OBITUARY:Pancho Gonzales

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The Independent Online
Some were more successful in collecting prizes of prestige. Others translated winning more skilfully into personal popularity. But no one in the history of tennis blended charisma with court craft as persuasively as Pancho Gonzales.

When Gonzales walked on a tennis court he was there to compete on his own terms and in his own way, vociferously confronting officials when questionable line calls went against him, releasing his rage one moment and then elevating his game markedly an instant later. Few could match his powers of intimidation, his overwhelming presence on a public stage, his extraordinary flair, passion, and originality.

Gonzales would appear on nearly every expert's list of the 10 greatest players of all time, and yet he remains one of the least appreciated champions of the 20th century by the public at large. He did win consecutive United States Championships at Forest Hills in 1948 and 1949, and captured the French and Wimbledon doubles titles in 1949. But the bulk of his best work was done after turning professional following his Forest Hills triumph in September 1949 when his new career path took him away from the celebrated stages of the sport into settings devoid of glamour in remote cities predominately across the United States.

As he made this challenging transition, Gonzales was initially rudely awakened by the quality of his opposition. His countryman Jack Kramer battered him 96-27 in their series of matches contested in 1949 and 1950. But once he had put that deflating experience behind him, Gonzales dominated the professional game for a decade. He crushed Pancho Segura and Frank Sedgman in 1954, toppled Tony Trabert 74-27 in their 1955-56 series, handled the diminutive but dangerous Ken Rosewall 50-26 in 1950, and bested Lew Hoad 51-36 in a bruising clash of personalities on their celebrated 1958 tour. He won the highly coveted US Pro Championships eight times in the 1950s and 1960s.

At his zenith, Gonzales was nearly impossible to stop on any fast surface. The cornerstone of his game was his explosive serve. A few of his adversaries could equal his velocity on that delivery but Gonzales had the most beautiful service motion of them all. It was smooth, effortless and economical. Furthermore, he backed it up with force and finesse on the volley. He attacked with unwavering conviction and broke down the defences of his rivals. His groundstrokes were sufficient but not spectacular; he compensated for that relative weakness in his game with a matchplaying prowess and competitive fire which carried him through arduous assignments.

By the time "Open Tennis" arrived in 1968 and the great professionals were allowed to return to Wimbledon, Roland Garros and elsewhere, Gonzales was 40, and well past his prime. And yet he reached the semi-finals of the first French Open in 1968 and was a quarter-finalist at Forest Hills in the inaugural US Open later that year. He continued to compete with astounding success against men at the peak of their powers. In the autumn of 1969, when he was 41, he ousted John Newcombe, Ken Rosewall, Stan Smith, and Arthur Ashe in succession to claim the crown in Las Vegas, and early in 1970 took apart the world No 1, Rod Laver, at Madison Square Garden, New York, in a five-set tactical masterpiece.

Those stirring triumphs notwithstanding, if one match defined the essential Gonzales, it was his skirmish with his countryman Charlie Pasarell in the first round of Wimbledon in 1969, on the Centre Court. Somehow surviving in the longest match held in the tournament's history, Gonzales dropped the first two sets, the second in fast fading light, leaving the court in the darkness, infuriated, after throwing one of his infamous temper tantrums. But he returned in bright sunshine the next day to complete an astonishing comeback, saving seven match points in a 22-24, 1-6, 16- 14, 6-3, 11-9 victory which consumed 5 hours and 12 minutes. This time he left the court with the crowd applauding unabashedly, eupeptic about the reversal of his fortunes.

In many ways, that incomparably compelling contest stood as a symbol not only of Gonzales the tennis player but also of Gonzales as a man of intricacy and shadings. He seemed often to be searching for ulterior motives in others, wearing his scepticism as if it were some kind of badge of honour. But when he let his guard down, he could be inordinately congenial and charming.

When I was 16, I flew over to London with my father from New York to witness the first open Wimbledon in 1968. Gonzales was on our flight, and my father reminded him that their paths had crossed many years earlier in California. He asked Gonzales if he would like to ride with us into London by car, and Gonzales accepted the invitation. The trip was delightful as Gonzales regaled us with stories about the players and the game. His enthusiasm for and about the sport was positively infectious. I saw him off and on throughout the fortnight and he was unfailingly cordial.

Two years later, I found myself stranded at Wembley after watching the matches in that indoor arena until late into the night. It was 1.30 in the morning when I asked a volunteer at the tournament desk how I could get back into London. She told me that the Underground was not running at that hour, and said that Pancho Gonzales was about to take the last tournament car back to town. Reluctantly, I asked if I could join him in his car and he hesitated. Then he shrugged his shoulders and gave me the green light.

The ride lasted about an hour but seemed like an eternity. He did not remember me. He looked out the window and did not want to talk. I tried to tell him about matches I had seen that day, hoping to provide interesting details he might not have known, but nothing worked. Reflecting on two years earlier when he had been so engaging and forthcoming, it was hard to believe I was sitting next to the same man. He had now revealed the two extremes of his character, and the contrast was startling.

Conflict seemed to be at his core from the beginning. When he was 15, Gonzales told the Southern California Tennis Association that he was going to drop out of school to concentrate on his tennis. They told him that leaving the classroom would be unacceptable, but Pancho would not be swayed. He was suspended for a year from all tournament competition.

He remained confrontational all through his life. According to the American writer Dick Schaap, Gonzales was "the lone wolf of tennis, a dark, brooding figure, silhouetted against a rococo backdrop of fame, fortune, and talent".

The tennis court was his most enduring home. He had been born and raised in California, and lived the last 20 years of his life in Las Vegas. He retired from the men's tour in the mid-1970s and played senior events until the middle of the 1980s, then took his wisdom into the role of teaching professional. He was married six times - twice to the same woman - including a brief union with Rita Agassi, the older sister of the American world No 1 Andre Agassi. He had six children altogether, and won three American national father-and-son championships with his son Richard.

But his most complete commitment was to tennis. The sport brought out many of his always conflicting qualities, but above all it made him feel all of his significance. As the American woman star Gussie Moran observed, "Pancho would go out there with a forlorn look on his face and a chip on his shoulder. But when he stepped on a tennis court he was someone else. He was a god, patrolling his personal heaven."

Steve Flink

Richard Alonzo (Pancho) Gonzales, tennis player: born Los Angeles 9 May 1928; US champion 1948, 1949; French doubles champion 1949; Wimbledon doubles champion 1949; US Professional champion 1953-59, 1961; married six times (six children); died Las Vegas 3 July 1995.