With the 2012 U.S. Open tennis only days away, excitement builds. Despite Rafael Nadal’s injuries and withdrawal from Flushing Meadows, tennis is in a golden era. The historic rivalry between Roger and Rafa is among the most storied in the game’s history. And then came Novak Djokovic’s dramatic rise in 2011.
But before Federer and Djovokic, before Sampras and Agassi and before McEnroe and Connors, there were two tennis legends who helped create the modern game, and both were named Pancho (Gonzalez and Segura). Their tumultuous friendship lasted 45 years. As recounted in Cy Rice's Man with a Racket, when Gonzalez was asked what he liked about the pro tour, he replied, "Segura and the money."
The two couldn’t have been more different.
Francisco Olegario Segura was born in 1921 in the impoverished seaport village of Guayaquil, Ecuador. Before he was 10, he suffered from malaria and rickets which left him permanently bow-legged. He came by Pancho naturally, however, as it was a nickname for Francisco.
Richard Alonso Gonzalez was born in 1928 in working-class Los Angeles. At age seven, he suffered a horrific gash in the face from the door handle of a passing car, which left him with a prominent scar. He came by Pancho unnaturally, as it was the name many Caucasians derisively gave to all Mexicans.
The two Panchos, handsome and dark-skinned, would become huge stars in the lily-white, country-club sport of tennis. At 6′ 3”, Gonzalez was “Big Pancho”, the 5’6″ Segura was “Little Pancho.”
Segura, also nicknamed “Sneaky” because he was deceptively fast and ever-tenacious, won the Professional World Championship twice against Gonzalez, who was cat-quick and had a cannonball serve and defeated Segura for the title three times. (Gonzalez was the year-ending No. 1 for eight years, still a record.)
“Segoo” was gregarious and affable and believed tennis was democracy in action. “It doesn’t take more than a racket and heart to play” he said in the 2009 book, Little Pancho, by Caroline Seebohm.
But Gonzalez, the more gifted, had a temper that made McEnroe seem like a choir boy. According to former NCAA singles and doubles champion and one-time Wimbledon quarterfinalist, Allen Fox , Segura once joked , “To me Pancho was very even-tempered…always angry!”
Growing up during the Great Depression, tennis for both Panchos would become far more than a game. Skinny and frail, six-year-old Segura began by helping his father, an underpaid caretaker at a tennis club in Ecuador. One day, he found a racket in the trash and miraculously taught himself to play.
Segura often stared at the luxury liners in the harbor and dreamt of sailing to America. As his tennis skill and victories grew, he became a national Ecuadorian sports hero.
Only because of war in Europe, Segura sailed to New York and not France. Unable to speak English, he was discovered by the University of Miami tennis coach and offered a full scholarship. Segura won the NCAA singles championship three years in a row (1943-45), which is still a record.
Back in Los Angeles, 12-year-old Pancho Gonzalez’s first racket was a Christmas present from his mother. (Bought on sale for $0.51.) Living in the shadow of the L.A. Coliseum, Pancho taught himself to play on the concrete public courts at Exposition Park within walking distance of his house.
If young Segura was dutiful, young Gonzalez was rebellious. (Quit school at 15 and in trouble with police.) Finally, after a stint in the Navy (AWOL/dishonorable discharge), Pancho devoted himself to tennis. Remarkably, at 20, he was the last seed in the 1948 U.S. Championship (precursor to U.S. Open) which he won, much to the dismay of the tennis establishment and yielded a New York Times sports page comment, "The rankest outsider of modern times sits on the tennis throne."
In ’49 Gonzalez, reached the U.S. Finals again, this time against the heavily-favored Ted Schroeder. Down two sets to love, Pancho shocked the world with a thrilling comeback victory that was the longest in Championship history.
With families to support, both Panchos turned professional and were banned from Grand Slam events. Had the Open Era come ten or twenty years earlier, there’s no telling the number of majors each might have won. As Jimmy Connors said of Gonzalez's supreme competitiveness in the documentary "Pancho Gonzalez: Warrior of the Court:"
"If I had only one person to play for my life it would be Gonzalez, and I'm pretty fond of my life."
Because of tennis, the two Panchos traveled the world and kept company with the rich and famous. (Whom Gonzalez often detested. Segura, however, became the teaching pro to the Hollywood stars, a long way from Guayaquil.)
But in 1995, Gonzalez finally met an opponent that he couldn’t defeat, cancer. From the hospital, a day before his death, Gonzalez spoke to Segura, who was at Wimbledon. The two Panchos said a final goodbye. (Segura couldn’t book a flight home but later confessed, even if he had, he couldn’t bear to see Gonzalez die.)
Both Panchos are in the Tennis Hall of Fame. Against all odds, overcoming life-threatening childhood illnesses and accidents, poverty and discrimination, the two Panchos changed the face of tennis forever.
Now bring on Federer and Djokovic, and all the other supremely talented players who owe so much to those who came before.
(Jack Neworth is a freelance writer in Santa Monica, and co-author of the screenplay, “Men in White” about the tumultuous friendship between Pancho Gonzalez and Pancho Segura. Jack can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)