With many spectators ignoring the center court to watch the young legend from the public parks, Gonzales glorified himself by defeating Flam, the recent national junior champion. The bust was over; the boom was on. Soon the whole tennis world knew of him.
Gonzales has been called lazy, stubborn, snobbish, childish and rude. All of the epithets derive from one central fact about him: he will not do what he doesn't like doing. Few men nowadays can take such a view of life, but Gonzales' special gifts allow him to do so and make it stick—with setbacks. He won't practice strokes by himself. He wouldn't go to school. He won't train, or work at a disagreeable job, or pay any attention to the side of tennis that involves cocktails and polite chatter. Many a hostess has smiled with gritted teeth because the cornerstone and lodestar of her tennis party—the champion—was missing. He is not missing because he feels uncomfortable at such affairs. He always seems to feel more comfortable than anyone else, showing a composure that is probably linked to his physical coordination and grace; but he just doesn't like such functions.
Parties bore him, but food does not. Gonzales likes baked potatoes with his steaks and sour cream on the potatoes. He likes beer, and tacos, and fried beans, and waffles with ice cream, and tortillas made with flour. Nowadays, prudence and the rigors of professional touring help keep him at his best playing weight, between 180 and 183 pounds. But in his amateur days neither prudence nor self-denial was prominent in his makeup, and he sometimes weighed as much as 206.
Backed by Perry Jones and the Southern California Tennis Association, he collected tournament experience in the summers of 1947 and 1948. He took time out to elope to Yuma with a pretty 18-year-old girl named Henrietta Pedrin. Often he clipped off a high-ranking player, and often an unranked one clipped him. "In those days," he says now, "the excitement of being involved in tennis—traveling and meeting people and things like that—seemed more important than winning." He went to Forest Hills for the 1948 Nationals as No. 17 in the U.S. Lawn Tennis Association's national rankings and was the last—eighth—of the Americans seeded in the tournament. He defeated the top-seeded Frank Parker in the quarter finals, Jaroslav Drobny in the semifinals, and Eric Sturgess in the final. Sixteen months after Perry Jones had readmitted him to organized tennis, he was the national champion.
"After I won," Gonzales recalls, "I phoned Perry Jones in Los Angeles and said I'd start home the next day by car. He said, 'You're flying home tomorrow.' I did, and a week later I lost to Ted Schroeder in the Pacific Southwest tournament. I just quit playing then—I lost so many tournaments in the next three months they called me the cheese champion." The USLTA moved him up from No. 17 to No. 1—and the champ went right on losing.
In April 1949 he managed to win the indoor singles championship despite 13 pounds of overweight. Sweating off the extra pounds in the heat of July, he won the national clay court championship in Chicago. This gave him two of the country's four major titles. The hard-court championship was out of reach—Schroeder had already won it—but there remained the Nationals.
And there remained Ted Schroeder. He had won the National Singles title in 1942 and had passed it up thereafter. People argued that if Schroeder had played at Forest Hills in 1948, Gonzales would never have won: again and again, both before and after Gonzales became national champion, Ted Schroeder had beaten him. Now the question was to be settled: both were entered at Forest Hills.
They met in the finals. Five times Gonzales was within a point of winning the first set—and he lost it 16-18. He lost the second set 2-6, badly outplayed. Defeat would confirm him as a cheese champion, mark him as a flashy upstart without discipline or control, put the biggest dent of all in his career. In the stands Henrietta Gonzales was in tears. Then Pancho won the third set 6-1. There was a 10-minute break. He drew even with the fourth set, 6-2. Then, double-faulting in the very last game, coming up from 30-40, he pulled out the final set 6-4 and kept his championship.
A week later, in California, he defeated Schroeder again, this time in the Pacific Southwest tournament where Schroeder had beaten him the year before. Then he turned professional.
He entered a strange new world. The pro tennis player lives a mixed-up life. He is celebrity, roustabout and strolling player, all in one. He may find himself being presented to royalty one evening and fixing a flat in the rain the next. He is highly paid, yet often poorly fed because no good restaurant is near. Sometimes he is called on to drive all night and then to play tennis as if he had slept all night. In the pro world there is room for the top man and the three or four nearest the top. All the rest, except for an occasional tournament, are unemployed.