It was well past midnight before the players had showered and dressed, signed a few autographs, crammed their sweaty clothes into suitcases and finally were strolling through the eerie semidarkness of Madison Square Garden to the comfortable upstairs Garden Club. As Tony Trabert sat down by his mother and father and his good friend Vic Seixas, Pancho Gonzales stepped up to the bar, downed his third Coke, then asked for a vodka and tonic. His lanky 6-foot 3-inch body leaned gracefully against the counter. His brown eyes, with an occasional enchanting twinkle, took in the pleasant surroundings, and he spoke in a quiet tone. "I'm not really a drinker, you understand, but this vodka is good stuff. I'll take a couple after a long match because it relaxes me and helps me sleep better. Tonight I'm tired."
Gonzales and Trabert both had good reason to be tired last Friday night. For over two hours they had battled it out through one of the finest opening-night professional tennis matches ever seen. The play in this first of 100 matches between Pancho, the pro champion, and Tony, the U.S. and Wimbledon titleholder, reflected the exciting tension and drama that can only be present when two gifted athletes face each other in a fight-to-the-finish test of individual skill. In a sense the drama reached its climax in the very first set when Trabert's control of the net with one superb volley after another gained him not only the set 11-9 but also the respect and admiration of those in the audience who had boldly stated that this new young pro didn't belong on the same court with Gonzales.
Trabert's amazing mastery continued through the second set, and it wasn't until minor arm cramps slowed up his pace in the third that Pancho could discover his own winning touch, enabling him eventually to run out the victory in five sets. It was not an easy triumph, and Gonzales was the first to admit it. "Funny thing," he said after a long sip of vodka, "usually it's the new pro who gets the nervous jitters on opening night. Tonight it was different. I was nervous as hell and Tony was cool. He played wonderfully—better than I thought he would—and in the first two sets he was passing me as nobody has ever passed me before. My first service wasn't going well until the third set, and then, when I got it under control, I managed to win—not so much because I was playing that much better but because Tony fell into errors by trying to outguess himself."
Before Jack Kramer's world tennis circus got under way, Gonzales had been widely quoted as saying that he was clearly the game's best player. Now, as he looked across the Madison Square Garden Club's bar, smiling and happy, he was still confident—but not quite as confident. "I may not know," he admitted, "for at least six matches who is the best player. I think of myself as a great competitor, a guy who tries his best always. One match with Tony showed me he must be this kind of a guy too."
December 19, 1955
The mention of the word "competitor" stirs Pancho Gonzales to a certain passion. "If I wasn't a real competitor I might not be on this tour now. I might, for instance, be starting a career as a racing driver. Sometimes I look at the tennis court and then look at my car—a souped-up '34 Ford coupe—and suddenly all I want to do is drive races and never step on a court again. Then, just as suddenly, when I find out they're lining up a pro tennis tour, I know I'm the guy that has to play in it. When I'm home I gear myself to thinking about cars; when I hit the road on the tennis tour I change. I look across the net at the other man. It doesn't make any difference who it is—then the only thing that matters to me is that I win. That's when I like to think of myself as having a competitive spirit.
"You know what I want to do some day? I'd like to drive in the Indianapolis '500.' Driving is fascinating and dangerous. After a while I'd find it isn't as dangerous as you think if you know the car under you. Once I quit high school, where my poorest grades were in auto mechanics. Some day I may go back to school to learn more about cars. I'd love it desperately—almost as much, maybe, as tennis."
Pancho finished his vodka and went home to bed. He was tired.