This week’s main event in the tennis world is the BNP Paribas Indian Wells Open. At the start, the tournament was created in 1976 by ex-player Charlie Passarell, who was the owner and organizer of the event until 2012. But not only. « Carlito », as he was nicknamed, is also famous for having faced Ricardo « Pancho » Gonzalez, 16 years older than him, in one of the longest and most tiring matches in the history of tennis. It was in 1969, in Wimbledon, when the tie-break hadn’t been invented. Let’s look back on a match where old age isn’t always a shipwreck.
It’s the story of a guy with a feline attitude, who loved casinos and women, married six times, father of eight ; the story of one of the best players in history, who played in an american rom-com, who drank Coca-Cola on his chair and who held, for long, a record. The record for the longest match played in the history of tennis. The year is 1969, on Wimbledon’s grass court, when the american player of Puerto Rican descent, Ricardo « Pancho » Gonzalez, 41, asks the umpire to stop the first round match at sunset. He’s just let the first two sets go. An accepted request. While walking out of the court, « the king of whining » as would call him Rod Laver, present in the stands on that day, is getting booed by a majority of the crowd. The only problem is, he loves it. « Ricardo was a true savage, with an incredible sensitivity, says the Australian. After a defeat, I’ve seen him seriously damage iron cupboards or break everything in the dressing room. But he played so much better when he was angry. » The next day, flushed with rage, « Pancho » finally wins it in 5h12 and with a strange score of 22-24, 1-6, 16-14, 6-3, 11-9. A total of 112 games payed against a tenacious fellow countryman. His name ? Charlie Passarell, a solid guy with a square face, 16 years younger than him, nicknamed « Carlito ». And whose youth idol is none other that his opponent.
« An old man in a wheelchair »
Obviously, nothing predestined this match to take a huge spot in the history of tennis. At the start, the match is supposed to be held on the Monday, in the third position. Due to the bad weather, it finally starts on the Tuesday, and ends on the Wednesday. On the Tuesday evening, Passarell saves 12 set balls and takes the first set with a score of 24-22. On his side, Gonzales throws his racquet, which ends a few centimeters away from a ball boy, and lets the second set go (1-6). It’s 7 p.m. The sunset is beginning. But an hour has already gone in which Gonzalez has been complaining about the lack of visibility. « There’s never enough light for him » says Laver. A few minutes later, « Pacho Gonzales » wins his case, and leaves under the boos of the crowd, « draped in his dignity and red tracksuits », carries on Rod. « You’d get the impression he hated you and he hated himself. He was ready to do anything to win a match, even intimidating umpires, players, the audience. » Too nervous to sleep, Gonzales keeps the lights on for a good chunk of the night, chain-smoking cigarettes and playing backgammon until 2 a.m with his wife.
Virtual kisses and heart-shaped fingers.
However, the next day, it’s Passarell who seems to be having a bad day. He loses the third and fourth set on two double faults. « My mistake was waking up that morning thinking I was facing an old man in a wheelchair », he would go on to confess a few years later. In the fifth, Passarell has 5 match points to win it. All saved by Gonzales, with one on a diving volley. Another one without even moving. « Charlie lobed. I started to go back to jump but my legs didn’t carry me. The lob just went out, he remembers. On a point like that, Charlie must have thought he couldn’t possibly win the match. » With an arched back, Ricardo uses his racquet as a walking stick. Too tired to follow the rhythm from the baseline, he rushes to the net on every point, and finally wins on a last mistake on one of his opponent’s return. The emotion is running high. « Pancho » is shaping hearts with his fingers and sending the crowd virtual kisses. « This time, Pancho walked out of the court with a large smile under the crowd’s cheering which lasted for almost a minute, which is considerable for a British audience », notes Rod Laver, future winner of the competition. Who doesn’t yet know that his victory will forever be outshone by what he’s just seen. « Thanks to his acting skills, I’m sure the 1969 edition of Wimbledon will be better remembered for Pancho than for me. He always finds a way to appear as the best… » Moreover, after impinging on the rest of the program, Gonzales and Passarell have played without knowing it in favor of the tie-break, which would finally be tested for the first time in professional tournament six months later, in Philadelphia. It wasn’t just the story of a guy, bot of the tie-break as well.