Pancho Gonzales is supposed to be in the twilight of his career, but somehow the sun never quite sets. Someday, of course, he will be just another old tennis player, ready for the veterans singles and some social doubles, and then he will reluctantly retire for good to his Southern California tennis camp and pass on the accumulated knowledge of more than two decades to another generation of players. But that time is not now. Like a flame that burns brightest moments before it is extinguished, Gonzales, through the sheer magnificence of his irascible personality and the re-emergence of skills supposedly lost for good, last week put on an exhibition that rocked the 100-year-old foundations of the All England Club at Wimbledon to its hoary, tradition-bound core.
It was not of any real significance that on Saturday, in the fourth round of the championships, Gonzales lost in four relatively easy sets to America's No. 1 player, Arthur Ashe, or that the day before he had beaten Tom Edlefsen of the United States, or that the day before that he had disposed of Sweden's Ove Bengtsson. What mattered was that in a first-round match that began under gloomy, leaden skies late Tuesday and ended in brilliant sunshine late Wednesday, Gonzales—for years the best tennis player in the world but never the champion of Wimbledon—had fought and clawed and finally beaten America's Charlie Pasarell, and had become, for this tournament at least, the hero of center court. The final score was 22-24, 1-6, 16-14, 6-3, 11-9. The first set equaled the longest in Wimbledon singles history; the 112 games played and the five hours, 20 minutes it took to play them both exceeded the totals posted by Jaroslav Drobny and Budge Patty in 1953, who played 93 games in a mere four hours, 20 minutes. Those are the barest facts.
Gonzales is 41 years and two months old. He had played at Wimbledon only twice previously. In 1949 (the year he turned professional at 21), he came as an amateur but never got past the singles round of 16. Last year, with open tennis a reality, he joined George MacCall's National Tennis League and made the full circuit. He reached the semifinals of the French Open, but the grueling schedule of the tournament that immediately precedes Wimbledon was too much for his grandfatherly legs. He lost in the third round to Alex Metreveli of Russia, and looked bad doing it. His reflexes seemed to be gone, he staggered after shots, and if he got to them at all he mis-hit as many as he hit well. He was, in short, overtennised.
This year he geared everything toward Wimbledon. He did not play a tournament for nearly two months before the championships but instead stayed at his California camp and worked himself into physical shape against the score of good juniors and semi-retired professionals in the area, without subjecting himself to the mental rigors of competitive play. By Wimbledon he was ready, physically and mentally.
July 6, 1969
Pasarell, ranked No. 1 in the U.S. last year and No. 7 this season, was hardly a stranger to the pressures of center court. In 1967 he had met and defeated Manuel Santana, then the defending champion, in the first round in four sets, and last year he carried second-seeded Ken Rosewall to five sets before losing in what was probably the most artistically sound match of the championships. This year, at 25, his career is at a crossroads, and he probably had more on the line than did Gonzales himself. After all, Pancho had proved his worth as a tennis player before Pasarell had ever picked up a racket. Gonzales was seeded 12th. Pasarell was unseeded, but there is usually a first-round upset at Wimbledon, and if there was going to be one this year, then Pararell was the most likely candidate to provide it.
When the match began, at 6 p.m. Tuesday after an all-day rain had washed out Monday's opening schedule, there was no clear-cut favorite, but as the first set moved on to its record-tying end, the crowd slowly moved to Gonzales, with the same sort of nostalgic warmth and appreciation for talent bursting to bloom that one might feel seeing Ben Hogan break 70 at Augusta National. (Somebody once asked Bill Tilden, when Tilden was about Gonzales' age, what the difference was between playing at 40 and playing in his prime. Tilden answered, "In my prime when I woke up in the morning I knew I was going to play good tennis. Now I'm not sure." It must be the same with Gonzales.)
Pasarell's strategy was simply to chip his returns of service at Gonzales' feet—forcing Gonzales to provide his own pace—and then to lob over his head. "I had been working on my job for two weeks before I ever knew I was playing Pancho," Charlie said. "When I saw the draw I said to myself, 'Great. This is just what I want.' "
The strategy was sound, but Pasarell's lobbing was not, and that, plus Gonzales' fine overhead, kept the match even until the 46th game, when Pasarell finally got the service break he needed to win the set.
By then it was nearly 8 p.m. The light was deteriorating rapidly, and Gonzales, who has said many times that his eyes are failing as much as his legs, did not want to continue play. He appealed to Referee Mike Gibson three times to stop the match, and three times Gibson turned him down. During the second set he threw what can only be called a tantrum. He cursed the darkness and raged at the umpire and merely went through the motions as Pasarell won the set with the loss of one game. Gibson finally stopped play, and after hurling his racket viciously into the base of the umpire's chair, Gonzales left the court in a fury, accompanied by boos from a small portion of the center-court audience, which appreciates good manners nearly as much as it appreciates good tennis.
That night Pasarell had a late dinner and a good sleep. Gonzales stayed up until 2 a.m. and cooled off by playing backgammon with Madelyn Gonzales, his former wife whom he will soon re-marry.
The next day, after Pancho had warmed up for an hour at the nearby Queen's Club and after Mrs. Billie Jean King, the women's defending champion, had won the traditional ladies' day opening match, Gonzales and Pasarell resumed play. There were two remarkable aspects to the rest of the match. The first was the excellent play of Gonzales, the second was the continued excellence of the contest throughout the five sets. The only time either player faltered was when Pasarell, who had broken the strings in his two favorite rackets, lost his service (after holding it 40 times in a row) at 14—all. Gonzales held for the set. At 3-4 in the fourth set Pasarell double-faulted on game point to give Gonzales the break he needed to even the match.
As they entered the deciding set, the players' box at center court was filled to overflowing, 15,500 fans either sat or stood in the stadium itself and, from the field courts nearby, the rest of the Wednesday crowd of 31,357 followed the progress of the match on the electric scoreboard outside the center-court stadium. As a point was won or lost, those inside registered their emotion and, like an echo, the crowd outside would do the same seconds later when the score was flashed.
The longer the match went on, the more it appeared certain that the balance had to swing to Pasarell. "There was no way I could lose," he said. Finally the balance did swing. In the 10th game, with the score 4-5, Gonzales dropped three points to fall behind 0-40. He faced three match points. "I thought it was all over," he said later. "Instinct must have carried me through."
Instinct or whatever, Gonzales forced Pasarell into three errors to deuce the game, and finally he held. At 5-6 Gonzales again lost the first three points on his service and again faced defeat three times. The first was settled by a Gonzales overhead. On the second Pasarell broke off a hard, thrusting backhand down the line. Instinct: Gonzales was there and tapped a stop volley cross-court. "It's my favorite shot," he said. "It may have looked great to the crowd, but it was bread and butter to me." Then Pasarell hit over the baseline on a backhand return of a hard, twisting service, and the game was deuced. Again Pancho won it.
At 7-8 Pasarell reached match point for the seventh time, but a lob missed. Gonzales, nervously brushing the sweat from his face and running his fingers through his graying hair, could not afford emotion even then. Seven times his talent and his instinct and the defiant courage of a street fighter had taken him from the precipice.
Clark Graebner, who watched the match, said, "Gonzales showed more guts than any other player in the tournament on those points. I didn't know who to root for. I've known Pancho a long time and Charlie's a good friend. I guess on one of those points I wanted Charlie to hit a winner, but I wanted Pancho to serve well, to go out with class."
By then, though, it was not a matter of class at all. Both players had established theirs long ago in the match, and they knew the full worth of what they had done. The proof of that came at the end. Gonzales finally got the service break he needed in the 19th game and, goading his tired body to one more effort, he went to serve, finally, for the match. In the last game he forced a re-turn-of-service error, put away an overhand, volleyed a backhand for a winner and, on match point, watched as Pasarell, true to his game plan to the end, lofted a lob just beyond the baseline.
Gonzales was not euphoric, Pasarell was not saddened. Gonzales' shoulders sagged a little, falling finally under the cumulative weariness of the two days, and he and Pasarell walked to the net and embraced. The center-court fans—including, in rare tribute, the other players who were watching—gave them the kind of standing ovation unknown to Wimbledon since before the war.
To say that the match was one of the best Gonzales had ever played is unfair to tennis and unfair to Gonzales. His best tennis was played between 1950 and 1960, mostly before small crowds in the small towns that made up the bulk of the stops by the professional traveling circus of that era, when he took on the likes of Tony Trabert and Kenny Rosewall and Lew Hoad and hammered them all into despondency. In those years it was cause for alarm when Gonzales lost his service, let alone a match, and though many fought him well, few succeeded, even for a short time. For pure drama, however, the Pasarell victory must rank among the top three of Gonzales' career. In 1949 he trailed Ted Schroeder two sets to love in the finals of the U.S. national singles at Forest Hills before he rallied to win, and in 1964, in the midst of a comeback at the age of 36, he defeated Rosewall in a tournament in White Plains, N.Y., again after losing the first two sets.
Gonzales' subsequent victories at Wimbledon over Bengtsson and Edlefsen were easily anticipated and easily achieved, and his loss to Ashe, who simply overwhelmed him with a fine service and punishing returns of service, was also expected, and Gonzales was not dismayed. When he left center court after the loss to Ashe, he bowed to the Duke of Kent and his Duchess in the royal box. Then, accompanied by Ashe, he went to the dressing room. He burst through the door, smiling, and announced, "All right, you guys—watch out. I'm getting ready for Forest Hills."
The light still burns brightly.