"He went ballistic," Pasarell says. "Threw the racket against the fence: athwoonnng! Grabbed the racket again and hit all the balls over the fence, beyond Wilcox Avenue. Picked up his equipment, slammed open the gate, slammed it shut and drove off, tearing down the street. I figured, Jeez, I guess I've got to pay for the balls."
Pasarell got off easy. Segura once joked that the nicest thing Gonzalez said to any of his wives was "Shut up." For all but the last of his eight children he was a glowering critic who came and went bearing suitcases and rackets. Pancho and Richard Jr. won a couple of father-son tournaments together, but what Richard Jr. remembers about those matches is being loudly upbraided by his father. Sometimes Pancho would call his son a "dumb f—-."
When, in late 1956, Gonzalez briefly went home to Los Angeles during a pro tour against Rosewall, he learned that the mother of his wife, Henrietta, had been murdered. A bereft Henrietta talked with Pancho about whether he should go back on tour immediately. To others he expressed no doubt. He told one intimate, "If it had been Richard Jr., I'd still go."
"He was such a complex person," says Madelyn Gonzalez, who married Pancho in 1960, two years after he divorced Henrietta. "He really wanted to be a good guy, but he just couldn't. It wasn't in him." In 1965 Pancho was playing Chile's Luis Ayala in Newport, R.I., when he noticed Madelyn walking to her seat. He stopped play and snarled, "You'd be late to your own father's funeral."
Yet two years after their divorce in '68, Madelyn remarried Pancho. They divorced again in '75 and almost remarried in '78. She keeps a picture of him on her dresser. "I've had many chances to marry very wealthy men," she says, "but he's a tough act to follow. It's that fire, that larger-than-life thing."
She isn't the only one who feels that way. Forty years after his prime as a player, Gonzalez still invades the dreams of the men he beat, still evokes tears in those who idolized him. Men's tennis is obsessed with numbers: As Sampras neared his record-breaking 13th major singles title, the debate over who was the greatest player in history boiled down to him and Rod Laver, the only man to win the Grand Slam twice. Gonzalez won only two majors, the U.S. Championships in 1948 and '49, but the figure he cut, the game he played, the rage and need that rose off him like vapor were unlike anything tennis had ever seen. "He was just so beautiful to watch," says Jennie Hoad, the widow of Lew Hoad, one of Gonzalez's fiercest—and most elegant—rivals. "Being tall, he was a little more graceful, more natural. I don't think he ever moved in an unattractive way."
To see Gonzalez play, said Gussy Moran, the flamboyant women's tennis star of the '40s, was to watch "a god patrolling his personal heaven." Writers compared Gonzalez's movement to that of a jungle cat, his strokes to music or poetry. His serve—falling as straight and deadly as an executioner's blade—was so clean that other players beheld it with wonder, and generations of coaches held it up as the paragon. In 1969 Danish pro Torben Ulrich lost to Gonzalez in the third round of the U.S. Open but seemed grateful to have been on the receiving end of genius. "Pancho gives great happiness," he said. "It is good to watch the master."
Ulrich, a jazz aficionado whose son had saxophone legend Dexter Gordon for a godfather, calls Gonzalez an artist. "You ask if I understood Pancho. I did not," Ulrich says. "But if there's real greatness, you're not supposed to understand it." Still, his genius never tripped into McEnrovian self-destructiveness. It was the rest of the world Gonzalez wanted to hurt, and he flew at his target like a guided missile.
Ulrich tells of a night he had with Gonzalez in 1974, on the Grand Masters Tour. The two stayed up for five hours in a hotel, drinking beer and eating, and Gonzalez regaled Ulrich with stories about Las Vegas and his early days as a drag racer. "Come the next day, the draw had been made, but I didn't know," Ulrich says. "The matches had started, and Pancho's watching. I sit next to him and say, softly, 'Good morning, Pancho. Did you get some rest?' He doesn't answer. So I raise my voice a little and say, 'Good morning.' He didn't make the smallest acknowledgement that I was there—because we were playing each other that day."
As a professional, Gonzalez did as he pleased. His selfishness was unalloyed. On the pro tour of the 1950s and '60s the players were expected to travel together and pitch in with promotions. Gonzalez would have none of it. He did few interviews. The sport then was a social whirl, with sponsors' cocktail parties and the like, but Gonzalez did not schmooze. He drove from town to town in his Thunderbird, showed up late, slept through appointments.