Just before 6 p.m. Gonzalez stepped out of a black-and-white past into Technicolor, swaggering onto the grass for his first-round match with Pasarell. "He lived up to my dreams," Amritraj says of Gonzalez that evening. "I still don't see anybody who devoured the sport as he did."
In truth, Gonzalez didn't look so good. He was 41 and had not played consistently in recent years. Sensing the onset of the Open era and convinced that to compete with the young guns he had to weigh less than he did at 20, he had indulged in wild diets to keep at 180 pounds. He drank little water. "He said you had to be like the [American] Indians, who he said never drank water," says Richey. In 1968, in a tournament at Bournemouth, England, Gonzalez inaugurated the Open era of tennis by losing to British amateur Mark Cox in five sets. "After waiting for it all these years," Gonzalez had said, "I had to be here when it finally happened." He played Wimbledon for the first time since 1949 but lost early: Tennis history, it seemed, was going to leave him behind.
Gonzalez decided not to let it. He spent the last few months before Wimbledon '69 punishing his body for the last push of his playing career. "He would eat nothing but soup," Ulrich says. "He was fearsome on himself."
A dashing gray streak cut through his still-thick hair, but deep wrinkles creased his elbows, and his sun-baked skin seemed stretched over his thin frame, his gaunt face. Age had made him even more of a craftsman. His aluminum rackets were strung at widely different tensions—tighter for receiving, looser for serving. For Wimbledon he had prepared an arsenal, drilling holes from the handles to the heads of the rackets (12 to 15 holes per racket) to lighten them for touch and as a hedge against fatigue. In long matches he'd work all the way through his quiver, from the weapon with the fewest holes to the one with the most.
He would need every one against the 25-year-old Pasarell. The son of Puerto Rican tennis champions, Pasarell was a younger, prettier, nicer version of Gonzalez, with perfect strokes and a classic serve-and-volley game. The match began as a service war, with neither man close to breaking the other as the daylight dimmed. Pasarell looked to wear the old man down, moving him around relentlessly and lobbing over his head, and in the first set the strategy worked—eventually. This was before the introduction of the tiebreaker; in numbing and increasingly riveting fashion, the games of the first set mounted to the equivalent of nearly five sets played on today's tour. Finally, in the 46th game, on Pasarell's 12th set point, the younger man broke serve by throwing up one more lob that Gonzalez couldn't run down. It was 8 p.m., and as the unreal score of 24-22 lit up the scoreboard, Gonzalez hunched over gasping. "He looked half dead," Amritraj says.
It got only worse. After Pasarell won the first point of the second set, Gonzalez asked the chair umpire, "How much longer do we have to play in this absolute darkness?" He asked again after the first game and threatened to default if the remainder of the match wasn't postponed. Referee Mike Gibson said no. Furious, Gonzalez spent most of the set screaming about the poor visibility. The crowd jeered at him to play on. "I've never seen this happen at Wimbledon before," intoned BBC broadcaster Dan Maskell. But Maskell's partner in the booth was hardly surprised. Jack Kramer had been watching Gonzalez behave this way for two decades.
Pasarell understood what was happening: Pancho knows he's in trouble. He abandoned his chip-and-lob tactics and began driving his returns, sure that Gonzalez couldn't pick them up in the dark. As Gonzalez served at 1-4, 15-30, the umpire mistakenly awarded him a point to make it 30-30. "Umpire, it's 15-40," Gonzalez shouted in disgust across the court. His subsequent cursing was drowned out by cheers for his sportsmanship. But Pasarell won the last two games to take the second set 6-1.
Gibson then suspended play. Gonzalez hurled his racket at the umpire's chair, gathered his other rackets and stomped off. He didn't wait for Pasarell. He didn't stop to bow to the royal box. For perhaps the first time in the history of Wimbledon a player was booed off the court. Everyone began writing Gonzalez's professional obituary.
The next day, on the drive to Wimbledon for the resumption of the match, Pancho said to Madelyn, "I'm going to win." Amritraj, who would one day be coached into the top 10 by Gonzalez, arrived early and stood in line for hours, lunch money in hand.
The third set began like the first, with both men easily holding serve, but as the games piled up, it became clear that Pasarell's level of play had dropped. People kept filing into Centre Court, packing it to capacity. Finally, with Pasarell serving at 15-40 in the 30th game, Gonzalez drove a hard, flat forehand up the line. His racket made a sound it hadn't made all match, like an ax biting into dead oak. Pasarell hit a backhand volley wide. Gonzalez had the break and the third set, 16-14, and as the cheers rose, he flicked his head back as if to say, Here I am, you bastards.