"He was like a lonely wolf," Olmedo says. "But he had his reasons."
He didn't start out mean. After Gonzalez won the 1948 U.S. Championships at Forest Hills at age 20, LIFE magazine called him "happy-go-lucky" and "good-natured." He was constantly portrayed as a carefree champion, casual in his approach to training, open to everyone. "He was really happy," Segura says, "but he wasn't ready."
Gonzalez was no innocent, but nothing had prepared him for the WASP-dominated, moneyed world in which he was suddenly moving. When his father, Manuel, was a child, he walked 900 miles from Chihuahua, Mexico, to Arizona with his own father. Manuel eventually settled in South Central L.A., where he met his wife, Carmen, with whom he would have seven children.
Manuel worked as a housepainter, and despite his heavy hand Pancho grew up loose and wild. He hustled pool, but he spent just as much energy teaching himself to play tennis on L.A.'s public courts with a 51-cent racket he had gotten for Christmas. Rising fast in Southern California boys' tennis, Pancho quit high school after two years to play full time, but he was banned from junior tournaments because he was a dropout. He got busted for burglarizing houses at 15. "You don't know the thrill of going out the back window when someone's coming in the front door," Pancho told his brother Ralph.
Put him away, Manuel told the judge. Pancho spent a year in detention, then joined the Navy and swabbed decks in the Pacific. One AWOL and a couple of late returns from leave earned him a bad-conduct discharge in 1947, and he came home. He married Henrietta Pedrin and quickly dominated the powerful men's tennis scene in Southern California. Along the way he took note of every slight, such as Anglos' habit of calling every Mexican Pancho. He entered the '48 U.S. Championships ranked 17th in the country and, to everyone's shock, won. The next year, cocky and still knowing nothing about conditioning, he defended his tide in a five-set classic against Ted Schroeder. By then he and Henrietta had one son, Richard Jr., and another on the way They needed money. Bobby Riggs dangled a $75,000 pro contract, and Pancho bit.
In that pre-Open era, the pro tour was a Darwinian death march. While winners of Wimbledon and the U.S. Championships were feted in the mainstream press, no one had any illusion that those amateurs were the best players in the game. Top pros like Riggs and Jack Kramer waited for amateurs to make names for themselves and then hired them for barnstorming tours in which a seasoned pro played a series of matches against a newly signed "challenger." The tours were sold on the prestige of the challengers, who were paid more as a result and whom the pros proceeded to beat without mercy. Riggs pitted Gonzalez against Kramer, who at 28 was considered the world's best player. For Gonzalez, that would spell disaster.
For 123 nights the two men played on canvas stretched over wood in high school gyms, armories, even an opera house. Kramer won by a punishing margin of 96-27 Gonzalez nevertheless enjoyed himself, gulping Cokes during matches and smoking afterward, oblivious to the fact that his reputation was slipping away. The 21-year-old didn't understand that once an amateur was established as a loser, his value as a gate attraction plummeted. Kramer, tough and principled, wasn't willing to carry him. Almost as quickly as it had begun, Gonzalez's pro career was done.
For the next four years Gonzalez diddled away his early prime as a player, spending most of his time racing hot rods, bowling, breeding dogs, stringing rackets at his soon-to-fail tennis shop in L.A.'s Exposition Park. In 1952 he and Henrietta separated. Finally, in late 1954, Kramer, who was playing less and promoting more, invited Gonzalez to join a round-robin tour he had organized for top pros Budge, Frank Sedgman and Segura. Gonzalez beat the other men consistently, positioning himself to take apart the next amateur challenger.
Tony Trabert won Wimbledon and the French and U.S. Championships in 1955, then went for the money. But Kramer kept Gonzalez waiting as he mulled whether to play Trabert himself. "Jack completely demoralized him," says Henrietta, who had reunited with Pancho after a year and a half apart. Kramer finally took himself out of the running and signed Gonzalez to a seven-year contract. Pancho was back—and different from the man who'd left the tour a few years earlier. "A loner," says Schroeder, "and always the unhappiest man in town."
"His nature had changed completely," Kramer says. "He became difficult and arrogant. Losing had changed him. When he got his next chance, he understood that you either win or you're out of a job."