Ralph tried to lighten the mood. "Don't cut off your ear!" he said.
"Goddammit, you don't understand!" Pancho yelled. "Nobody understands what I'm trying to do on the court, nobody—and I can't do it anymore."
But he could. Four weeks later he rolled through the cream of the tennis crop at the Howard Hughes Open in Vegas, swatting aside John Newcombe, Rosewall, Stan Smith and Ashe. Then, in January 1970, at Madison Square Garden, Gonzalez beat Laver—the No. 1 player in the world, four months removed from winning his second Grand Slam—in five sets. A few months later, in 102� heat in Vegas, he beat Laver again.
The following year the 43-year-old Gonzalez beat a 19-year-old Connors from the baseline in the Pacific Southwest Open. "Nobody remembers," Olmedo says of that match. Once, in the early '90s, Sampras was at dinner with commentator Mary Carillo when the subject of Gonzalez came up. "Pete had never heard of him," Carillo says, "because he'd never won Wimbledon." Andre Agassi isn't surprised to hear this. "The history of tennis is pretty complex," says Agassi, who was never close to his onetime brother-in-law, "and unless you're aware, you might not have a sense of how important a figure Pancho Gonzalez was."
Pancho was always aware. One night after a match at the LA Coliseum he drank a few beers with the 26-year-old Newcombe and then staggered out to the parking lot. As Gonzalez started his hotted-up Mustang, Newcombe jumped on the hood and playfully gave him the finger. Gonzalez floored it, lurched ahead and stomped on the brakes. Newcombe catapulted off, and as he lay in a heap on the asphalt, pants torn, Gonzalez rolled down the window and rasped, "Don't f—with me, kid," before driving off.
Beg? Take a handout? No. Ralph Gonzalez once accused Pancho of drawing a three-foot circle around himself and leaving room for no one else inside. "That's right," Pancho replied. He hadn't let the world in when he was on top, and he wouldn't now that he was broke. It was the early '90s. Segura wanted to put on a benefit for him. No, Gonzalez said. "So he chose to be down-and-out," Madelyn says, "and live in this nasty little house."
It wasn't nasty. It was his own idea of peace. Five minutes from the Vegas airport, it was a runty yellow-stucco affair—but he had it all to himself. At last Gonzalez was alone. He had carved his life down to the barest bones. He and Madelyn had split up for good in 1980. Since then he had had three other wives and two children, ending with Rita Agassi and their son, Skylar, but women and kids just complicated things. Pancho and Rita divorced in 1989 after nearly 10 years together. For a while Pancho lived in a motor home in an R.V. park. The little yellow house was better.
There he had things the way he'd always wanted: a hook on a wall to hang his rackets, a workbench in the kitchen, a row of shelves for the groceries. He slept on a mattress on the bedroom floor. He used the same plastic cup and plate for every meal.
"I want a simple life." he said when Ralph tried to give him some drinking glasses. "If it breaks, I've got to clean it up." For a time he rode around in an old U-Haul van. "He was happy," Ralph says. Pancho told his kids not to expect any money when he died.
All his bridges had been burned. He had made $75,000 a year from an endorsement deal with Spalding, but he treated company employees as if he were a lord, and in 1981, after a nearly 30-year association, Spalding didn't renew his annual contract. For 16 years he'd had the best professional relationship of his life working for Cliff Perlman as the tournament director at Caesars Palace, but Perlman left and the new man had no history with Gonzalez. It didn't help that Gonzalez only grudgingly agreed to his boss's request that he hit with Colin Powell and refused to give private lessons to the boss's wife. In 1985 Caesars cut Gonzalez loose. "He didn't know how to treat people," Olmedo says. "He was very proud, and that's what made him a great champion. He was like a goddam lion. But off the court he didn't know how to behave."