Nobody ever gave Richard Gonzales a tennis lesson, then or later. He did most things correctly on a tennis court from the beginning, by instinct. Chuck Pate, a boy he met at school, was able to point out faults and tell him how to correct them. "He was the only one that ever did," says Gonzales. He also gave Richard the nickname Pancho. (Pate himself is not sure that he did, but Gonzales' mother is certain. "One day a boy came to the house," she recalls, "and said, 'Mrs. Gonzales, where is Pancho?' I said, 'I have no child named Pancho.' ")
Those nearest Gonzales dislike the nickname and call him Richard, but he doesn't object to it. He even signs autographs "Pancho Gonzales."
Chuck Pate was one of the first to experience Gonzales' big serve, a phenomenon which brings gasps from any gallery that sees it and brings victory more dependably than any other part of his game. "Even as a kid," says Pate, "he had a bigger serve than the other kids. It just grew up with him."
For a time Pancho looked on tennis as "a sissy game." But he won so consistently that it was hard to resist. Eventually, as all promising youngsters in southern California do, he came to the attention of Perry Jones, the secretary of the Southern California Tennis Association and manager of its tournaments. "He was probably," said Jones the other day, "the most natural athlete I have seen in 33 years at the Los Angeles Tennis Club."
But the natural athlete was not a natural scholar, and presently Jones banned him from tournament play because he quit going to school. "So," says Jones, "from age 15 to age 18—those very important years for a tennis player—Gonzales was out and did not get to play against his good contemporaries." Many people said that Jones barred Gonzales because of his Mexican parentage. Both Jones and Gonzales say that this was not true.
The truant spent his time on the tennis courts of Exposition Park in Los Angeles and in the hamburger stands and tennis shops nearby. Idling about there, playing first-rate tennis, he was already a has-been without ever having been. Then he spent 15 months in the Navy, whose discipline suited him no better than that of the classroom. Discharged in January 1947, he went home and faced still another kind of authority. "Go to school," said Manuel Gonzales, "or go to work; or leave my house." Pancho left home.
He had no place to go, of course, but the Exposition tennis courts; and there he went. For several weeks he slept on a sofa in a one-room tennis shop and took his meals in a hamburger stand. Frank Poulain, the owner of both establishments (and a tennis enthusiast), let Gonzales earn his room and board, such as they were, by odd jobs. Then his parents allowed him to come home, finally convinced that the talent and future of their first-born lay in tennis.
FROM BUST TO BOOM
Perry Jones let him come home, too—to the tournaments of the Southern California Tennis Association. Gonzales was 19, beyond the no-school-no-play age. "The question arose," said Jones, " 'Should we let him play now?' There were some on our board who felt, 'No, we should not.' What happened was that I decided he should be allowed to play, and so he was.
"In the southern California championships that year, he and Herbie Flam played in court No. 4. They brought some pressure to bear on me to put that match on in the center court. But I took the attitude, 'Why glorify this boy right away?' "