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Fiery genius Gonzales dies at 67

John Roberts
Tuesday 04 July 1995 23:02 BST


Wimbledon mourned the death yesterday of the American, Richard Alonzo "Pancho" Gonzales, one of the sport's great rumbustious characters. He was 67, and had suffered from cancer for some time.

A magnificent player, Gonzales was raging at court officials long before Nastase, Connors and McEnroe turned the baiting of umpires and line judges into an art form.

The better part of Gonzales's career was spent on the old-style professional circuit, before tennis went Open in 1968. In fact he had the dubious distinction of being the first pro to be beaten by an amateur, losing to Britain's Mark Cox at Bournemouth.

My American colleague, Bud Collins, remembered approaching the changing- rooms in trepidation afterwards, wondering if Gonzales had wrecked it - "he did wreck a few" - but found him in philosophical mood. "Somebody had to be the first to lose to an amateur," Gonzales shrugged, "so it might as well be me."

Though he never won a Wimbledon singles title, he holds the record for winning the longest match in the tournament's history - 112 games.

Playing Charlie Pasarell, a compatriot, in the first round in 1969, the 41-year-old Gonzales lost the opening set 24-22. It was getting dark and Gonzales was becoming agitated because he thought play should be suspended.

He appeared to give up the second set, losing 6-1, and left the court to a chorus of boos. Next day, when the contest resumed, he became a hero, saving seven match points and winning 22-24, 1-6, 16-14, 6-3, 11-9 (the tie-break was introduced at the All England Club in 1972).

Among his many brushes with tennis officials, Gonzales once had a memorable encounter with a referee, Bea Seal, during the London Grass Court Championships at Queen's Club in June, 1972.

"I was watching his match from the balcony," Seal recalled at Wimbledon yesterday, "and he was complaining about line calls. He sent for me and said to me: 'Either the linesman goes, or I go'. I replied: 'Well, the linesman is staying', and he said: 'Then I'm going', and off he went. I'm sorry to hear he has died. He was such a fine player."

Sometimes his tirades would serve to intensify his competitive edge. "We hoped he wouldn't get upset," Rod Laver once said. "It just made him tougher. Later, when he got older he would get into arguments to stall for time and rest, and we had to be careful that it didn't put us off our games."

Gonzales turned pro in 1949 after winning the United States Singles Championship twice in succession. In 1949 he won both the Wimbledon and French doubles titles with Frank Parker.

Gonzales was married six times, and for a while was Andre Agassi's brother-in-law. During his marriage to the Las Vegan's sister, Rita, he hit tennis balls with the young Agassi.

Earlier this year, Gonzales expressed his admiration for the current world No1 and his rival, Pete Sampras, the Wimbledon champion. "I think these two guys would beat the pants of anybody in the past," he said. "Pete has the most complete game of anyone I've ever seen. Andre has made a complete turn-around and is on the same level as Pete. It's going to make for some damn interesting matches."

Obituary, page 18

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