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The Lone Wolf
S.L. Price
June 24, 2002
Pancho Gonzalez may have been the best tennis player of all time, but his fits of rage offended almost everyone in the game, cost him six marriages and alienated him from all but the last of his eight children
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June 24, 2002

The Lone Wolf

Pancho Gonzalez may have been the best tennis player of all time, but his fits of rage offended almost everyone in the game, cost him six marriages and alienated him from all but the last of his eight children

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Between handshakes and hellos, with the cool clang of money and the pop and hum of the MGM's endless night echoing in his ears, Mike Agassi stood in his good suit with a smile on his face and wondered how he was going to kill Pancho Gonzalez. Should he do it himself? Scrape up $20,000 and hire a hit man? It was 1981, in a Las Vegas still proud of its gangster soul, and Agassi had been on its front lines for years as a casino greeter. He knew people who knew people. It was only a matter of calculating the real cost, because Agassi had no illusions about getting away with murder. He'd spend the rest of his life in jail, he was sure. Then again, he'd have the satisfaction of seeing the man dead.

Agassi had come to America 25 years earlier, a tennis fanatic who'd boxed on the 1952 Iranian Olympic team, and in recent years his obsessive stewardship of the tennis career of his oldest daughter, Rita, had hit the shoals of teenage burnout and rebellion. There was great promise in Mike's 11-year-old son, Andre—who years earlier, using a sawed-off racket, had wowed crowds at the Alan King Desert Classic by rallying with Gonzalez before the final—but there was reason to think that Andre, too, would wither under Mike's punishing critiques and 5,000-balls-a-day regimen. Gonzalez said Andre was too soft, too scared, and who knew better than Pancho? In Vegas he was the tennis king.

There was no more perfect match than Pancho and Vegas: both dark and disreputable, both hard and mean and impossible to ignore. At 53 he was still a big man in every way, 6'3", with a thunderclap voice and a career that had anticipated nearly every major stage in the evolution of modern tennis. Locked out of prestigious amateur tournaments such as Wimbledon and the U.S. Championships during his prime, Gonzalez nonetheless dominated the game as a pro in the 1950s and early '60s and left its landscape scorched by the fire of his all-consuming bitterness. Before the groundbreaking wins by Althea Gibson and Arthur Ashe in the '50s and '60s, before the brattiness of Jimmy Connors and John McEnroe in the '70s and '80s, before the complaints about Pete Sampras's untouchable serve in the '90s, Gonzalez smashed through the game's class and ethnic barriers, abused officials verbally and paralyzed opponents with a serve so powerful that it inspired cries to remake the sport. Ion Tiriac, the Romanian player of the early open era and eventual manager of Guillermo Vilas, Boris Becker and other pros, has called Gonzalez "the beginning of professional tennis as we know it...the father of everything we have today."

Now, in the raging autumn of his life, the man who'd beaten Don Budge and Connors and everyone in between had insinuated himself into the Agassi clan. And Mike Agassi had no one to blame but himself. It was Mike, after all, who in 1973 had taken 13-year-old Rita to be coached at Caesars Palace, where Gonzalez worked as tennis director. This wasn't easy for Mike. Like everyone else in the Vegas tennis community, he'd endured Gonzalez's moods, but few people knew how far back their enmity went: 17 years earlier in Chicago, Mike had worked as a line judge during a match between Gonzalez and Ken Rosewall. Gonzalez harangued Agassi so viciously that night that Agassi rose from his chair, refused to work another point and stalked off into the bleachers.

Still, Mike was desperate; Rita wouldn't listen anymore, and her game was slipping away. He turned her over to Gonzalez. When Rita was 15, Mike, suspecting she had a crush on Gonzalez, demanded that she stop training with him. She refused. At 17 she was teaching at Caesars and in love with her coach, a man 32 years her senior. At 18 she left her parents' house and moved into her own apartment. At 19 she and Gonzalez became an official item. At 20 she moved in with him.

Mike was livid. He railed in public, telling relatives that he wanted to hire a hit man. He thought about what might happen to his wife and the three other kids if he went to jail. "There were two things to do," he says. "Kill him, or stay away and forget him."

Mike cut off relations with Rita. "I had no daughter," he says. He and Gonzalez would pass each other at tennis events without speaking, but Agassi was sure he could read what Gonzalez was thinking. "I'm f——— your daughter" Agassi says. "The guy enjoyed that I didn't like him. I knew what kind of person he was."

Pancho, 55, and Rita, 23, were married in March 1984—he for the sixth time, she for the first—in their backyard, in a windstorm. Mike didn't attend the ceremony. Nearly two decades later and seven years after Gonzalez's death, Mike still spews obscenities about Pancho and the storm he stirred. Though tennis helped Agassi realize the immigrant's ultimate dream, though the sport gave his son immortality and untold riches, Agassi wishes he'd never heard of the game. Tennis made him deliver his child into the hands of a man he despised.

He could be a real son of a bitch. Everyone knew that about Richard (Pancho) Gonzalez—friend, foe, wife and family. But when his contemporaries use the phrase real son of a bitch to describe him, their anger is often lightened by a weird lilt of admiration. No: joy. You have to hear his old friend Pancho Segura describe how Gonzalez hated to lose. You have to hear another opponent speak of how Gonzalez once stormed into the locker room and shattered his second-place trophy against the wall, or how he growled to a man who'd defeated him, "Give your money back, you a———. You're never going to beat me again." In 1952 Segura, seven years older than Gonzalez and not nearly as talented, had the day of his life and crushed Gonzalez at a pro event 6-2, 6-2, 6-2. "He wouldn't talk to me for days," Segura says, laughing, and then he shouts gleefully, "He was a p——!"

Days? "I was one of his friends, and when I beat him, he wouldn't talk to me for three months" says 1959 Wimbledon champion Alex Olmedo. It didn't matter if the match was played before thousands or no one. In 1964 Gonzalez and his prot�g� Charlie Pasarell, a top U.S. amateur, were playing practice sets at the Los Angeles Tennis Club: Loser paid for the balls. Gonzalez won the first set easily and went up 5-2 in the second when he noticed a hitch in Pasarell's backhand volley. Gonzalez stopped to give a 15-minute tutorial. When play resumed, Pasarell won the set.

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