Pancho Gonzalez, who began playing tennis as a 12-year-old in Los Angeles with a racket his mother bought for 50 cents and who eventually served his way into prominence as one of the sport's greatest players, has died of cancer in Las Vegas.
Gonzalez was 67 when he died Monday night. The death was announced Tuesday by his brother Ralph Gonzales, who said cancer began in Gonzalez's stomach and spread throughout his body.
Born in Los Angeles in 1928, Ricardo Alonzo Gonzalez won two major singles titles--the U.S. Championships back-to-back in 1948 and 1949.
Gonzalez was one of seven children born to struggling Mexican American parents, his father a house painter and his mother a seamstress. Gonzalez wasn't very interested in school and became a street-fighting truant.
His parents thought that tennis would be a good influence on him but, initially, the only thing that kept him interested in the game was that he always won. He wasn't part of the conventional tennis programs and subsequently was never really accepted into the tennis Establishment.
Gonzalez played junior tournaments and was winning events at 14, but he quit school as a sophomore and joined the Navy as soon as he was old enough.
Discharged from the Navy in 1947, he was just 20, ranked 17th and seeded eighth in 1948 when he won the U.S. Championship at Forest Hills in New York, beating Eric Sturgess of South Africa.
Gonzalez successfully defended his title in 1949 against top-seeded Ted Schroeder, 16-18, 2-6, 6-1, 6-2, 6-4. It was a match in which Gonzalez earned his reputation for tenacity.
"He ranks right up there with the best, I am sure," said Don Budge, the first man to win tennis's Grand Slam.
"He had a great serve, great concentration, moved well and he hated to lose," Budge said. "He just plain hated to lose."
Gonzalez left the amateur game and the chance to win additional fame with major titles when he turned pro at 21 after his second win in the U.S. Championship at Forest Hills.
It was against the advice of many.
Gonzalez's era of greatness occurred in the time when tennis pros were not allowed to play in the Grand Slam events--Wimbledon and the French, U.S. and Australian championships--as well as the Davis Cup.
"The tragedy of his greatness is you look up his records 25 years from now, they don't show anything Gonzalez really did, because he turned pro so early," said Jack Kramer, a member of the International Tennis Hall of Fame. "People won't know how great he was."
The 6-foot-3 Gonzalez had one of the best serves the game has ever seen. It was once timed at 114 m.p.h. with a wooden racket.
"His competitive zeal is what set him apart," said Bud Collins, a member of the tennis Hall of Fame who works for NBC-TV and the Boston Globe.
"It's like what Pancho Segura told me about Gonzalez: 'He didn't want to do anything but kill you on the court.'
"He was as good as there ever was," Collins said. "Everybody talks about his serve, but he was incredible in covering the court and getting into position. He used to break those guys like [Rod] Laver and [Ken] Rosewall by returning balls at their feet."
Gonzalez helped the United States win the Davis Cup against Australia in 1949, then made it official: He would turn pro. There were many who thought it a mistake, including Budge.
"He asked me once, 'What do you think my chances are in the pros?' " Budge said. "I said, 'Pancho, you can't even beat me. How the hell are you going to beat Kramer?' I thought he should try winning Wimbledon.
"Well, he turned pro and you saw what happened. Jack handled him very easily."
Kramer, the top pro at the time, had joined the professional ranks in 1947 after winning Wimbledon and the U.S. Championship, the latter of which he also won in 1946.
Playing Gonzalez on a nationwide tour, Kramer was 96-27. Gonzalez was dropped and replaced by Segura, but when Kramer quit the tour to become a promoter, Gonzalez dominated the game.
"He handled Segura, [Frank] Sedgman and Budge, then [Tony] Trabert, then [Ken] Rosewall, then [Lew] Hoad, then [Mal] Anderson and [Ashley] Cooper, then Alex Olmedo, then [Butch] Buchholtz and [Barry] MacKay," Kramer said.
"All these years, he was always the best player; he just didn't have a chance to show it except on the pro circuit, because the Grand Slams and Davis Cup wouldn't allow pros.
"You know, Rosewall had the reputation as being the best player who never won Wimbledon. Well, hell, it was Gonzalez."
Gonzalez won the U.S. Pro singles title eight times in his reign as the premier player in the world.
He was 40 when he played in the first U.S. Open, which included pros in the field. He reached the quarterfinals.
He was 41 and a grandfather when he played the longest match in Wimbledon history, lasting 5 hours, 12 minutes and requiring 112 games to complete.
It was a legendary result: Gonzalez defeated 24-year-old Charlie Pasarell, 22-24, 1-6, 16-14, 6-3, 11-9.
"I was in tears after I lost the match," Pasarell said. "I walked into the locker room and went into a corner. He came over, sat down next to me, patted me on the back, threw a towel over my head and said, 'I'm sorry.' "
Known for his temper and combativeness, Gonzalez could have been the blueprint for John McEnroe's temperament, according to Kramer.
"When he got upset, he played better," Kramer said. "He played mad most of the time."
Gonzalez acknowledged his temper but believed he handled himself with class.
"If I got angry, I could smile about it," he told the New York Times earlier this year. "I would take a towel over to a linesman and say, 'Clean your glasses.' And if I had to spit, I'd go to a corner of the court. Jimmy Connors sometimes spit all over the court. That's disrespect. That's a lack of class. And John McEnroe, he was nothing more than a spoiled little brat."
At the very least, Gonzalez continued to play. In 1970, in the first round of a series of $10,000 winner-take-all challenges, he knocked off Rod Laver, who had just won Wimbledon, the U.S. Open, French Open and Australian Open in 1969.
Gonzalez was nearly 44 when he won an event in Des Moines, Iowa, becoming the oldest to capture a tournament title in the Open era. He was ranked No. 9 in the United States at the time, the 24th year he had been in the top 10.
Gonzalez simply endured. He won the West Coast's premier event, the Pacific Southwest, in 1969. He also had won it in 1949.
He was named to the International Tennis Hall of Fame in 1968, even though he still was playing.
Antagonists for years, Kramer and Gonzalez developed a friendship in their later years. Kramer said he always admired Gonzalez as a player.
"He was one of those guys that you had to get out of there fast or he would figure out a way to beat you in the end," Kramer said.
"His greatest trait was to make the shot he had to make at just the right time. It seemed like he could always do that."
Gonzalez's name has oftentimes been spelled "Gonzales," even in official tennis publications.
"People Americanized my name," Gonzalez said without question as rackets bearing his name carried both spellings. In recent years, he went back to the original family name, with a "z" at the end.
Gonzalez, who spent two decades as the tennis pro at Caesars Palace before retiring in the late 1980s, was married six times. One of his ex-wives was Rita Agassi, Andre Agassi's older sister. The Agassis remained close to Gonzalez. Andre's brother, Phil, visited Gonzalez in the hospital recently.
Budge said he telephoned Gonzalez two weeks ago.
"He said 'Don, I'm coming back,' " Budge said. "He was optimistic. Apparently it was more hope than real logic. But he was a hell of a player, let's face it. It's too damn bad."
Kramer said he was with Gonzalez three weeks ago at a function for Bobby Riggs.
"Pancho looked terrific," Kramer said. "He looked lean, but his face looked rested."
Kramer said he spoke with Gonzalez for about 30 minutes.
"I told him he was going to win another fifth set," Kramer said. "I thought he would."