"What a monumental fighter this fellow is, Dan," Kramer said over the BBC. In the fourth set Gonzalez took complete charge. He pounced on balls, the years falling off him with every step, and won the set 6-3 to even the match.
The fifth set was another marathon, but Gonzalez only seemed stronger, even moving backward with astonishing speed. Serving at 4-5, however, he buckled and went down 0-40: three match points for Pasarell. Gonzalez calmly won the next two points and then watched as a lob by Pasarell fell an inch wide to bring the game back to deuce. Two points later Gonzalez dived for a ball, fell and lay flat on his stomach. For a moment he didn't move. Pasarell approached and asked if he was O.K. Gonzalez struggled to his feet, propping himself up with the racket like a man with a cane. Pasarell thought, Why doesn't he just give up?
Gonzalez held serve. Two games later Pasarell again had him pinned, triple match point, only to watch Gonzalez wriggle free: an overhead smash, a drop volley, a service winner. Five of six times he had faced match point, Gonzalez had pounded his first serve in. "I've seen Sampras lose many matches because his serve wasn't working," says Pasarell, who now runs the ATP tournament at Indian Wells. "I never saw Gonzalez lose because his serve let him down."
Gonzalez held again, but as the roars shook Centre Court, he looked indifferent. He may have raged between points the evening before, but this afternoon he was strangely calm. I le gave nothing away.
Pasarell had one more shot, his seventh and last. At 7-8, ad out, match point for the younger player, Gonzalez plunked his first serve into the net. He didn't hesitate: He drove his second serve so deep in the box that it took Pasarell by surprise. He managed a return, but Gonzalez struck a biting volley, and Pasarell lofted one last backhand lob—and a prayer. This time he died with it; the lob went way long. Gonzalez served out easily, flipping his head back like a prancing thoroughbred. Pasarell rebounded to go up 9-8, and by then no one doubted the match was destined for legend. "I don't think I've ever seen one like this," Kramer said.
Gonzalez held again, and at 9-9 Pasarell finally cracked. He went down 0-30 on his serve, and Gonzalez gave him some of his own medicine, lofting a backhand lob that kissed the inside of the baseline. Facing three break points, Pasarell showed none of Gonzalez's grit; he struck a forehand volley long. Break in hand, Gonzalez stepped on Pasarell's air hose, serving a love game to win the match by the lunatic score of 22-24, 1-6, 16-14, 6-3, 11-9.
"Seven match points," Pasarell says all these years later. "The son of a bitch." The crowd that had booed Gonzalez less than 24 hours earlier stood and flooded him with adulation. Later he found the humiliated Pasarell in the corner of the locker room, sobbing. Gonzalez, who never apologized for winning, sat down next to the young man, put his arm on his shoulders and said, "Kid, I'm sorry. I was really lucky to win."
Luck had nothing to do with it. Kramer rates Gonzalez a better player than Sampras or Laver. Ashe called Gonzalez the only idol he ever had. Segura, Olmedo and Ralston say Gonzalez was the best player in history. Connors said once that if he needed someone to play for his life, he'd pick Gonzalez. Pasarell agrees: "He was the toughest competitor who ever played. He just fought and fought and fought until he died."
The five-hour, 12-minute epic between Gonzalez and Pasarell made Wimbledon history: longest match, most games played. For tennis aficionados it's surpassed in drama only by the 1980 final between McEnroe and Bjorn Borg, but in one sense it had more impact. In 1970, using Gonzalez-Pasarell as Exhibit A, the U.S. Open instituted the tiebreaker—the biggest structural change in tennis in a century.
Still, by the end of that first week of Wimbledon '69, Gonzalez was gone, having lost to Ashe in the round of 16. At the U.S. Open, Gonzalez battled severe cramps to beat Ulrich in five sets. In the locker room afterward his bony frame seized up grotesquely. "I can't do this anymore," he croaked to Ralph. He wondered if he was losing his mind. "I feel like Van Gogh out there."