams, even if the first Slam was not against the best players in the world. But the simple fact is, you and Laver played often, and despite being past your prime—sometimes way past your prime—you won a bunch of those matches Your most memorable win came at Madison Square Garden in February of 1970 in a $10,000 winner- take-all match. You were 41 years old and the match went five sets, but it was you who disappeared into the Big Apple’s glittering night with the cash in hand. I used to have the feeling back then that you had gotten into Laver’s head a little bit and I had to smile toward the end of your life when you told a New York Times interviewer that Laver had everything but the thinking part. It would seem difficult to look at those wins—and at the age you won them– as anything other than a tip of the scales in your direction.
More subjectivity must come into play with Pete Sampras since we have no match-ups to compare. Sportswriter Bruce Jenkins wrote this in 1999 for the San Francicso Chronicle, “ … you put everyone on equal terms, and he [Gonzalez] kicks everyone’s butt. . . . As much as I like Sampras, if you put these two guys on the court, I’m betting that Gonzalez is the last man standing.”
Beyond subjective opinion, there are some concrete issues to consider. The pendulum swings your way in terms of consecutive years at number one, and you remained in the top ten for an incredible quarter century, winning your last tournament at age 44. Rest assured that record remains safe. There is also the issue of clay court results. Pete was such a great player, a fierce competitor and such a credit to the game that I think many of us found it almost painful to watch his futility as he tried to adapt his game to clay. It was a struggle that seemed to grow rather than diminish over the years. It’s been easy to shunt it aside into the category of the-less-said-about-it-the-better. But for the purposes of this discussion, it needs to be acknowledged that you and Laver found ways to win on clay as did those players we tend to rank a notch below Sampras—Borg, Connors, Rosewall, McEnroe, Lendl among others.
For those who insist on counting “majors” as the only measure, Pete of course still holds that record at 14. Federer is closing in fast at 12. But even here, it is possible to fit you into this measure as well. During your incredible run of dominance in the pro ranks, there were only two, rather than four tournaments considered “majors.” These were the U.S. Professional Championships and the European Professional Championships. Since these were the “majors” where inarguably the best players in the world at that time were competing, it could be said they were the true “majors” of their day. You won 12 of those. If we tack on the two U.S. Opens you won during your brief amateur career, we find you already tied with Sampras. By the way, you still hold the record as the only man to win a U,S. Open by coming back from a two set deficit. If we speculate what you would have done if four “majors” had been available to you each year, it is easy to project you would have won twenty or more.
Well, the debate will without doubt rage on as we watch Roger Federer reach for the stars. Some of us may rightly be accused of over-thinking, getting tangled in the web of endless statistics, wandering through a maze of unknowable imaginary match-ups. So let’s give former American player and one of your rivals, Marty Riessen, the last word and our compliments on his stark simplicity: “Pancho was an idol of mine, as he was to many kids taking up the game in the fifties . . . of all the players I have seen (Hoad, Rosewall, Laver, et al.), I would have to rank Pancho number one . . . simply because, at his best, he could beat everybody else.”
There’s a final exclamation point we might tack on to your incredible career. Tennis has been notoriously unkind to even the greatest players when they left the game, even briefly, and tried to come back. Both Bjorn Borg and John McEnroe sadly found the game had passed them by when they tried. You yourself did it twice and each time came back in ahead of curve, And again what amazes is that you were thirty-six years old the second time in 1964, after retiring in 1961 to pursue your other passion—drag racing. Improbably you came back to tennis and won the 1964 Professional Championships and followed it up by winning the Indoor Professional Championships. Howard Cosell was there and reminisced about it many years later. “I remember once when he [Gonzalez] was long past his prime watching at . . . White Plains (1964 U. S. Professional Indoor Championships) . . . where he consecutively defeated Anderson, Rosewall, Hoad, and young Rod Laver to win the tournament. . . . It struck me as one of the extraordinary achievements in my lifetime in sports.”
These days I still play the sport as much as I can. And sometimes, if I’m approaching some courts that are flanked by some old sun-bleached, rusty-bolted bleachers, I’ll wonder if years ago, you guys had stopped here on your caravan of tennis nomads that wove its way down the highways and into tennis history. I’ll fancy that maybe some remnant of your burning competitive spirit still lingers and will rub off on me, perhaps carry me to victory. Truth is, though, at this stage of life it’s enough of a gift to just be able to walk out of the court and swing a half way decent racket. What I feel more is a pang, a wish, to see you play one more time in this real world, and not just on some grainy videos.
But if even Houdini couldn’t make it back to us from the other side, I don’t suppose you can either. Still, if you could, I imagine you’d have a couple things to tell us. You might tell us that all these “best ever” lists. along with many other things we argue and obsess about, don’t really mean much in the end. You might tell us instead to grab our rackets and get out there in the sunshine while there’s still time.
Written by Mike Romeling