"If I had to choose someone to play for my life, it would be Pancho Gonzales.” World number one seven straight years in the 1950s, Ricardo "Pancho" Gonzales is, for the journalist Bud Collins, the greatest player in the history of tennis. A character who built a legend before getting losing it all to women, casinos and cinema. Like many others before him, but with a lot more style…
"We felt that he hated us and that he hated himself. He was willing to do anything to win a match, even to intimidate the referees, players and spectators." The Australian legend Rod Laver remembers very well Wimbledon 1969. After losing the first two sets, the Mexican-American player Ricardo Gonzales, 41 years old, asked the referee to stop the game at sunset. Request accepted. Upon leaving the court, "The King of the Whiners" as Rod used to say, was booed by a large section of the crowd. And he actually loved it: "He was a real wild guy, with an incredible petulant streak. After a defeat, I remember seeing him seriously damaging iron cabinets or breaking everything in the dressing rooms. But he played much better when he was edgy than when he was calm." The next day, full of rage, “Pancho" won what was then the longest match in tennis history, finishing with the outlandish score of 22-24, 1-6, 16-14, 6-3, 11-9. The dominant professional player from 1954 to 1960, the American with his exceptional longevity may be the greatest character in the history of the sport. A fighter, a big-mouth, a whiner, who was the first to insult referees and to call the crowd as his witness. "During this mythical match at Wimbledon, Pancho won 50 points on his serve and 50 points thanks to terror,” says Jack Kramer, his old rival. “But the greatest champions are always some damaged old beasts.”
Models, Bahamas and segregation
The eldest of six children, Ricardo was born on the 9th of May 1928 in a poor suburb of Los Angeles. In Depression-hit America, he soon stood out for his rebellious behaviour. His mother offered him his first tennis racquet for Christmas in an effort to start putting that violence to good use; however, he soon learnt to use it to lift the skirts of his girlfriends. "He can easily be compared to Errol Flynn or Casanova regarding success with women" said Rod Laver. Married six times, father of eight children, Ricardo met the model Madelyn Darrow during a drunken night in the Bahamas. She would become the love of his life. "He spent the evening insulting her, but that must have charmed her somehow,” remembers his friend Pancho Segura. “You know, the favourite love word of Gorgo for a girl was: “Shut up.” On the courts, a certain Perry T. Jones would curb his progression in the early 1940s. President of the Southern California Tennis Association, this segregationist was campaigning for the practice of “his tennis” to be only reserved for the elite. No way for a poor guy to walk the corridors of a country club. It was also at this time that he was attributed the pejorative nickname of "Pancho". A nickname almost always applied to poor Hispanic people. Arrested for burglary at age 15, Ricardo spent a year in detention before joining the Navy during World War II. Discharged from the military for misconduct, he refused to move back in with his parents. The back room of a waffle-shop owned by one of his friends would be his temporary home. Despite his bohemian life, Gonzales didn't let go of his racquet and won the Forest Hills tournament in 1948 and 1949. Still penniless, and soon to be a married father, he took advantage of this success to sign his first professional contract. Ricardo was 21 years old. "The worst thing that happened to him was to win Forest Hills,” explains Jack Kramer. “His nature changed completely. He became arrogant and lonely. The unhappiest man in town."
Rom-coms, casinos and Coca-Cola
Despite 75,000 dollars in tournament earnings, the early matches of his first world tour showed mixed results: 27 defeats in 123 games. Annoyed, Ricardo decided to give up tennis to burn through his winnings in gambling dens and nightclubs. "Pancho had no idea how to live or take care of himself: hamburgers, hot dogs, cigarettes, he even drank Coca-Cola in the middle of a match" recalls Kramer. Soon broke, he tried an acting career in the film Tennis Players shot in 1979, or in the romantic comedy The Goodbye Girl of Herbert Ross. With his lean muscle, his stature (6ft 2in) and the scar on his left cheek, the Californian wasn’t out-of-place among the Hollywood stars. "Gonzales has a terrific face, a disturbing feline behaviour straight out Steinbeck or Buñuel" said French journalist Olivier Merlin in Tennis Magazine. Early in 1953, he eventually decided to resolve himself to tennis. The objective: a big world championship without great value, but very well paid. Due to the rivalry between amateurs and professionals, it remained impossible for a long time to establish actual rankings of the best players. Indeed, professional players were then banned (before 1968 and the invention of the Open Era, Ed) from Davis Cup by BNP Paribas and Grand Slams. Jack Kramer, who had become a promoter, proposed to Gonzales to take part in the world tour he was organizing. Pancho took his chance and eventually won the title of best professional player in the world. And was to keep it for the next six seasons. Ricardo’s domination of the circuit was complete. "There was no more suspense. It was like seeing God striding around heaven" said the flamboyant American player, Gussie Moran. Conscious of his business-plan, Kramer even refused to organize other tours until he could find new challengers able to stoke the public interest.
Funeral paid for by Agassi
In 1968, the first tournaments of the Open era were organized but, at 40 years old, the chances for him to win a Grand Slam were beyond his fantasies. However, that year, Ricardo reached the semi-finals of Roland Garros. "I played against all the world's best players of the 1950s and 1960s, and the one who seemed to have the most complete and richest game was undoubtedly Pancho Gonzales" said the French Pierre Darmon, his opponent in the third round. A bit masochistic, Ricardo continued his career until his 45th birthday, before becoming a TV commentator and building a large tennis centre above Malibu Beach, the beach of Hollywood billionaires. For decades, his contract with the racquet brand Spalding earned him the tidy sum of 75 000 dollars per year. But one morning he tore up his contract in Las Vegas by insulting the wife of his employer who was proving too bossy to his liking. His last wife, Rita, is the sister of Andre Agassi. A love-match not to the taste of their father, Mike, a former Iranian boxing champion who was tempted to "kill" Ricardo… The reason: at a tournament in Chicago, the Agassi senior abandoned his linesman's chair when Gonzales started to mimic to the crowd the groans of his daughter during their sexual activities. Gonzales eventually died, on the 3rd of July 1995, as he came in the world: penniless, ruined by his gambling debts. It was Andre Agassi who paid for the funeral.
By Victor Le Grand, with Julien Pichené