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By Richard Pagliaro | Friday, August 2, 2019

Pancho Gonzales

"The great champions were always vicious competitors," said Richard Pancho Gonzales. "You never lose respect for a man who is a vicious competitor and you never hate a man you respect.”

Photo credit: International Tennis Hall of Fame

Richard Alonzo "Pancho" Gonzales was a force of nature on court capable of creating a tennis tempest every time he stepped on court. 

Richard Gonzales, Jr., Pancho Gonzales' son and doubles partner, recalls the frenzy his father created when the pair played the 1971 US Open doubles at Forest Hills.

Watch: Air Kyrgios In Washington, D.C. 

"When we were playing in the US Open doubles Rod Laver was playing on center court, we were on the grandstand court at Forest Hills," Richard Gonzales, Jr. told Tennis Now. "There were fans everywhere: people hanging off trees, people peaking underneath the backdrop, cramming into every space. There were people everywhere to see him. It scared the shit out of me. I was so goddamn nervous I couldn’t see straight."

Pancho Gonzales remains one of the most magnetic, menacing and misunderstood champions in the history of the sport. He holds a record that will likely never be broken: Gonzales remains the only champion inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame while he was still an active player.

Widely regarded as one of the most gifted and natural champions, Gonzales grew from a self-taught public parks player at Los Angeles' Exposition Park into a tennis goliath. A man who challenged and conquered Grand Slam champions and Hall of Famers across an epic career that spanned more four decades and saw him win the 1948 U.S. National Championships at age 20 and beat many of the world's best players, including Rod Laver and Jimmy Connors, into his 40s. 

Wielding a wood racquet his mother bought him for 50 cents from an L.A. department store when he was 12 years old, the son of Mexican immigrants never took a formal tennis lesson in his life. Yet he was such a genius he grew from humble beginnings at Exposition Park into one of the world’s most recognized and respected athletes and a true tennis pioneer.

“My uncle was a very tough man, but also kind in many ways to family, friends and many others, albeit mostly secretly,” said Greg Gonzalez, who recently retired as a CPA, and now serves as Director of the Richard “Pancho” Gonzales Youth Foundation. It offers after-school educational and summer programs as well as tennis instruction to youth.

The 6'2" Gonzalez played an all-court, attacking game predicated on a booming serve and blistering intensity.

In 1948, a 20-year-old Gonzales captured the U.S. National Championships (now the US Open).

A year later, a defiant Gonzales made history becoming the first man to fight back from a two-set deficit to win the U.S. National Championships final with a gripping 16–18, 2–6, 6–1, 6–2, 6–4 victory over Ted Schroeder to successfully defend his title.

A fierce fighter, Gonzales remains the only man in U.S. National Championships/US Open history to roar back from a two-set deficit and triumph in the final.

Raging intensity made Gonzales matches masterpiece theater—a confrontational collision of athleticism, aggression, an audacious shot-making..

“We hoped he wouldn’t get upset—it just made him tougher,” Rod Laver once told ATP of Gonzales.

Indeed, indignation was the inspirational fuel that fired Gonzales’ game to higher levels.

There was reason for rage.

In his memoir, “Little Pancho”, Pancho Segura, Gonzales’ long-time friend and opponent, told author Caroline Seebohm about the bigotry the pair faced touring the United States in the 1950s during some of the wild and adventurous pro tours. Segura recounted an irate Gonzales brawling against a group of Texans who taunted him as “a spineless yellow-skinned wetback” after the pair were denied service in a diner.

“Gonzales could not take this. Within seconds they were fighting viciously,” Segura recalls. “Gonzales was hit hard and fell to the ground. ‘Get my gun,’ he yelled. ‘It’s in the car!’ “

"In those days Mexicans weren't too welcome in Texas,” Segura said later. “We had to keep him from fighting. He had no fear. He'd challenge anybody."

Approaching the 70th anniversary of his father's epic U.S. National Championships comeback, we caught up with Richard Gonzales, Jr., Pancho Gonzales' oldest child and former doubles partner, in Fresno, California for this interview in which he discusses his father's intensity, longevity, legacy and the champion who most reminds him of the great Gonzales.

Together, the pair won two national father and son championships. Richard Gonzales,Jr.,  who was assistant director of tennis for Caesar's World at Las Vegas' Caesar's Palace, still coaches in California these days.

Tennis Now: What was the key to your father’s longevity? How was he able to come back so many times after being written off?

Richard Gonzales: He enjoyed winning. He hated to lose. I think that the key to his longevity was he had a desire. He had a deep desire to go out there every time and do the best he could on every point he played.

It had really nothing to do about coming back. It was always there. He was always there. He just wasn’t the “chosen one” for some of the pro tours. But he always believed in himself. In his mind, it was just a matter of getting back on the pro circuit and showing what he could do.

TN: Is there any pro today who reminds you of your father either in style of play or his sheer intensity and competitiveness?

Richard Gonzales: Rafael Nadal reminds me of dad in terms of his determination and attitude. Nadal’s desire to play every point as hard as he can that reminds me of dad. He’s playing every point like it’s his last point.

You could see a little bit of my dad in Jimmy (Connors) in terms of the focus and intensity, but not the joking around Jimmy did sometimes.

In terms of style of play, no one really reminds me of him in today’s game because he was an attacking player. He was at his best and most comfortable at net. He’d attack your serve too, take the return early and come in behind it to pressure you. There aren’t many players who serve-and-volley or use the whole court like he did.

I see his style a bit in Federer’s style, but Federer is just too nice a guy—it’s not the same temperament. I don’t see anyone that really plays in that fashion. Boris Becker played like him and Pete Sampras’s style was somewhat similar.

He was very intense—even more so when he got down in a match because he was determined to come back. If he saw some of today’s players getting into negative positions when they’re down, he’d want to reach through the TV and grab them and kick them in the ass.

TN: When you look at the expanse of his career, it’s mind blowing. He played everyone from Bill Tilden to Don Budge to Jack Kramer to Lew Hoad to Ken Rosewall to Rod Laver to Arthur Ashe to Jimmy Connors with whom he won an ATP doubles title well into his 40s. He also played doubles with a lot of different partners. You played doubles with your father. What was it like playing with him?

Richard Gonzales: It was miserable playing with him. He was a pain in the ass. He was so determined to win. Not everybody had the same desire as he did. But he was just adamant about how to do it. If he had a situation where you were behind in a match, really you had to find a way to turn it around. You had to win.

He was very difficult to deal with on court. I’ve seen Andres Gimeno walk off the court during the match—before the match ended. Gimeno couldn’t deal with his controlling attitude. He was trying to do the right thing, but if you made mistakes, he let you know about it. And Jimmy, when he played with dad, Jimmy said: “Just have the attitude to sit back and listen. Because when I walked out on the court with him, I knew who the boss was and that was him.” So you listened and learned and that was basically how you played with him.

TN: He played—and beat—the best of the best from so many eras. Which rival did he regard as the best player he ever faced?

Richard Gonzales: Hoad. Lew Hoad was the best player he ever played against. I think in the early stages of their pro tour, Hoad was up quite a few matches he had beaten dad quite a few times. And dad was having some trouble with his hand at that time. But he basically said he thought Hoad was the best player he had ever played against. He had to adjust to Hoad and then dad took over sometime around the middle of their tour. He viewed Hoad as the best he faced.

He would say the most important thing is execution: you can’t go out and think about beating someone if you can’t execute. Dad believed an attacking player can be a percentage player. His attitude was hit the shot that was gonna be most effective and don’t make mistakes. It was a misconception that his style was high-risk—either you’re good at that attacking style or you’re not. That’s how he was most comfortable playing.

Lew Hoad was even more of a high-percentage attacking player than dad. His idea was to come into net but hit deep approaches and keep your opponent in defensive positions. So dad could play the angle shots and drop shots and volleys to open up the court.

Of course, when he played Budge and (Ellsworth) Vines they were past their peak in terms of their ability and their age. Playing with Budge, dad was pretty young. One of his fondest memories was being able to practice with Budge.

TN: What’s the biggest myth or misconception about your father?

Richard Gonzales: The things about his diet and training people used to say. More than anything was when they used to say he only ate beans and tacos. There’s nothing wrong with beans and tacos, but there was a lot said about his diet and training that was wrong.

They weren’t around him when he trained. When he was younger, all of his training was on the court. As he got older, he was disciplined in training and he was very good about his diet when he trained. I think he would have told you that the level of athletic ability he sustained into such an old age—in terms of his staying power and beating the best players into his 40s—was largely because of his training, diet and the mental part of the game, which he had naturally.

He had an amazing desire to win every point he played. He was that way about pretty much everything he did in life until the day he passed away. If we were all walking up the street right now, he’d want to be first to the end of the block. He just had that desire in him in all he did.

TN: From what I was told, his mother was very supportive of him and his tennis, while his father was not. Is that accurate? What did the family think of his tennis career and his success?

Richard Gonzales: His mother was always proud of him. When dad was a teenager, his dad felt he should go out and get a job and contribute to the family. I don’t think his father understood dad’s deep love of the game.

I don’t know that he had in mind what was about to happen would happen. How could you? I don’t think his father felt the game the way his mother did. Our family is proud of him.

Dad was the oldest child in the family. To his sisters and brothers, he was a hero in some form. To his family, and especially to us, his children, he was too. He was a good provider. He always seemed to do the right thing or try to, but when it comes to a few things you can’t control everything in your life. He was able to get through his life okay. He was a unique person, but he also experienced things millions and millions of people experience in terms of his personal life.

Dad was a human being—he wasn’t any different in that manner than anyone else on the planet. He had to go through some pretty heavy deals and had to settle in and accept those things in life and continue doing what he loved doing. He always tried to keep going.

TN: When you look at all he achieved in tennis, in racing and in life, he seems like an active, high-energy man. I don’t picture him as a couch potato kind of guy. What his energy level like in life?

Richard Gonzales: He was never idle. When it came to the racing, he expected all of us to do whatever it took to prepare the car. You had to be sure everything was correct. Traveling these speeds that these guys were going, I thought he was out of his mind. So the preparation was very important when we were racing.

For sure, the work ethic he had for tennis, he had it same work ethic for racing. He was adamant. We had to work until all hours of the morning getting the car read, loading everything up and getting to the track early for practice. So there was never any wasted time. He was always doing something. We had boats, he had cars he was always working on his cars. He knew more about those cars than anyone.

Not often would you find him idle. At Christmas parties, you might see him sit still for a while—that was about it. That was one of the things most difficult about most of his marriages. He was kind of selfish maybe in that way that he wanted to be doing something he was interested in doing—even if his wife had other interests.

One of his wives wanted him to get involved horses. So that was one thing he got interested in, but it didn’t have wheels or engines, so it wasn’t the same. He had an experience with a horse rearing up on him. He had it on lead and it yanked his shoulder of out the socket. Cars were really his passion.

He was always working on his cars and when we were in the car with him, he was focused on getting where he needed to go. The guy didn’t eat when you were on a trip (laughs). He wasn’t the kind of guy to stop a lot. He wanted to get to where he was going.

TN: Is there anything about your father that might surprise us to know?

Richard Gonzales: One of the things had a lot to do with his experiencing cancer was his smoking, of course.

I don’t recall any other athlete that competed in an individual sport at the level dad competed that did the same thing (smoking).

Pancho Gonzales
Photo credit: Life Magazine

Walking in the locker room, if he wasn’t tearing it apart after a match, the first thing he would do is open his locker to have a cigarette. I think the smoking calmed him. I think that the press was always on his ass. They wanted to know this and that. And (smoking) was the one thing that kind of settled him.

He hated to deal with the press. They hated to deal with him—if he lost.

TN: I was told at Wimbledon one time his brother had to restrain him from going at a reporter?

Richard Gonzales: I don’t know what happened at Wimbledon. It probably wasn’t much different as opposed to any other time and place.

The same thing could happen anywhere at any time. In those days the press used typewriters and the press box would often be right over the court. They’d be typing during the match and that typing sound started to drive him nuts. The noise drove him nuts. He’d sometimes hit a ball up at them to quiet down.

Another thing was the old film cameras would make noise in those days. Once, a guy was filming his serve and the cameras were so noise it was bugging the hell out of him. The fella wouldn’t stop shooting so he went right over and took care of it. One time coming out of court after one of his divorces the photographers were poking cameras at him, he grabbed a camera and threw the damn thing on the ground.

TN: He was a hard-core raging competitor yet at the same time he was a huge draw. Looking back at the Madison Square Garden matches he played vs. Rosewall and Laver, the place is packed. He was so important to helping grow the pro game and its fan base. Why did fans respond to him?

Richard Gonzales: You couldn’t anticipate what he what he was gonna do. You knew something was gonna happen, but you didn’t know what. He could play amazing shots or a linesman could drive him into a frenzy and he could blow up. He was one of the most colorful players of his era. There weren’t any others like him.

I remember when I was in New York with him. I had the opportunity to play doubles with him in one of the earlier US Open tournaments. People were coming up to me all the time saying if the top-ranked players of the world were playing on one court and dad was playing on another court, they’d go watch dad.

It’s true. When we were playing in the US Open doubles Rod Laver was playing on center court, we were on the grandstand court at Forest Hills. There were fans everywhere: people hanging off trees, people peaking underneath the backdrop, cramming into every space. There were people everywhere to see him.

It scared the shit out of me. I was so goddamn nervous I couldn’t see straight. People came up to me often making that remark: Dad was probably their favorite player to watch—and watch blow up sometimes too. People were drawn to him because he was real on court. He showed you what he was feeling.

TN: After his playing days, he taught tennis for many years in Vegas and other places. I’ve seen tapes of his commentary and he seems interested in the technical and tactical aspects of the game. What was he like as a teacher?

Richard Gonzales: He was very impatient at times depending on the situation. Giving someone a lesson could be a frustrating deal. He couldn’t understand why you couldn’t understand how to do something correctly.

We were on the court with President Ford once who was going to play a pro-am in Palm Springs. President Ford was a good athlete, but he hadn’t played much tennis. Dad was trying to give him as much knowledge as he wanted to learn in a very short period of time.

It wasn’t possible. Tennis isn’t a game you think about learning in a few hours or a few days or even a few weeks. It takes months and months and years and years to learn correctly.

You could see the frustration as he’s giving President Ford the lesson and all the secret service agents are standing around the court. I was the one feeding the balls and dad was showing him technique. I hit a few balls he felt weren’t where they were supposed to be and he says “Goddamn it Richard, can’t you hit the ball right?”

Here’s President Ford and all the secret service standing there seeing it, but if dad’s patience ran low he was gonna let it out regardless of who was around or what he was doing. In tennis and in life, he tried to do everything well—to his absolute best—but if something didn’t go the way he wanted repeatedly, he’d get frustrated and he let it out.

TN: I’m fascinated that so many opponents describe him as a total natural and very instinctual yet talking with you and watching his matches he seems like a problem-solver. Especially when you think about his love of working on cars and figuring things out. How did those two elements: the instinctual, emotional side and the more intellectual problem-solving side work together or clash within him?

Richard Gonzales: On the court, he was a ball of fire. He loved winning and hated losing—that really drove him most. He had the ability to completely focus everything—all his energy—on the point he was playing.

He was a problem-solver. I think it helped him in a lot of situations and helped him come back in a lot of matches where he may have been losing. He dug down. He found ways to come back. One of his strengths was he was able to look at his own game and figure out what was working and what was not working in a match. The fact he was able to find a way to win on the days where he wasn’t really the best player on the court, that’s one of the things that made him special. That’s what great players do—they find ways to win.

He was very natural in his movement and his strokes. If you saw him throw a football or throw a baseball he had a beautiful natural motion throwing and serving. He moved very fluidly and easily. He was a very smooth athlete. He had that naturally.

TN: There’s a great quote your dad gave to the International Tennis Hall of Fame: “The great champions were always vicious competitors. You never lose respect for a man who is a vicious competitor and you never hate a man you respect.” What did he value most as a competitor? What made him a great competitor?

Richard Gonzales: The killer instinct. Dad had the killer instinct and tried to instill it in players he helped coach or tutor.

His belief was “If you can go out and beat a guy love and love then you go out and beat a guy love and love.” In the old days they had a “courtesy game” that players would commonly give so you don’t bagel someone. That was non-existent with dad.

He was old school. His belief was there are no mercy games. Win every game if you can. You out there play your hardest to win every point from beginning to end. That’s how he believed you got the best out of yourself as a player.

The desire and intensity—that fueled his fire. The madder he got, the better he played. And no matter how mad he got, if he won that was okay. If he lost, then it wasn’t okay. He hated losing. He wouldn’t sign autographs. He was not a person that could come down from a loss in a few hours. Sometimes, it would take three or four days—even longer. 

He was not a person you wanted to question too much about a match right after a match. And if he lost, you didn’t want to be around him—that’s for damn sure.

Pancho Gonzales
Photo credit: International Tennis Hall of Fame

I don’t know that we could really understand what he went through. In terms of what he went through in the early days of the pro tour or give him the credit for the stress and pressure that he put himself through. Tennis was so real and so important to him. And we couldn’t fathom in our wildest dreams what that required and what kind of stress he felt. He put a lot into it.

That’s what set him apart from everyone on the planet: He was never satisfied. As great as he was and as well as he did so many things, he always felt he could do better. He always expected more of himself. The most difficult person he had to satisfy in his life was himself. And despite all he did, for the most part, I still don’t think it was enough for him. I think he felt he could have done even better.

I don’t think it was a negative aspect of his life. I just think he felt he could have done better in this or that or even working in the garage. If there was a bad design about a tool we had to use, it just pissed him off. He’d get annoyed. I got to a point where I understand that. I understand that completely—that’s how he was. He was often thinking further ahead than the tools he had to work with in tennis or racing at that time. And the thing is eventually someone would come up with a tool or an improvement based on some of the things we did in racing. So he was always determined to improve.

TN: What was he like to be around off court?

Richard Gonzales: He was only human. He was a wonderful personality to be around when he was happy. When he wasn’t, he wasn’t as much fun.

When he was playing, for the most part, he wasn’t as happy as times we were all together away from it. Because he felt the pressure and stress. He wanted to win and put a lot of preparation and work in before his matches. He was human.

He always wanted to do his absolute best in everything he did. He was very demanding of himself. He could be hard on himself in that way.

He was a remarkable person who lived a remarkable life. When you look at what he started out with, how hard he worked, how much he achieved, all the different things he did and how he finished, he really had quite an amazing life. He was a very interesting man—to say the least.


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