The Real Truth: The Tennis Greatness Of Pancho Gonzales and Today

Cliff PotterCorrespondent IJuly 28, 2010

LONDON, ENGLAND - JUNE 30:  Roger Federer of Switzerland waves as he exits after losing his Quarter Final match against Tomas Berdych of Czech Republic on Day Nine of the Wimbledon Lawn Tennis Championships at the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club on June 30, 2010 in London, England.  (Photo by Julian Finney/Getty Images)
Julian Finney/Getty Images

Before Federer, Sampras, and Borg. Before rackets were metal, then fibreglass and composite, there were men who toiled at clubs making a living while being precluded from playing for any of the championships because they were pros. Some crossed into the Open period, but most toiled before small audiences whose interest in the game was greater than watching flops and sops play tennis like the amateurs they were.

Sure, there were the ocassional men and women, especially women who had no other outlet, that led their sports in the amateur ranks. But the greats of the day, including Pancho Gonzales and Pancho Segura lived in the pro ranks, travelling from Geneva to Zurich to Frankfurt to Berlin to pick up the few thousands in pay at each tournament that might last only a very few rounds and at most a long weekend.

The privileged few (for they were rich and often famous) prowled around the private clubs buddying up to the players who most likely smoked and drank with the best of them.

Yet you only had to see Pancho Gonzales swing his wooden racket, its grip (including one he gave me) far too large for any normal man, to know you were in the presence of tennis greatness.

Largely self-taught, Gonzales was a successful amateur player in the late-1940s, twice winning the United States Championships. He is still widely considered to be one of the greatest players in the history of the game. A 1999 Sports Illustrated article about the magazine's 20 "favorite athletes" of the 20th century said about 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 American tennis commentator Bud Collins echoed this in an August 2006 article for "If I had to choose someone to play for my life, it would be Pancho Gonzalez."

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There are several keys to the Pancho Gonzales story that are worth bearing in mind.  He was self-taught.  He was poor, excluded in part because of his Hispanic heritage and in part due to truancy, was jailed in detention for a year or more, was dishonorably discharged from the Navy after two years, and eventually was rehabilitated. 

The home life is in a bit of dispute.  Nonetheless, the following is generally recognized.

González's parents, Manuel Antonio González and Carmen Alire, migrated from the Mexican state [sic] of Chihuahuato the U.S. in the early 1900s. González was born in 1928, 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." However, according to other sources, Gonzales's father worked as a house-painter and he, along with his six siblings, were raised in a working class neighborhood. In his autobiography, González states, "We had few luxuries at our house. Food wasn't abundant but it was simple and filling, and we never went hungry. Our clothes were just clothes – inexpensive but clean."

The sequence was like the rest of his up and down life.

As The New York Times story of that first win began, "The rankest outsider of modern times sits on the tennis throne." 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.

From then on, with a bit of a challenge at first in the pro ranks, Pancho Gonzales enjoyed an historic career, capped in some ways by his epic battle with Charlie Pasarell at 41 years of age.

Why Pancho Gonzales is so great, and the history of tennis so uncertain, is that the free-wheeling days of tennis are largely over. Despite his background and the prejudice he faced, Gonzales succeeded because of his great talent.

Today, talent like his seeks other pastures.  And many of today's ranking are dominated by mass-produced players in Eastern European and other locations.

The Williams sisters are an exception, much more like Pancho Gonzales. Yet for every winner, we have Roger Federer and others who lived privileged existences and who continue to dominate so much of the tennis world.

Will another Gonzales emerge?  There has not been one in almost fifty years. 

We can only hope that The Real Truth is that one will be found soon. For tennis has lost its grip on fantasy and lift in favor of rote wins and plain vanilla players.  For every Nadal, whose demeanor is nothing like Gonzales' even though they both have the same heritage, there are more machines stroking more balls infinitely into the darkness.  So will go tennis unless it gets better personalities and players soon.