As I write this Roger Federer is the favorite to win the coveted 2017 Wimbledon title this Sunday. If he does it will mark a record 8th championship, and make him the greatest Wimbledon champ of all time. Unfortunately, a name you will likely not hear mentioned this weekend, belongs to the greatest player of all-time NEVER to win Wimbledon, the late Richard Alonso (“Pancho”) Gonzalez, a Hall of Fame player and a 2011 U.S. Open Court of Champion inductee, whose legend should be kept alive.
There are many reasons to honor the memory of Pancho Gonzalez, not the least of which were his back-to-back U.S. Championship (presently the U.S. Open) titles in 1948 and ’49. During his career, Gonzalez was the #1 player in the world for 8 years, which is still a record.
In addition, during the 1950’s and early ’60’s, Pancho was the face of the men’s tour and was so popular that, in the years he didn’t play, the tour was almost non-existent. Movie-star handsome, with a fiery personality and a flair for dramatic comebacks. Pancho electrified crowds. With his volatile temper, however, the tennis elites were often not so enamored.
Not only did Gonzalez help pioneer the men’s tour but, in 1947, being an American of Mexican descent (born in Los Angeles) he was the first to integrate the sport. Many think the color barrier was broken by Althea Gibson or Arthur Ashe but it was actually Gonzalez. Growing up, Ashe, however, was clearly inspired by Pancho. “When I looked at the tour he was the only player whose color looked anything like mine.”
Gonzalez, self taught on public courts, brought the “street” to this country club sport. In essence, he was the Jackie Robinson of tennis.
It’s interesting that Gonzalez and Robinson broke social and racial barriers in their respective sports in the same year, 1947 and both met great resistance. Jackie and Pancho, however, were not easily intimidated. The late Howard Cosell labeled them “The two most competitive athletes I ever met.”
How upsetting was it to the all white tennis establishment to have, in their view, a champion who was a Mexican? As reported in Los Angeles sports pages and with the cooperation of U.S. tennis officials, a plot was hatched to get rid of Pancho. It was called, “Operation Gonzalez.”
Mexico offered Pancho $50,000 a year to become a citizen of their country and play for Mexico in the Grand Slams and Davis Cup. As tempting as the offer was financially, Gonzalez was strongly patriotic. He was insulted by being asked to give up his American citizenship and angrily refused.
After winning two U.S. Championships in a row, Gonzalez was offered a lucrative pro contract. With a wife and child and another on the way, Pancho jumped at the offer but, in those days, being a pro meant one couldn’t play in the Grand Slams or Davis Cup.
From 1950-1967, Gonzalez was banned from 68 Slams. This brings us to the questions if he had been allowed to play, how many might have Gonzalez won? And most importantly, how many Wimbledon’s?
The late Hall of Famer, Jack Kramer, a former Wimbledon and U.S. Champ, said, “If Gonzalez been allowed to play at Wimbledon, with his booming serve on grass, who would have beaten him?” Other experts of the era have asserted that Gonzalez could have won 10 Wimbledon’s and, if so, his name in tennis would be akin to Babe Ruth’s in baseball.
And the facts seem to back that up. As the top pro, Gonzalez would invariably play the most recent Wimbledon winner. And for 10 years he defeated every Wimbledon champ put in front of him. At 6’3 1/2”, with by far the biggest serve in the game, cat-like quick at the net, and a competitive drive that said to his opponents he’d rather die that lose, Gonzalez was a force even into his 40’s.
At Wimbledon in 1969, the second year of open tennis, Gonzalez, at 41, won a historic match, coming from behind (2 sets to love) in a thrilling 5-set victory against Charlie Pasarell , 25. It lasted a record 5 hours 12 minutes and included 112 games. (So long it prompted the implementation of the current tie-break system we have today.)
Keep in mind in those days players did not sit down at the change of ends, but simply wiped the perspiration away, downed a mouthful of barley water and got on with it. Dan Maskell, the Hall of Fame BBC announcer, labeled Gonzalez’heroic comeback, “Truly one of the greatest moments in the history of sport.”
So Federer may wind up this weekend the greatest Wimbledon champ of all-time, but, taking a cue from Dan Maskell, Richard Alonso (Pancho) Gonzalez truly has to be the greatest player to never win Wimbledon. His legend should never be forgotten Long live Pancho.
Jack also writes “Laughing Matters,” which appears every Friday. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.