There is a smile on the face of the tiger, and the tiger's name is Richard (Pancho) Gonzales. Graying and scarred at 41 but far from enfeebled, he came from behind less than a fortnight ago in Madison Square Garden to beat Rod Laver, the No. 1 pro in the world, in the first $10,000 winner-take-all match of the $200,000 Tennis Champions, Inc. Classic. That victory was a triumph for nostalgia, and nostalgia supposedly can only go so far, but last Saturday night in the Detroit Olympia, Gonzales drubbed John Newcombe, the third-ranking pro in the world, for another $10,000 win that was as sure and as swift a kill as the old tiger has ever scored. After the bloodletting was done and the 6,100 fans were cheered hoarse, Gonzales just had to shake his head in wonder at his own performance and say, "I can't remember when I played this well."
It was a stunning evening, a combination of the Jets over the Colts, the Mets over the Orioles, the Chiefs over the Vikings and Muhammad Ali over Sonny Liston. As they say in show biz, you had to be there, folks. In almost every game that Newcombe served—and by the second set he was really pounding his serves in a desperate effort to break out of the trap—Gonzales forced him to deuce. And when Pancho served, he was all but flawless. Indeed, he lost only 18 points on his service in the straight three-set win. The oldtime booming service was there, and on one occasion the ball literally parted Newcombe's hair, which stood on end like that of a startled character in the comics. True, that particular ball hit a small groove in the floor, but Newcombe's expression throughout the evening was one of bewilderment. It is said in tennis that Newcombe is so tough when he is behind that you have to shoot him to win. Gonzales had no gun. Instead he used his racket like a sabertooth. Newcombe was chopped up, sliced and skewered right out in public, and there was nothing he could do about it.
For all his fierce and brooding desire to win, Gonzales is as surprised as anyone else at his successes. If he should go on winning, he will continue playing the remaining eight $10,000 matches. If he wins the semifinal and then takes the final, he stands to pocket $175,000 by late May.
All the fine details of the $200,000 classic have yet to be worked out. The tournament is the brainchild of George MacCall, a Los Angeles insurance broker and former Davis Cup captain who is the executive director of Tennis Champions, Inc., and his partner, Fred Podesta, who is president of TCI. MacCall and Podesta met 2½ years ago when the latter was handling bookings for Madison Square Garden and MacCall had just started the National Tennis League that originally had been Jack Kramer's band of touring pros.
February 9, 1970
MacCall started negotiating with Podesta and, as he says, "We got to know one another. When Fred left his job at the Garden, we thought we could cover a lot more ground being together. The basic idea of the classic has been kicked around for years, but in order for it to mean something you have to have the best players committed to it. It wouldn't mean much if we only had our group in it. To be a true test, you've got to have all the top players participating."
Accordingly, MacCall's National Tennis League, which has contracts with six of the 10 ranking pros—Laver, Rosewall, Emerson, Stolle, Gimeno and Gonzales—made a deal with a rival group, Lamar Hunt's World Championship Tennis, to allow the No. 2-, 3- and 4-ranked pros, Roche, Newcombe and Okker, to participate. MacCall says, "We have an agreement now that they provide their players for certain tournaments of ours, and we in turn provide players for certain tournaments of theirs." This agreement gives the classic the nine top pros in the world, and MacCall is optimistic that Arthur Ashe, who calls himself "an independent pro," and who is ranked 10th by the pros, will compete.
"What we have done is to package the idea," MacCall says. "We do have the best of the two pro leagues. We're not gimmicking any of the rankings, and if we had Arthur Ashe we'd have the solid 10. We arrived at a $200,000 figure and broke it down into segments. Then we further thought of carrying it out like the playoff systems in football. We know there's an appeal to 10 $10,000 matches, semifinals of $25,000 and a final win of $50,000. We're looking for what America wants, and the American public is not geared to a 10-day tournament."
MacCall vows that the schedule will be worked out, but the only certainties at this point are that Gonzales will play Emerson in Miami on Feb. 15, and whoever wins that match will play Rosewall in the Forum in Los Angeles on Feb. 28. In March there will be a $10,000 match in Sydney between the winner of the Forum match and an opponent not yet named.
MacCall admits that some of the pros might be treated unfairly by not getting a chance to win until the tag end of the matches just before the semifinals, but that is in the nature of the promotion. So, too, was the selection of Gonzales to play Laver in the first match in the Garden. To be frank, Gonzales was picked because his match against Laver figured to be a great draw in New York (14,617 turned out), and none of the other pros protested because they realized that Pancho, although ranked only ninth, was still a great star.
"I explained to the players that we had this year to build up the classic," MacCall says. "You have to lead off with your strength. The players understood all this. They've been wonderful, and they're all going to get a shot at $10,000." Actually, any money that the contract pros win in the classic is gravy. They all have basic guarantees ranging from $40,000 up to the $90,000 collected by Laver. However, if there is one thing that irks them it is the idea, already voiced by some cynics, that Gonzales is "allowed" to win because he's a draw, or that—even though the classic may be on the up and up—the prize money is split. To MacCall and the pros, this idea is a sick joke.
Speaking seriously after his loss to Gonzales, Newcombe said, "Obviously the money counts, but to a pro there is the prestige of winning. You have a personal feeling of wanting to win." The pros have run into this cynicism before, especially in Europe. A year and a half ago, Newcombe recalled, he beat Cliff Drysdale in Hamburg for the West German title on a night when he had played well and Drysdale was off his game. "A German paper ran a picture of Drysdale running to catch a plane," Newcombe said, "and the headline read: LAMAR HUNT SAID it WAS NEWCOMBE'S TURN to WIN. This really got to me because my wife is from Hamburg, and I wanted that German title."
Gonzales' arrival in Detroit early Wednesday morning started off on a discordant note. There was no advance man on the scene from TCI to make arrangements, and a couple of operatives from the Olympia had called Podesta's office in New York to report that the Hotel Pontchartrain, where Pancho wanted a room, was booked full and so instead they had made a reservation at the Sheraton-Cadillac. Guess what happened? Gonzales never got the word. At dawn he stumbled off the plane, hailed a cab and drove to the Pontchartrain. Tired and hungry, he had what is reported to have been a memorable argument with a desk clerk before finally shoving off in desperation for the Sheraton-Cadillac.
A brooding sort to begin with, Gonzales was fuming before he went to a publicity luncheon that same day. He carried off interviews there in great style, but then he absolutely refused to go on radio the next day because he had not been informed of the commitment beforehand. Instead Newcombe, who had just finished adjusting his biological clock after leaving Sydney on Tuesday, went on in his place. Up until the day of the match, Gonzales was all but unapproachable, either moodily sticking to his hotel room or practicing at the suburban Franklin Racquet Club.
On Saturday afternoon Gonzales was relatively free and easy as he worked out with Roy Emerson on the newly laid Uni-Turf court at the Olympia. Later, lighting up a scrounged cigarette in the locker room, Gonzales said, "I wouldn't say that the match format is made just for me, but it is in favor of someone like myself because I'm older. I have six, seven or eight days of preparation. I've won enough five-set matches in the past few years to give me confidence. I think the public has a tendency to write me off, but the players don't look upon me as finished. You go into a match like this with a lot more thought. You come into a city three or four days beforehand, and you set up a time schedule, play an hour or so in the morning and then later in the afternoon, and you adjust yourself. Sure, promoting a match, going on shows is important, but to me preparing for the match is more important."
A few minutes before 9 p.m. last Saturday, Newcombe and Gonzales were introduced for their match. Gonzales, announced as Mr. Tennis Himself, got a great hand. They played evenly until 3-3 in the first set, when Gonzales took Newcombe's service. Gonzales was moving the ball around with beautiful cross-court placements and drop shots, while Newcombe appeared to be having trouble just hitting it. "My idea," Gonzales said, "was to have him moving forward so he couldn't use his caressing touch and make those deft placements." Gonzales' strategy succeeded, and he took the set 6-4.
In the second set Gonzales continued to put a spin on his serves. Newcombe was frequently aced, and he seemed to have trouble seeing the ball. He could not seem to get set but appeared to be trying to respond to whatever Gonzales did, and whatever Gonzales did was masterful. His backhand was superb, and his pitty-pat drop shots drew roars from the crowd. He moved into a 3-1, then 5-3 lead and won the set easily 6-4. The third set was no contest. With Newcombe serving in the first game, the score was 30 all when he slammed a powerful serve. Gonzales returned with a forehand that roared cross-court, and Newcombe could only stand and look in wonder. Gonzales served and took a love game to move ahead 2-0. Once they exchanged drop shots, but Newcombe nudged his into the net, and in sheer exasperation he stuck his racket under his arm and clapped for himself derisively. Gonzales went ahead 3-1 after another exchange of drop shots. Newcombe came running in to make a great return, but Gonzales just teased the ball back past Newcombe who, in an act of symbolic resignation, threw his racket after it. Leading 5-2 and serving, Gonzales then made his best shots of the night. Newcombe hit a marvelous return that struck the top of the net, rolled along the edge of the tape and then appeared to crawl down the other side. Gonzales came charging in and delicately flipped the ball cross-court out of Newcombe's reach. Pancho took the set 6-2 and another $10,000.
In the locker room Newcombe spread his hands to shape an imaginary grapefruit and said, "He was seeing the ball about this big. I was never really in the match. Every time I tried to do something it didn't work." Across the room Gonzales said, "It's hard for me to believe, but for some reason my reflexes were so quick I was able to correct the shot even if I were moving in the wrong direction. I'm more tired right now than after the first match [with Laver], but it seems to be nerves. When you get a winning streak going, you're no longer the underdog. It gets exhausting and you can feel the tension. With rest and recuperation I don't see any reason why I shouldn't be able to play as well next time. It's a rhythm and I think a veteran of my caliber is able to hold on to it longer than a younger player."
Old Tiger Gonzales goes after Emerson in two weeks' time, and, as MacCall exclaimed at the end of the Newcombe match, "Now Gonzo marches on Miami!"