Tennis players are nomads. They wander over the earth, turning up at the same place at the same time, fighting like Saracens to keep or advance their rank. There are two tribes, strictly separated—the amateur players and the professionals. They never come together in serious play, for the open tournament, long a major attraction in golf, is forbidden in tennis. The professional group is much the smaller, harder working and better paid of the two. It doesn't go to Wimbledon and the other capitals of the amateur game, but follows a route of one-night stands over six continents. Usually it boasts the best tennis player in the world. It does so right now: Richard Alonzo Gonzales, the 6-foot 3-inch Californian.
This is an article from the March 18, 1957 issue
On a recent Thursday afternoon Pancho Gonzales drove up to the Pan Pacific Auditorium in Los Angeles in a 1949 Ford. The current professional tour had reached town the day before, and there was time for rest and workouts before the matches on Friday and Saturday nights. Besides Gonzales, the group includes Ken Rosewall, the challenger; Jack Kramer, the promoter; Pancho Segura; and Dinny Pails. Rosewall and Pails are Australians, but for all the other members of the troupe Los Angeles is a doubly welcome stop because it is home.
With Gonzales in the Ford was his youngest son, Danny, who is 5. (The other children, Richard, 8, and Manuel, 7, were in school.) Gonzales dressed and began a workout with Dinny Pails playing opposite him and with Danny as the ball boy. The canvas tennis court was stretched over a wooden floor. Danny, trotting around the court in a small boy's flat-footed way and busily picking up balls, made a clatter that filled the auditorium. Gonzales reluctantly sidelined him, and the practice went on.
After an interval a small, perfectly clear voice came from a row high up in the shadows: "Daddy, am I going to be the ball boy any more?"
"Not right now," said Gonzales. "You make too much noise on the boards."
The workout continued. Presently Gonzales called his son down from the top row and handed him a can which had contained tennis balls.
"Go and find the man and ask him if you can please have some ice water in this."
In five minutes Danny reappeared, walking very carefully, trying not to spill the water.
Mrs. Segura and Mrs. Rosewall came in and sat down together in a box.
"Go and say hello to Wilma and Virginia," said Gonzales. Danny trotted over. Dinny Pails, now on the sidelines, introduced him to Mrs. Rosewall. He shook hands. Mrs. Segura was obviously an old friend.
The workout continued: now Gonzales and Segura.
"Daddy," said the small voice, again audible throughout the huge auditorium, "Mr. Pails says if I took my shoes off I wouldn't make any noise. Then could I be ball boy again?"
"Yes," said Daddy, and in a moment Danny was racing down the sidelines, making hardly a sound.
"They come and climb on our bed in the morning," said Pancho a few minutes later, dripping sweat. "And I ask them, 'Did you brush your teeth?' and they say, 'Yeah.'
"Then I say, 'What?' and they say, 'Yes Sir!' "
Pancho Gonzales is far better known as an athlete and individualist than as a father and disciplinarian. Now 28, he has nine years of prime tennis experience to add to the best physical equipment nature can give a man in his profession. His reach and stride and speed are phenomenal. Training, for him, is not so much a matter of doing things that are good, but of ceasing to do things that are bad. "If I lose a few matches, I stop smoking, go to bed early and pay more attention to what I eat. In a few days I'm all right again."
But built into the remarkable athlete's body is a happy-go-lucky disposition which is both a curse and a blessing. His extra-casual view of life and tennis can put him two sets down in a crucial match and then—often but not always—save him by allowing him to win the next three. It has made his career a zigzag affair of boom and bust rather than the short, smooth ride that is common in tennis. Twice already, and for a total of six years, Gonzales has marked time as a has-been.
It was only by accident—an automobile-scooter accident—that he became a tennis player at all. His father, Manuel Gonzales, is a house painter in Los Angeles. His mother is a seamstress. They came to Los Angeles from Chihuahua, Mexico and Richard was born there in 1928, the first child of a series that eventually totaled seven.
Richard's childhood and the Depression coincided exactly. His parents struggled to keep their family clothed and fed; he did not grow up in a tennis-playing environment. When he was 7 years old he built a scooter of two-by-fours and roller-skate wheels and pushed it happily into the street—straight into the side of a passing police car whose door handle pierced his left cheek and laid it open (as Manuel Gonzales described it to his wife) "like a flower."
The boy recovered quickly from the accident and forgot it, but his mother did not. She liked to keep her children near her, where she felt they were safer than on the streets and playgrounds. By the time Richard was 12 it was clear that he was a born athlete, and clear, too, that he couldn't be kept in the house and yard forever. His mother gave him a cheap tennis racket for Christmas and hoped for the best. She had never played tennis, but had seen it played; it was obviously safer than football. Then, too, it was a game acceptable in good society, and Mrs. Gonzales wanted the best for her children.
Nobody ever gave Richard Gonzales a tennis lesson, then or later. He did most things correctly on a tennis court from the beginning, by instinct. Chuck Pate, a boy he met at school, was able to point out faults and tell him how to correct them. "He was the only one that ever did," says Gonzales. He also gave Richard the nickname Pancho. (Pate himself is not sure that he did, but Gonzales' mother is certain. "One day a boy came to the house," she recalls, "and said, 'Mrs. Gonzales, where is Pancho?' I said, 'I have no child named Pancho.' ")
Those nearest Gonzales dislike the nickname and call him Richard, but he doesn't object to it. He even signs autographs "Pancho Gonzales."
Chuck Pate was one of the first to experience Gonzales' big serve, a phenomenon which brings gasps from any gallery that sees it and brings victory more dependably than any other part of his game. "Even as a kid," says Pate, "he had a bigger serve than the other kids. It just grew up with him."
For a time Pancho looked on tennis as "a sissy game." But he won so consistently that it was hard to resist. Eventually, as all promising youngsters in southern California do, he came to the attention of Perry Jones, the secretary of the Southern California Tennis Association and manager of its tournaments. "He was probably," said Jones the other day, "the most natural athlete I have seen in 33 years at the Los Angeles Tennis Club."
But the natural athlete was not a natural scholar, and presently Jones banned him from tournament play because he quit going to school. "So," says Jones, "from age 15 to age 18—those very important years for a tennis player—Gonzales was out and did not get to play against his good contemporaries." Many people said that Jones barred Gonzales because of his Mexican parentage. Both Jones and Gonzales say that this was not true.
The truant spent his time on the tennis courts of Exposition Park in Los Angeles and in the hamburger stands and tennis shops nearby. Idling about there, playing first-rate tennis, he was already a has-been without ever having been. Then he spent 15 months in the Navy, whose discipline suited him no better than that of the classroom. Discharged in January 1947, he went home and faced still another kind of authority. "Go to school," said Manuel Gonzales, "or go to work; or leave my house." Pancho left home.
He had no place to go, of course, but the Exposition tennis courts; and there he went. For several weeks he slept on a sofa in a one-room tennis shop and took his meals in a hamburger stand. Frank Poulain, the owner of both establishments (and a tennis enthusiast), let Gonzales earn his room and board, such as they were, by odd jobs. Then his parents allowed him to come home, finally convinced that the talent and future of their first-born lay in tennis.
FROM BUST TO BOOM
Perry Jones let him come home, too—to the tournaments of the Southern California Tennis Association. Gonzales was 19, beyond the no-school-no-play age. "The question arose," said Jones, " 'Should we let him play now?' There were some on our board who felt, 'No, we should not.' What happened was that I decided he should be allowed to play, and so he was.
"In the southern California championships that year, he and Herbie Flam played in court No. 4. They brought some pressure to bear on me to put that match on in the center court. But I took the attitude, 'Why glorify this boy right away?' "
With many spectators ignoring the center court to watch the young legend from the public parks, Gonzales glorified himself by defeating Flam, the recent national junior champion. The bust was over; the boom was on. Soon the whole tennis world knew of him.
Gonzales has been called lazy, stubborn, snobbish, childish and rude. All of the epithets derive from one central fact about him: he will not do what he doesn't like doing. Few men nowadays can take such a view of life, but Gonzales' special gifts allow him to do so and make it stick—with setbacks. He won't practice strokes by himself. He wouldn't go to school. He won't train, or work at a disagreeable job, or pay any attention to the side of tennis that involves cocktails and polite chatter. Many a hostess has smiled with gritted teeth because the cornerstone and lodestar of her tennis party—the champion—was missing. He is not missing because he feels uncomfortable at such affairs. He always seems to feel more comfortable than anyone else, showing a composure that is probably linked to his physical coordination and grace; but he just doesn't like such functions.
Parties bore him, but food does not. Gonzales likes baked potatoes with his steaks and sour cream on the potatoes. He likes beer, and tacos, and fried beans, and waffles with ice cream, and tortillas made with flour. Nowadays, prudence and the rigors of professional touring help keep him at his best playing weight, between 180 and 183 pounds. But in his amateur days neither prudence nor self-denial was prominent in his makeup, and he sometimes weighed as much as 206.
Backed by Perry Jones and the Southern California Tennis Association, he collected tournament experience in the summers of 1947 and 1948. He took time out to elope to Yuma with a pretty 18-year-old girl named Henrietta Pedrin. Often he clipped off a high-ranking player, and often an unranked one clipped him. "In those days," he says now, "the excitement of being involved in tennis—traveling and meeting people and things like that—seemed more important than winning." He went to Forest Hills for the 1948 Nationals as No. 17 in the U.S. Lawn Tennis Association's national rankings and was the last—eighth—of the Americans seeded in the tournament. He defeated the top-seeded Frank Parker in the quarter finals, Jaroslav Drobny in the semifinals, and Eric Sturgess in the final. Sixteen months after Perry Jones had readmitted him to organized tennis, he was the national champion.
"After I won," Gonzales recalls, "I phoned Perry Jones in Los Angeles and said I'd start home the next day by car. He said, 'You're flying home tomorrow.' I did, and a week later I lost to Ted Schroeder in the Pacific Southwest tournament. I just quit playing then—I lost so many tournaments in the next three months they called me the cheese champion." The USLTA moved him up from No. 17 to No. 1—and the champ went right on losing.
In April 1949 he managed to win the indoor singles championship despite 13 pounds of overweight. Sweating off the extra pounds in the heat of July, he won the national clay court championship in Chicago. This gave him two of the country's four major titles. The hard-court championship was out of reach—Schroeder had already won it—but there remained the Nationals.
And there remained Ted Schroeder. He had won the National Singles title in 1942 and had passed it up thereafter. People argued that if Schroeder had played at Forest Hills in 1948, Gonzales would never have won: again and again, both before and after Gonzales became national champion, Ted Schroeder had beaten him. Now the question was to be settled: both were entered at Forest Hills.
They met in the finals. Five times Gonzales was within a point of winning the first set—and he lost it 16-18. He lost the second set 2-6, badly outplayed. Defeat would confirm him as a cheese champion, mark him as a flashy upstart without discipline or control, put the biggest dent of all in his career. In the stands Henrietta Gonzales was in tears. Then Pancho won the third set 6-1. There was a 10-minute break. He drew even with the fourth set, 6-2. Then, double-faulting in the very last game, coming up from 30-40, he pulled out the final set 6-4 and kept his championship.
A week later, in California, he defeated Schroeder again, this time in the Pacific Southwest tournament where Schroeder had beaten him the year before. Then he turned professional.
He entered a strange new world. The pro tennis player lives a mixed-up life. He is celebrity, roustabout and strolling player, all in one. He may find himself being presented to royalty one evening and fixing a flat in the rain the next. He is highly paid, yet often poorly fed because no good restaurant is near. Sometimes he is called on to drive all night and then to play tennis as if he had slept all night. In the pro world there is room for the top man and the three or four nearest the top. All the rest, except for an occasional tournament, are unemployed.
Jack Kramer was the top man that Pancho faced. Gonzales was 21; he was the father of one child and his wife was expecting another. He looked forward to earning some $80,000 as he defeated Jack Kramer. He earned the money all right, but lost to Kramer by the appalling score of 96 matches to 27.
"I was lying on the grass in the yard," recalls his old school friend Chuck Pate, "when he walked up, just back from that tour. I was mad. I said, 'What do you mean, boy, letting him beat you like that?' He said, 'Oh, well, I made about the same money losing as I'd have made winning.' "
But he made no money at all on the 1951 tour—there was no room on it for last year's unsuccessful challenger. Kramer looked around for new competition and Gonzales entered his second stretch as a has-been. He did not emerge from it completely and officially until he defeated Tony Trabert in 1956.
As he had done in an earlier banishment, he spent a lot of time at the Exposition Park tennis courts. There is something about the place that seems to attract and comfort Gonzales. In some curious way it is home. It may be simply that he has put in so many hours playing tennis there, or it may be the atmosphere of the place itself. There are grass and trees, sun and games. Everything is dwarfed by the huge, gray, empty Los Angeles Coliseum. In the side streets children wash and repair their cars. And clumped around the Hoover Street entrance to the park are a series of casually constructed hamburger stands, tennis shops and frozen custard parlors. The total effect is of a subdued and dreamlike carnival, one that will go on forever.
At one time Gonzales took over Frank Poulain's tennis shop—the one he had slept in—and ran it for a year. But he lacked the shopkeeper's temperament, and (according to some reports) he was not even a good racket stringer. It was an epoch of confusion, discovery, trial and error. Gonzales made some minor tours; he and his wife separated for a time; he and his brother Ralph discovered hot rods and drag racing. And, of course, he played tennis.
In 1954 Kramer, by then the promoter of the tour rather than its star, signed Gonzales for a round robin series with Pancho Segura, Frank Sedgman and others. Gonzales won it. A better chance came in 1955: the Australian stars Lew Hoad and Ken Rosewall, who had agreed to turn pro and play against the brand-new professional, Tony Trabert, decided not to do so after all. Eventually Kramer signed Gonzales to oppose Trabert. Gonzales' guarantee was $15,000. Trabert's was $75,000.
There was nothing happy-go-lucky about the way Gonzales went after Tony Trabert. His speed was as great as ever, and his control as sure; he was lean and hungry after a long stretch out of the limelight and out of the money. He found no satisfaction in contemplating the difference between his pay and that of Trabert, the recent amateur champion. Neither of the two felt any burning friendship for the other. The tour ended with Gonzales the victor, 74 matches to 27, and Trabert not only the loser but the victim—of Gonzales' serve, his lean years, his knife-edged self-assurance and his skill. Not just in fact, but by the record, Pancho was now the best tennis player in the world.
The self-assurance is genuine, like the skill, and Gonzales knows how to use it. "If you think the other guy may beat you, then he has a better chance to do it. But if you think you'll win, and let him know you think so, then it helps you. You have to use a little psychology." He uses it on the gallery, too, inviting hecklers to come down and take his place. "So far nobody has." And he has been known to go through the motions of removing a pair of imaginary glasses from his own nose and offering them to a linesman who has just made a call he disagreed with.
ONE SET OF MANNERS
Gonzales likes snooker, hot rod racing, bowling and poker. His favorite spot for snooker and bowling is the 20th Century Recreation Club, a one-story institution of yellow stucco and neon tubes on Western Avenue in Los Angeles. It has 12 bowling alleys, six pool tables, a lunch counter and a "cocktail lounge" whose lights are dimmed to a midnight blue even at one o'clock in the afternoon. "That's where I go to see my friends," he says, "when I'm in Los Angeles." The 20th Century Recreation Club is a world removed from Forest Hills. But Gonzales has brought the same set of manners—excellent manners—to both places.
Ken Rosewall, the present challenger, is a 22-year-old who won the National Singles championship of the United States last year and turned pro in December after helping defend the Davis Cup for his native Australia. Rosewall is 5 feet 6 inches tall to Gonzales' 6 feet 3. He is popular with the crowds because he is the smaller, because he still looks like a schoolboy and because he plays not only with skill, but with a spunky underdoggedness that never quits.
Unless the cyst in his right hand gives Gonzales new trouble, there is little doubt that he will win the present 100-match series. He leads by a wide margin already. But that does not lessen the pleasure of watching the two experts play. Rosewall reacts with flash-bulb speed. His ground strokes are classic, and he does a remarkable job—far better than Trabert—of returning the big serve.
The 1949 Ford which Gonzales drove to his Los Angeles workouts that recent Thursday was blue with black spots; it badly needed paint. But it was freshly upholstered in the best black leather with white trim. All the chrome parts had been replated, and they glittered. Under the hood was a Cadillac engine with balanced pistons, four carburetors and a special cam. "All it needs now is a paint job," said Pancho. "I have spent $3,000 on it, and it's better than new." It was his current hot rod.
After his Friday workout Gonzales put the Ford-Cadillac through a few acceleration runs on the long parking strip in front of the Pan Pacific Auditorium. Then, on the same improvised track, he held a drag race with a friend in a rather battered Cadillac and beat him decisively. That night, with Henrietta Gonzales and several guests looking on, Pancho lost to Rosewall 6-4, 6-3.
The following night he appeared at the auditorium after the preliminary match (between Segura and Pails) was well under way. He wandered out to a refreshment stand and, in rattling Spanish, asked for coffee. The countermen greeted him as a friend. He bought a pack of cigarets from a machine and lit one, and then, smoking his cigaret and drinking his coffee, strolled back to the brightly lit dressing room.
"Where are my tennis shoes?" he asked. "I left them here last night." Someone was dispatched through the evening traffic to obtain a pair of tennis shoes and bring them to the auditorium. The preliminary match, a one-set affair, went into extra games. When the brand-new shoes were brought, everybody tried to help Gonzales get ready and so end the delay. Among the helpers was Ted Schroeder, Gonzales' old nemesis, who was to umpire the main event. He was putting the laces into one of the new shoes. "I never thought I'd see the day," said Schroeder, wagging his head in mock sorrow, "when I'd be lacing Gonzales' shoes." That night Pancho won 6-4, 8-6.
To the question, "What is the best thing about being a celebrity?" Gonzales replies, "The money." The current tour may bring him $100,000; he will soon be in a position to retire. But first he would like to defeat Lew Hoad, the young Australian who is now out of reach because he is an amateur.
"I could have a cocktail lounge," says Pancho, talking of the future. "Or I could be a tennis instructor. I average 180 at bowling and I could turn pro." But there are even better things in life than these. Gonzales thinks seriously of owning a garage and machine shop equipped not only for work on standard cars, but for turning old heaps into good hot rods. In his pre-truancy days, he showed a gift in high school for mathematics and mechanics. Being himself souped-up by nature for high performance, he responds to the same quality in engines. He would like to drive in the Indianapolis "500." He has never been in an Indianapolis-type car, but "I have read a lot about them," he says. "I think I could do it."
"Pancho is conservative," says Perry Jones. "He always has been." And he goes on to explain that by "conservative" he means well-behaved.
"His powers of concentration are not what I'd call those of a champion," says his old friend and doubles partner Pancho Segura. "He goes into lapses. He can still improve a lot, but I can't. I'm already doing my best."
"When he runs his car through the drag strip at a hundred miles an hour," says Henrietta Gonzales, "he has the widest grin—just like a little boy."
"He just had it," says Chuck Pate, now a Los Angeles truck driver and still a friend of Pancho. "He always had it."
"My timing?" said Ken Rosewall to a reporter, after losing a match to Gonzales. "I had no time for timing."
"When Richard was a little boy," says Mrs. Manuel Gonzales, a tall, perfectly groomed woman still in her 40s, "we were poor, but we were proud. I'm still proud."