Pancho Gonzales

From New World Encyclopedia

Gonzales practicing in Australia in 1954

Ricardo Alonso González or Richard Gonzalez (May 9, 1928 – July 3, 1995), who was generally known as Pancho Gonzales or, less often, as Pancho González, was completely self-taught and as an amateur he won the United States Championships in 1948 and 1949. His victory in 1948 made him the first Hispanic man to win a Grand Slam championship. He gained an international reputation in 1949, as a member of the U.S. team that won the Davis Cup competition against Australia. He turned professional at 21 and was the World's No. 1 ranked professional tennis player a record eight times in the 1950s and early 1960s. In 1972, he became the oldest man to win a tournament, in Iowa, at age 44.

The tempestuous Gonzales is still widely considered to be one of the all-time great tennis players. After emerging from a troubled childhood Gonzales often faced racism and discrimination. Developing a tough skin and a defiant attitude, he became infamous among his peers, but won over tennis fans with his skill and charisma.

In 2005, a USTA Blue Ribbon panel of former players, commentators, coaches, administrators and journalists announced that Richard “Pancho” Gonzalez’s men’s singles title at the 1948 U.S. Championships was the top accomplishment in Hispanic tennis history.[1]

Personal and family life

González's parents, Manuel Antonio González and Carmen Alire, migrated from Chihuahua, Mexico to the U.S. in the early 1900s. González was born in Los Angeles, the eldest of seven children. Jack Kramer a contemporary tennis luminary, offered the opinion that "Gorgo was not the poor Mexican-American that people assumed. Unlike many tennis professionals, he did not come from a wealthy family, but from a stable middle-class background. He had a great mother and there was always a warm feeling of family loyalty. If anything, he might have been spoiled as a child." Unfortunately, he suffered discrimination because of his Mexican heritage."[2]

González face featured a long scar across his left cheek that some members of the media of the 1940s attributed to his being a Mexican-American pachuco and hence involved in knife fights. This was a slur that embittered González towards the media in general. The scar was actually the result of a street accident, in 1935, when he was seven years old: Pushing a scooter too fast, he ran into a passing car and had his cheek gashed open by its door handle. He spent two weeks in the hospital as a result.

Although his name was properly spelled "González," during most of his playing career he was known as "Gonzales." It was only towards the end of his life that the proper spelling began to be used. Kramer, however, writes that one of González's wives, Madelyn Darrow, "decided to change his name. Madalyn discovered in the Castillian upper-crust society, the fancy Gonzales families spelled their name with a z at the end to differentiate from the hoi polloi Gonzales. So it was Gonzalez for a time, and even now you will occasionally see that spelling pop up. I don't think Pancho gave a damn one way or the other."[2] In his ghost-written 1959 autobiography, "Gonzales" is used throughout.

He married and divorced six times and had seven children: He wed his childhood sweetheart, Henrietta Pedrin, on March 23, 1948; they had three children. He married actress (and Miss Rheingold of 1958) Madelyn Darrow twice; they also had three children, including twin girls. He married his dental hygienist, Betty, in Beverly Hills and had one daughter. His last wife, Rita, is the sister of Andre Agassi.

He died of stomach cancer in Las Vegas on July 3, 1995, at age 67. He died in penury and almost friendless, estranged from his ex-wives and children except for Rita and their son, Skylar, and daughter, Jeanna Lynn. Andre Agassi paid for his funeral.



At age 12, Gonzales was given a 51-cent racket by his mother and taught himself to play by watching other players on the public courts at nearby Exposition Park in Los Angeles. Once he discovered tennis, he lost interest in school and began a troubled adolescence in which he was occasionally pursued by truant officers and policemen. He was befriended by the owner of the tennis shop at Exposition Park and sometimes slept there. Because of his spotty school attendance and occasional minor brushes with the law, he was ostracized by the exclusively white, and predominantly upper-class, tennis establishment of 1940s Los Angeles, which was headquartered at the Los Angeles Tennis Club and which actively trained other top players such as the youthful Jack Kramer. Eventually, he was arrested for burglary at age 15 and spent a year in detention. He then joined the U. S. Navy just as World War II was ending and served for two years, finally receiving a bad-conduct discharge in 1947.

In spite of his lack of playing time while in the Navy, and as a mostly unknown 19-year-old in 1947, Gonzales achieved a national ranking of number 17 by playing primarily on the West Coast. He did, however, go East that year to play in the United States Championships at Forest Hills. He surprised the British Davis Cup-player Derek Barton, then lost a five-set match to the number-3 seed, Gardnar Mulloy. Following that, in the last major tournament of the year, the Pacific Southwest, played at the Los Angeles Tennis Club, he beat three internationally known names, Jaroslav Drobny, Bob Falkenburg, and Frank Parker, before losing in the finals to Ted Schroeder.

The following year, 1948, Perry T. Jones, the head of the Southern California Tennis Association, and the most powerful man in California tennis, relented in his opposition to Gonzales and sponsored his trip East to play in the major tournaments. The top-ranked American player, Ted Schroeder, decided at the last moment not to play in the United States Championships and Gonzales was seeded number 8 in the tournament. To the surprise of most observers, he won it fairly easily with his powerful serve-and-volley game, beating the South African Eric Sturgess in the finals. This win was his only major tournament victory of the year, but he finished the year ranked as the number one American player.

Gonzales' poor performance at Wimbledon in 1949 led one British sportswriter to call him a "cheese champion" and as a result his doubles partner of the time, Frank Parker, began to call him "Gorgonzales," after Gorgonzola, the Italian cheese. This was eventually shortened to "Gorgo," the nickname by which he was later known by his colleagues on the professional tour. (Jack Kramer, in his autobiography, says that it was Jim Burchard, the tennis writer for the New York World-Telegram who first called him a "cheese champ.")[2]

In 1949, Gonzales surprised many observers when he repeated his victory at the United States Championships. Ted Schroeder, the number-1 seed, had beaten Gonzales in eight out of nine matches played and so he was heavily favored. Schroeder's one previous loss had occurred when he played with a broken nose—it had been broken the day before by his doubles partner's tennis racket during a misplayed point at the net. In a tremendous final, Gonzales lost a 1 hour and 15 minute first set 16-18 before finally prevailing in the fifth set. Once again he finished the year as the top-ranked U.S. amateur. Gonzales also won both his singles matches in the Davis Cup finals against Australia. Having beaten Schroeder at Forest Hills, he was clearly the best amateur in the world. Bobby Riggs and Jack Kramer, who had been counting on signing Schroeder to play Kramer on the professional tour, were then forced to reluctantly sign Gonzales instead.


Early years

It is noted that his move to professional tennis also marked a shift in his personality. Though he was once known as a friendly, happy-go-lucky youngster, he became known as a hard-bitten loner.

Gonzales was badly beaten in his first year on the professional tour, 96 matches to 27, by the reigning king of professional tennis, Jack Kramer. Kramer won 22 of the first 26 matches and 42 of the first 50. Gonzales improved enough to win 15 of the remaining 32 but it was too late. Bobby Riggs, the tour promoter, would replace him with a new challenger for Kramer on the next tour. As compensation, however, Gonzales had made $75,000 in his losing efforts.

In the summer of 1950-1951 Gonzales toured Australia and New Zealand with Dinny Pails, Frank Parker, and Don Budge. In December 1950, Pails won the short tour in New Zealand but in January and February of 1951 Gonzales won a second and longer tour in Australia. Though Gonzales also won Wembley (where Kramer was not entered) in the fall of 1951, it is probable that both Kramer and Segura were marginally better players that year.


From 1951 to 1953 Gonzales was in semi-retirement. He bought the tennis shop at Exposition Park and ran that while playing in short tours and occasional professional tournaments throughout the world. In spite of his infrequent play—first Riggs, and then Kramer, did not want him as the headliner of their tours—he had nevertheless improved his game and once again was winning most of his matches. In 1952, Gonzales reached the top level of the pros. He won four of the five tournaments he played, posting a 2-0 record against Kramer, and a 4-1 record against Segura. This was the first year that "Big Pancho" (Gonzales) dominated "Little Pancho" (Segura) in their head-to-head matches, and he would go on to maintain his superiority over Segura. The notoriously quirky Professional Lawn Tennis Association issued the 1952 year-end rankings, placing Segura at the top and Gonzales second. A strong case could have been made, however, that Gonzales was actually the World No. 1 player for that year, or at least shared that position with Segura.

Gonzales' game regressed somewhat because he did not play on the big pro tour of 1953 against the best players, including Kramer, Frank Sedgman, a seven-time Grand Slam singles winner, Pancho Segura, and Ken McGregor (the 1952 Australian Open champion). Later that year, though, Kramer signed Gonzales to a seven-year contract to play in a 1954 USA tour featuring Pancho Segura, Frank Sedgman and Donald Budge (the latter being replaced in March 1954 by Carl Earn for the last weeks of the tour). In the subsequent matches Gonzales beat Segura 30-21 and Sedgman by the same score (Budge beat Gonzales only once in Los Angeles). After this tour, Gonzales won the hotly contested U.S. Pro, before competing in a Far East tour (September-October 1954) very slightly dominated by Segura. Then Gonzales had a new success: He swept an Australian tour in November-December 1954 by beating Sedgman, 16 matches to nine, McGregor 15-0, and Segura 4-2. Though Pancho was beaten by Pails in the last competition of the year, the Australian Pro, Gonzales had clearly established himself as the top player in the world in 1954.

A dominant player

Gonzales was the dominant player in the men's game for the next eight years, beating such tennis greats as Sedgman, Tony Trabert, Ken Rosewall, Lew Hoad, Mal Anderson, and Ashley Cooper on a regular basis. Many years later, a retired Trabert admitted that despite his own superior groundstrokes, Gonzales' big first serve had been the key to Gonzales' success over him.[3]

Gonzales' run hit a minor snag when he was confronted with injury as well as distraction. In early 1957 Gonzales began a brief ten-match tour against Ken Rosewall in his native Australia. Gonzales had developed a "half-dollar"-size cyst on the palm on his right hand and there was speculation in the newspapers that his tennis career might be over. Jack Kramer's personal physician began to treat it with injections, and it gradually began to shrink, but remained painful. Gonzales still won the tour seven matches to three. The tour against Rosewall continued in New York in late February, by which time the cyst had shrunk considerably. Gonzales went on to beat Rosewall by a final score of 50 matches to 26.

When negotiating the tour, Kramer had feared that Rosewall would not pose a threat to Gonzales, and so he asked Gonzales to "carry" Rosewall in Australia in return for having his share of the gross receipts raised from 20 percent to 25 percent. Though Gonzales agreed, after winning three of the first four matches, he complained to Kramer that he found it too difficult to concentrate. Luckily, Rosewall proved fully competitive with Gonzales, so Kramer told Gonzales to return to his normal game—and that he could keep his additional five percent.

Lew Hoad, the very powerful young Australian who had won five Grand Slam titles as an amateur. In the 1958 tour, Gonzales and Hoad played head-to-head 87 times. Hoad won 18 of the first 27 matches and it appeared that he was about to displace Gonzales as the best in the world. Gonzales, however, revamped and improved his backhand during the course of these first matches, and then won 42 of the next 60 matches to maintain his superiority by a margin of 51 to 36.

Much of Gonzales's competitive fire during these years derived from the anger he felt at being paid much less than the players he was regularly beating. In 1955, for instance, he was paid $15,000 while his touring opponent, the recently turned professional Tony Trabert, had a contract for $80,000. He had an often bitter adversarial relationship with most of the other players and generally traveled and lived by himself, showing up only in time to play his match, never helping with the tour's promotional activities. Gonzales and the tour promoter Jack Kramer were also long-time enemies, and fought bitterly about money. Despite their differences, Kramer acknowledged that Gonzales was key to the tour's success.

In that period, Gonzales won the United States Professional Championship eight times and the Wembley professional title in London four times, as well as beating, in head-to-head tours, all of the best amateurs who turned pro, which included every Wimbledon champion of the last decade. Gonzales relied on his fiery will to win, his cannonball serve, and his all-conquering net game—a combination so potent that the rules on the professional tour were briefly changed in the 1950s to prohibit him from advancing to the net immediately after serving. Under the new rules, the returned serve had to bounce before the server could make his own first shot, thereby keeping Gonzales from playing his usual serve-and-volley game. He won even so, and the rules were changed back. He had a remarkable ability to raise his game to the highest possible level, particularly in the fifth set of long matches.

The Open Era

Only after the advent of the Open Era in 1968 was Gonzales again allowed to compete at the Grand Slam events. After he had turned pro in 1949, he was ineligible until this new rule. It is widely assumed that Gonzales almost certainly would have won a number of additional Grand Slam titles had he been permitted to compete in those tournaments during that 18-year period.

The first major Open tournament was the French Championships in May 1968, when Gonzales had just turned 40. Though he had been semi-retired for a number of years, and though the tournament's slow clay courts did not favor his serve-and-volley game, Gonzales beat the defending champion Roy Emerson in the quarterfinals, and lost in the semi-finals to Rod Laver. He lost in the third round of Wimbledon, but he later beat the second-seeded Tony Roche in the fourth round of the United States Open before losing an epic match to Holland's Tom Okker.

In 1969, at age 41, Gonzales recorded his most famous match victory. He prevailed over the young amateur Charlie Pasarell in the longest match in Wimbledon history, at the time. The match required five sets and lasted five hours and 12 minutes over a two-day stretch. It was so long and arduous that it resulted in the advent of tie break scoring. In the fifth set Gonzales saved all seven match points that Pasarell had against him, twice coming back from 0-40 deficits. The final score was an improbable 22-24, 1-6, 16-14, 6-3, 11-9. Gonzales went on to the fourth round, where he was beaten in four sets by Arthur Ashe. The match with Pasarell, however, is still remembered as one of the highlights in the history of tennis.

Final professional years

Later that year Gonzales won the Howard Hughes Open in Las Vegas and the Pacific Southwest Open in Los Angeles. He was the top American money-winner for 1969 with $46,288. If the touring professionals had been included in the United States rankings, it is likely he would have been ranked first in the country, just as he had been two decades earlier in 1948 and 1949. He also beat the clear number-one player in the world, Rod Laver, on an occasional basis. In their most famous meeting, a $10,000 winner-take-all match before 15,000 in Madison Square Garden in February 1970, the 41-year-old Gonzales beat Laver in five sets.

Gonzales continued to play in the occasional tournament and became the oldest player to have ever won a professional tournament, winning the Des Moines Open over 24-year-old Georges Goven when he was three months shy of his 44th birthday. In spite of the fact that he was still known as a serve-and-volley player, in 1971, when he was 43 and Jimmy Connors was 19, he beat the great young baseliner by playing him from the baseline at the Pacific Southwest Open.

Roy Emerson, the fine Australian player who won a dozen Grand Slam titles during the 1960s as an amateur when most of the best players in the world were professionals, turned pro in 1968 at the age of 32, having won the French Open the year before. Gonzales, eight years his senior, immediately beat him in the quarter-finals of the French championships. Gonzales beat Emerson another 11 times. In the Champions Classic of 1970 in Miami, Florida, however, Emerson did beat Gonzales in straight sets, 6-2, 6-3, 6-2. [4]

For decades Gonzales had made $75,000 a year from an endorsement contract with Spalding for rackets and balls but was unable to get along with the company personnel. In 1981, after nearly 30 years, Spalding decided not to renew the contract. Gonzales had also served as the tennis director and tournament director at Caesars Palace on the Las Vegas Strip for 16 years.


Before Gonzales rose to the top, Bill Tilden was generally considered the greatest player of all time. From the mid-1950s to about 1970, many people thought that Gonzales had taken over that title. Since then, champions of the Open era such as Rod Laver, Björn Borg, Jimmy Connors, John McEnroe, Ivan Lendl, Pete Sampras, and Roger Federer have been considered by many of their contemporaries to be greater players than either Tilden or Gonzales.

However, some people who played against the former World's No. 1 player believe otherwise. Pancho Segura, who played, and frequently beat, all of the great players from the 1930s through the 1960s has said that he believes that Gonzales was the best player of all time. Other tennis greats such as Lew Hoad and Allen Fox have agreed with this assessment.

For all the scorn that Gonzales generated from his rivals, he could still find high respect for his tennis playing ability. Tony Trabert, one of his greatest rivals, once said, "Gonzales is the greatest natural athlete tennis has ever known. The way he can move that 6-foot-3-inch frame of his around the court is almost unbelievable. He's just like a big cat…. Pancho's reflexes and reactions are God-given talents. He can be moving in one direction and in the split second it takes him to see that the ball is hit to his weak side, he's able to throw his physical mechanism in reverse and get to the ball in time to reach it with his racket."[5]

Gonzales was inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame at Newport, Rhode Island in 1968.

In 2007, the Latin American Youth Center (LAYC),in the District of Columbia began to offer tennis opportunities year-round to low-income immigrant and minority youth through the newly-created Pancho Gonzalez Youth Tennis Academy.[6]

Also in 2007, Higher Ground Entertainment received a nomination for the ALMA Awards for its documentary about Gonzales. Pancho Gonzalez: Warrior of the Court was nominated in the category of Outstanding Made for TV Documentary.[7] WNET, New York City's PBS station, was scheduled to air the documentary on the same day the 2007 U.S. Open men's semifinals were to be contested.[8]

Most significant results

Grand Slam Tournament wins:

  • United States Championships:
    • Men's Singles champion—1948, 1949
  • Wimbledon:
    • Men's Doubles champion—1949
  • French Championships:
    • Men's Doubles champion—1949

Professional World Singles Tournament wins:

  • Wembley, England
    • Singles champion—1950, 1951, 1952, 1956,
    • Singles runner-up—1953
  • United States Professional Championship (also called World Professional Championship when held at Cleveland)
    • Singles champion—1953, 1954, 1955, 1956, 1957, 1958, 1959, 1961
    • Singles runner-up—1951, 1952, 1964
  • U. S. Professional Indoor Championship
    • Singles champion—1964 (held in White Plains, N. Y that year)
  • French Professional Championship
    • Singles runner-up—1953, 1956, 1961
  • World Professional Championship (held at Cleveland)
    • Singles champion—1964

(Jack March promoted a tournament in Cleveland (at different venues) from 1950 through 1964 that he called at the time the World Professional Championship: This tournament sort of merged with the United States Professional Championship (U.S. Pro) in 1950 and from 1952 through 1962. Therefore the 1951, 1963 and 1964 Cleveland tournaments were not the U.S. Pro tournaments (held respectively at Forest Hills, Forest Hills again and Longwood Cricket Club outside Boston)

  • BBC2 TV event, Wembley
    • Singles champion—1964, 1966
  • Howard Hughes Open
    • Singles champion—1969 (over Arthur Ashe), 1970 (over Rod Laver)
  • United States Professional Doubles Championship
    • Doubles champion—1953, 1954, 1957, 1958, 1969

Professional Tour Results:

Gonzales won 7 major pro tours in 1954, 1956, 1957, 1958, 1959, 1960 and 1961, more than anyone else before the open era.

  • Davis Cup:
  • Member of the U.S. Davis Cup winning team in 1949 (won two singles rubbers in the final against Australia).


  • Gonzales, Pancho, and Dick Hawk. 1962. Tennis. New York: Fleet Pub. Corp.
  • Gonzales, Pancho, and Joe Hyams. 1974. Winning Tactics for Weekend Singles. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston.
  • Gonzales, Pancho. 1958. World Professional Tennis Champion Pancho Gonzales Presents Fine Points of Power Tennis. 76 sports club, pub. no. 17. [California]: Union Oil Company of California.
  • Gonzales, Pancho, and Dick Hawk. 1963. How to Play Tennis and Win at Tennis. London: Souvenir Press


  1. USTA, Pancho Gonzalez's 1948 Men's Singles Title at The U.S. Championships Named Top Moment in Hispanic Tennis History. Retrieved August 17, 2007.
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 Jack Kramer with Frank Deford, The Game, My 40 Years in Tennis (1979, ISBN 0-399-12336-9).
  3. Joe McCauley, The History of Professional Tennis.
  4. John Barrett, World of Tennis Yearbook 1971.
  5. Man with a Racket, The Autobiography of Pancho Gonzales, as Told to Cy Rice (1959), 129.
  6. Tennis Week, LAYC Launches Pancho Gonzalez Tennis Academy. Retrieved August 17, 2007.
  7. Hey Pancho, Higher Ground Entertainment receives a nomination for the 2007 ALMA Awards. Retrieved August 17, 2007.
  8. Tennis Week, Gonzalez Documentary To Air On PBS In NYC. Retrieved August 17, 2007.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Gonzales, Pancho, and Cy Rice. Man with a Racket, The Autobiography of Pancho Gonzales, as Told to Cy Rice. Barnes, 1959.
  • Kramer, Jack, with Frank Deford. The Game, My 40 Years in Tennis. Putnam, 1979. ISBN 0-399-12336-9.
  • Anderson, Dave. The Return of a Champion: Pancho Gonzalez' Golden Year 1964. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1973. ISBN 0137786050.
  • McCauley, Joe. The History of Professional Tennis. 2003.
  • Price, S. L. The Lone Wolf. Sports Illustrated. June 26, 2002.


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