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Tireless and Fiery, Everyone Paid to See Pancho

By Bud Collins
Special to The Washington Post
July 5, 1995

July 5 LONDON, JULY 4 -- Wimbledon patrons, an orderly crowd, seldom hiss and boo, but they gave Pancho Gonzalez the vocal business that dank June evening 26 years ago. He was 41 years old, and the Old Wolf was starting to look it, silver highlights in the sumptuous jet mane, especially as he trudged sourly from Centre Court in a hailstorm of negative noise.

The problem was he had pouted and aimlessly pottered through the 6-1 second set against Charlie Pasarell, muttering that it was too dark to play. He had screamed that sentiment at the imperious referee, Capt. Mike Gibson, after losing the opening set, 24-22. "Play on, Mr. Gonzalez!" ordered Gibson from behind his Guardman's mustache. Pancho complied, half-heartedly, reaping consumer disapproval when the referee did close proceedings.

Gonzalez was two sets behind in the first round, and giving away 15 years to Pasarell, the No. 5 American. He fumed most of the night, playing cards with his wife until dawn while winding down. Hours later, back on Centre Court, Gonzalez was rejuvenated. Once again the ageless, peerless competitor, the predatory wolf, he created one of the game's masterpieces, and left the full-house gathering of 15,000 -- and Pasarell -- raving and gasping.

Crashing out of seven match points in the fifth set (twice from 0-40), Gonzalez turned the jeers of the previous dusk to hosannas as he beat Pasarell, 22-24, 1-6, 16-14, 6-3, 11-9.

Conversations turned to that dinger today as word that Gonzalez died of cancer Monday night at 67 in Las Vegas reached the Big W, the tournament he didn't win only because of the segregated condition of tennis during his best days. Then, traditional tournaments were limited to alleged amateurs. After winning the U.S. Open in 1949, Gonzalez sought his fortune with the outlaws, the out-and-out pros, and didn't make it back to Wimbledon for nearly two decades, until open competition dawned in 1968. He was 40, yet a factor, a quarterfinalist at the French and U.S. opens.

Ted Schroeder, loser of the 1949 Open final to Gonzalez, said, "You could never be too far ahead of Pancho. I led him by two sets in '49 so I know how Pasarell felt here in '69.

A two-part comeback of comebacks, it consumed 5 hours 12 minutes, a jewel from the time before tie-breakers and therapeutic furniture. No chairs were there to sag on at changeovers. You just kept moving and playing.

Ricardo Alonso "Pancho" Gonzalez -- Richard to his friends, "Gorgo" to his few colleagues on the lonely pro tour of one-night stands -- kept moving so long at the top level that he was still dangerous into his 44th year, a fiery patriarch. Nobody ever played tennis better. But the fire has burned out. This king is dead, and his like won't reappear.

Schroeder said, "He came from the wrong side of the tracks, a Chicano in L.A., but he carried himself as proudly as a Spanish nobleman." He had pride in performance, a ruggedly handsome man with a scarred cheek and soft voice.

Nobody called the volcanic Pancho "Gorgo" to his face. It stood for gorgonzola -- the big cheese -- and for years he was just that, carrying the fragile pro game around the world in his satchel. Pancho and pro tennis were synonymous.

"He's not the best player anymore." That was a slightly aggrieved Rod Laver in 1964, when Laver was, and deprived Gonzalez of a ninth U.S. Pro title in a splendid rainstormed final in Longwood, Mass. "But nobody -- including Pancho -- knows that. He's the one player everyone knows and wants to see."

Seeing Gonzalez at his greatest might have involved squeezing into a small armory or a high school gym when the pro caravan hit town, pitching its portable canvas court on whatever flooring, including ice. It was a king-of-the-hill tour, Gonzalez against the latest hotshot Wimbledon or U.S. champ lured to professionalism by promoter Jack Kramer's dollars. Frank Sedgman, Tony Trabert, Ken Rosewall, Lew Hoad, Ashley Cooper, Pancho Segura, Alex Olmedo -- a Hall of Fame parade -- all tried to knock him off his green canvas hill. But Pancho won and stayed king, zinging the magnificent serve, moving so fluidly, confronting the foe as though, said his closest pal, Segura, "he didn't want to do any more than kill you."

"It was a night-after-night nightmare," Rosewall said, shaking his head. "An experience that doesn't exist now. Imagine playing Sampras or Agassi almost every night throughout a year." Rosewall, a callow 22, did very well, but he lost like everybody else.

"Remember that cold winter night at Boston Garden?" It was 1957, and Gonzalez was conducting a three-way battle: against persistent Rosewall, also a more persistent courtside heckler and the insistent press with their insidious typewriters. In his rage to play and win, Gonzalez let no one interfere.

Pausing in his decisive 19-17 set win to silence the loud critic in the first row, Gonzalez intended to put his service grip on the poor guy's windpipe. At that moment the man in the next seat stood up to his full, muscular 6 feet 7 saying, "Why don't you just play, Pancho?" It was Jungle Jim Loscutoff, the Boston Celtics' enforcer.

Though 6 feet 2, a magnificent athlete, Gonzalez could see the wisdom in returning to quelling Rosewall and the clacking reporters in their balcony roost. Becoming an ack-ack gun, he sprayed the journalists with a barrage of balls. That turned off the labors of the survivors. Then he finished Rosewall.

"We didn't make much money but we had a lot of fun," said Segura. "But if you beat him, he might not talk to you for days. But he had a big heart. Difficult guy but honorable."

Gonzalez once recalled his rookie pro campaign: "Two guys were the show, and the show went on. That tour, '49-50, I got beat by Jack Kramer, who was also my boss. The promoter. I showed up one night, could hardly walk with a bum ankle, and told Jack I couldn't play. He says to me, Kid, we always play,' and got a doctor to shoot up the ankle with novocaine. That's the way it was."

The tennis show goes on, but without a majestic ornament who showed a couple of generations the wonder of power, presence and passion within his rectangle.

Bud Collins, a member of the Tennis Hall of Fame, writes on tennis for the Boston Globe and works as a commentator for NBC-TV., 1995

© 1995 The Washington Post Company

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