Pancho Gonzales, also spelled González (born Los Angeles, May 9, 1928; died Las Vegas, July 3, 1995), was the dominant male tennis player in the world for about a dozen years. Although he is nearly forgotten today, he was arguably one of the five greatest players who have ever lived. (The others might be Bill Tilden, Ellsworth Vines, Rod Laver, and Pete Sampras).
He was born Ricardo Alonso González, but was also known as Richard Gonzalez. The eldest of 7 children, his parents, Manuel Antonio González and Carmen Alire, both migrated from Chihuahua, Mexico to the U.S. in the early 1900s. He had a troubled adolescence and taught himself to play tennis with no encouragement from the exclusively white, and predominantly upper-class, tennis establishment of the 1940s Los Angeles.
As an unknown 20-year-old he unexpectedly won the United States amateur championship at Forest Hills in 1948. He repeated the next year, then turned professional. He was badly beaten in his first year on the professional tour by the reigning king of professional tennis, Jack Kramer, and withdrew from the public eye. He won some professional tournaments, however, defeating his old nemesis Kramer in the process, and by 1953 he was the dominant player in the professional ranks.
Gonzales played as a professional until the Open era of tennis began in 1968 and was therefore ineligible to compete at Wimbledon or the U.S. championship again until he was 40 years old. He was completely dominant for about a dozen years during the 50s and early 60s, beating all opponents on a regular basis, including Frank Sedgman, Ken Rosewall, Lew Hoad, Tony Trabert, Mal Anderson, and Ashley Cooper. In the 12-year period that he dominated tennis he won the United States professional title 8 times and the English professional title 4 times as well as beating, in head-to-head tours, all the best amateurs who turned pro.
When Open tennis began, Gonzales continued to win an occasional tournament as he aged into his 40s, beating the best players in the world, including Laver, Stan Smith, John Newcombe, and Jimmy Connors, all of whom were 15 to 20 years younger. He is 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.
He was known for 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. He won even so, and the rules were quickly changed back. In 1971, when he was 43 and Jimmy Connors was 19, he beat the great young baseliner by playing from the baseline at the Pacific Southwest Open.
Roy Emerson, the fine Australian player, won a dozen Grand Slam titles during the 1960s when he was an amateur and all the best players in the world were professionals and unable to compete against him. This has led many people today, ignorant of the history of tennis, to rank Emerson as one of the greatest players who ever lived. Emerson finally turned pro in 1968, having won the French championship the year before. Gonzales was 40 years old, eight years older than Emerson. In the 1968 French Open, he beat Emerson, the defending champion, in the quarter-finals. He played Emerson another 12 times in the next five years and beat Emerson all 12 times. Roy Emerson, winner of a dozen Grand Slams, nearly a decade younger, never beat Pancho Gonzales.
Gonzales married six times (twice to actress Madelyn Darrow), and had seven children. His last wife, Rita, is the sister of Andre Agassi, who paid for Gonzales's funeral. Gonzales died, nearly broke and almost friendless, in a tiny house near the Las Vegas airport.
He was inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame in Newport, R.I., in 1968.
Grand Slam Tournament wins:
- United States Professional Championship
- Singles, 1953, 1954, 1955, 1956, 1957, 1958, 1959, 1961
- Finalist, 1951, 1952, 1964
- French Professional Championship
- Finalist, 1953, 1956, 1961