SI Vault
 
Pancho the Great
Richard Phelan
March 18, 1957
RICHARD GONZALES IS THE KING OF AN EXPANDING TRIBE OF TENNIS PROFESSIONALS WHO ARE CASTING A LONG SHADOW OVER THE AMATEUR TENNIS WORLD
Decrease font Decrease font
Enlarge font Enlarge font
March 18, 1957

Pancho The Great

RICHARD GONZALES IS THE KING OF AN EXPANDING TRIBE OF TENNIS PROFESSIONALS WHO ARE CASTING A LONG SHADOW OVER THE AMATEUR TENNIS WORLD

View CoverRead All Articles View This Issue
1 2 3 4 5 6 7

Jack Kramer was the top man that Pancho faced. Gonzales was 21; he was the father of one child and his wife was expecting another. He looked forward to earning some $80,000 as he defeated Jack Kramer. He earned the money all right, but lost to Kramer by the appalling score of 96 matches to 27.

"I was lying on the grass in the yard," recalls his old school friend Chuck Pate, "when he walked up, just back from that tour. I was mad. I said, 'What do you mean, boy, letting him beat you like that?' He said, 'Oh, well, I made about the same money losing as I'd have made winning.' "

But he made no money at all on the 1951 tour—there was no room on it for last year's unsuccessful challenger. Kramer looked around for new competition and Gonzales entered his second stretch as a has-been. He did not emerge from it completely and officially until he defeated Tony Trabert in 1956.

As he had done in an earlier banishment, he spent a lot of time at the Exposition Park tennis courts. There is something about the place that seems to attract and comfort Gonzales. In some curious way it is home. It may be simply that he has put in so many hours playing tennis there, or it may be the atmosphere of the place itself. There are grass and trees, sun and games. Everything is dwarfed by the huge, gray, empty Los Angeles Coliseum. In the side streets children wash and repair their cars. And clumped around the Hoover Street entrance to the park are a series of casually constructed hamburger stands, tennis shops and frozen custard parlors. The total effect is of a subdued and dreamlike carnival, one that will go on forever.

At one time Gonzales took over Frank Poulain's tennis shop—the one he had slept in—and ran it for a year. But he lacked the shopkeeper's temperament, and (according to some reports) he was not even a good racket stringer. It was an epoch of confusion, discovery, trial and error. Gonzales made some minor tours; he and his wife separated for a time; he and his brother Ralph discovered hot rods and drag racing. And, of course, he played tennis.

In 1954 Kramer, by then the promoter of the tour rather than its star, signed Gonzales for a round robin series with Pancho Segura, Frank Sedgman and others. Gonzales won it. A better chance came in 1955: the Australian stars Lew Hoad and Ken Rosewall, who had agreed to turn pro and play against the brand-new professional, Tony Trabert, decided not to do so after all. Eventually Kramer signed Gonzales to oppose Trabert. Gonzales' guarantee was $15,000. Trabert's was $75,000.

There was nothing happy-go-lucky about the way Gonzales went after Tony Trabert. His speed was as great as ever, and his control as sure; he was lean and hungry after a long stretch out of the limelight and out of the money. He found no satisfaction in contemplating the difference between his pay and that of Trabert, the recent amateur champion. Neither of the two felt any burning friendship for the other. The tour ended with Gonzales the victor, 74 matches to 27, and Trabert not only the loser but the victim—of Gonzales' serve, his lean years, his knife-edged self-assurance and his skill. Not just in fact, but by the record, Pancho was now the best tennis player in the world.

The self-assurance is genuine, like the skill, and Gonzales knows how to use it. "If you think the other guy may beat you, then he has a better chance to do it. But if you think you'll win, and let him know you think so, then it helps you. You have to use a little psychology." He uses it on the gallery, too, inviting hecklers to come down and take his place. "So far nobody has." And he has been known to go through the motions of removing a pair of imaginary glasses from his own nose and offering them to a linesman who has just made a call he disagreed with.

ONE SET OF MANNERS

Gonzales likes snooker, hot rod racing, bowling and poker. His favorite spot for snooker and bowling is the 20th Century Recreation Club, a one-story institution of yellow stucco and neon tubes on Western Avenue in Los Angeles. It has 12 bowling alleys, six pool tables, a lunch counter and a "cocktail lounge" whose lights are dimmed to a midnight blue even at one o'clock in the afternoon. "That's where I go to see my friends," he says, "when I'm in Los Angeles." The 20th Century Recreation Club is a world removed from Forest Hills. But Gonzales has brought the same set of manners—excellent manners—to both places.

Continue Story
1 2 3 4 5 6 7
Related Topics
  ARTICLES GALLERIES COVERS
Manuel Gonzales 1 0 0
Henrietta Gonzales 2 0 0
Pancho Gonzales 73 0 0
Tennis 2333 0 74
Los Angeles 1590 0 13