He was 'Pancho' - then called 'Champ'

The Arizona Republic
Sept. 16, 2005

Richard J. Gonzales


Afiery temper, killer serve and feline swiftness propelled Richard Alonzo Gonzalez to the top ranks of tennis from 1948 to 1969.

At 6-foot-3, he towered over most of his opponents with his natural skills and competitiveness.

Spike TV will feature the documentary Pancho Gonzalez: The Latino Legend of Tennis today, profiling the man and his struggle to become one of tennis' greatest champions.

Through actual tennis footage, re-enactments and interviews with professional players, celebrities, former wives and kin, Gonzalez prowls the court again.

A preview of the documentary and interviews and correspondence with his brother before his death paint a picture of Gonzalez's climb to tennis fame.

His name captures the enigma of his tennis world bad-boy persona. When an Anglo tennis acquaintance called out for "Pancho" in front of his house, Gonzalez's mother, Carmen, told the man no Panchos lived in her home. She was insulted that someone would use an ethnic slur for her first-born, Richard.

Carmen quickly identified her son's keen competitiveness and athletic skills.

At 10, his keen hand-eye accuracy won him the Los Angeles marble-shooting championship. With her seamstress money, she bought Richard a tennis racket. She hoped that he would learn to compete like the gentlemen in Mexico whom she recalled watching play tennis.

Gonzalez became enamored with the game, sleeping with his racket and practicing at a local public court. He ignored his father's discouragement and, despite a lack of formal lessons, entered and won city tournaments.

The tennis establishment felt uncomfortable with Gonzalez's raw talent and consistent thrashing of their favorite, Herbie Flam. Before deciding who would represent Southern California at the under-15 nationals, the Southern California Tennis Association gave Gonzalez an ultimatum: Go to school or be banned from competition.

Gonzalez, who had dropped out of five schools, preferred to play tennis. The SCTA gave Flam the nod to go to the nationals.

Gonzalez allowed "Pancho" to stick as a namebut told his family to call him Richard. It was as if he taunted the tennis-club set to tag him what they wished; in the end he would uncoil, swing and smash until they called him "Champ."

At the Los Angeles Tennis Club, frequented by Hollywood celebrities and the social set, Gonzalez was mistaken for the help. He quickly dispelled their wrong impressions when he picked up a wooden racket and served at 120 mph.

Gonzalez understood that to break into the tennis world and overcome class hostility, a kid from the LA barrios had to become good - world-class good.

He developed a graceful attacking game and honed a warrior's edge. In 1949, at age 21, he held the clay, grass and indoors national championship titles.

Along with glory came the boos. His temper would flare during matches, and he would lash out at audiences, referees and opponents. Instead of losing concentration, his rage would focus his game.

A Latino tough in a gentleman's sport roiled the press and fans. The media accused him of drinking and eating too many tacos, according to his brother Ralph.

A radio show about bad boy Gonzalez dramatized a pool-hall knife fight that explained the scar that marred his good looks. The Gonzalez family was outraged. The truth was that he had fallen in a scooter accident as a boy.

The Mexican Consulate offered the Latino champion $50,000 a year to give up his U.S. citizenship and become a Mexican citizen, playing on the Mexican national team. Gonzalez turned down the offer, stating he would never forsake his U.S. citizenship for any amount of money.

Gonzalez beat the best of his era: Ken Rosewall, Jack Kramer and Ted Schroeder. In later years, past his prime, he beat rising young players such as Jimmy Connors, John Newcombe, Stan Smith and Arthur Ashe. At 41, he played Charlie Pasarell, 25, at Wimbledon's Centre Court.

In five hours and 12 minutes, over two days, they played the longest match in the history of Wimbledon.

When Gonzalez stumbled and fell, Pasarell commented he hoped that Gonzalez would call it quits. But the old warrior kept fighting back, answering serves and volleys as if he had gotten drunk at the fountain of youth. Gonzalez beat the kid.

His former wife Madelyn Darrow recalls the English crowd shouting at his victory "Pancho, Pancho, Pancho."

Legacy calls him the champion.