Pancho Gonzales is supposed to be in the twilight of his career, but somehow the sun never quite sets. Someday, of course, he will be just another old tennis player, ready for the veterans singles and some social doubles, and then he will reluctantly retire for good to his Southern California tennis camp and pass on the accumulated knowledge of more than two decades to another generation of players. But that time is not now. Like a flame that burns brightest moments before it is extinguished, Gonzales, through the sheer magnificence of his irascible personality and the re-emergence of skills supposedly lost for good, last week put on an exhibition that rocked the 100-year-old foundations of the All England Club at Wimbledon to its hoary, tradition-bound core.
It was not of any real significance that on Saturday, in the fourth round of the championships, Gonzales lost in four relatively easy sets to America's No. 1 player, Arthur Ashe, or that the day before he had beaten Tom Edlefsen of the United States, or that the day before that he had disposed of Sweden's Ove Bengtsson. What mattered was that in a first-round match that began under gloomy, leaden skies late Tuesday and ended in brilliant sunshine late Wednesday, Gonzales—for years the best tennis player in the world but never the champion of Wimbledon—had fought and clawed and finally beaten America's Charlie Pasarell, and had become, for this tournament at least, the hero of center court. The final score was 22-24, 1-6, 16-14, 6-3, 11-9. The first set equaled the longest in Wimbledon singles history; the 112 games played and the five hours, 20 minutes it took to play them both exceeded the totals posted by Jaroslav Drobny and Budge Patty in 1953, who played 93 games in a mere four hours, 20 minutes. Those are the barest facts.
Gonzales is 41 years and two months old. He had played at Wimbledon only twice previously. In 1949 (the year he turned professional at 21), he came as an amateur but never got past the singles round of 16. Last year, with open tennis a reality, he joined George MacCall's National Tennis League and made the full circuit. He reached the semifinals of the French Open, but the grueling schedule of the tournament that immediately precedes Wimbledon was too much for his grandfatherly legs. He lost in the third round to Alex Metreveli of Russia, and looked bad doing it. His reflexes seemed to be gone, he staggered after shots, and if he got to them at all he mis-hit as many as he hit well. He was, in short, overtennised.
This year he geared everything toward Wimbledon. He did not play a tournament for nearly two months before the championships but instead stayed at his California camp and worked himself into physical shape against the score of good juniors and semi-retired professionals in the area, without subjecting himself to the mental rigors of competitive play. By Wimbledon he was ready, physically and mentally.
Pasarell, ranked No. 1 in the U.S. last year and No. 7 this season, was hardly a stranger to the pressures of center court. In 1967 he had met and defeated Manuel Santana, then the defending champion, in the first round in four sets, and last year he carried second-seeded Ken Rosewall to five sets before losing in what was probably the most artistically sound match of the championships. This year, at 25, his career is at a crossroads, and he probably had more on the line than did Gonzales himself. After all, Pancho had proved his worth as a tennis player before Pasarell had ever picked up a racket. Gonzales was seeded 12th. Pasarell was unseeded, but there is usually a first-round upset at Wimbledon, and if there was going to be one this year, then Pararell was the most likely candidate to provide it.
When the match began, at 6 p.m. Tuesday after an all-day rain had washed out Monday's opening schedule, there was no clear-cut favorite, but as the first set moved on to its record-tying end, the crowd slowly moved to Gonzales, with the same sort of nostalgic warmth and appreciation for talent bursting to bloom that one might feel seeing Ben Hogan break 70 at Augusta National. (Somebody once asked Bill Tilden, when Tilden was about Gonzales' age, what the difference was between playing at 40 and playing in his prime. Tilden answered, "In my prime when I woke up in the morning I knew I was going to play good tennis. Now I'm not sure." It must be the same with Gonzales.)
Pasarell's strategy was simply to chip his returns of service at Gonzales' feet—forcing Gonzales to provide his own pace—and then to lob over his head. "I had been working on my job for two weeks before I ever knew I was playing Pancho," Charlie said. "When I saw the draw I said to myself, 'Great. This is just what I want.' "
The strategy was sound, but Pasarell's lobbing was not, and that, plus Gonzales' fine overhead, kept the match even until the 46th game, when Pasarell finally got the service break he needed to win the set.
By then it was nearly 8 p.m. The light was deteriorating rapidly, and Gonzales, who has said many times that his eyes are failing as much as his legs, did not want to continue play. He appealed to Referee Mike Gibson three times to stop the match, and three times Gibson turned him down. During the second set he threw what can only be called a tantrum. He cursed the darkness and raged at the umpire and merely went through the motions as Pasarell won the set with the loss of one game. Gibson finally stopped play, and after hurling his racket viciously into the base of the umpire's chair, Gonzales left the court in a fury, accompanied by boos from a small portion of the center-court audience, which appreciates good manners nearly as much as it appreciates good tennis.
That night Pasarell had a late dinner and a good sleep. Gonzales stayed up until 2 a.m. and cooled off by playing backgammon with Madelyn Gonzales, his former wife whom he will soon re-marry.