Irascible Gonzalez's resolve to win came at a price

Considered one of the all-time greats, Gonzalez's career was derailed because of his professional status. Keystone/Getty Images

The best way to determine where a tennis player stands in history is to take into account such factors as performance, dominance and longevity. Questions related to Grand Slam titles, years finished No. 1 and duration of success all enter the picture.

Then there's another question that aficionados love to pose: Whom would you want to have playing for your life?

The answer is often Richard "Pancho" Gonzalez. Graced with a perfect tennis body -- Gonzalez stood a sinewy 6-foot-2, 180 pounds, similar to Pete Sampras -- Gonzalez's signature shot was one of the finest serves in tennis history, an elegant, fluid motion. Backing this power and pinpoint accuracy was a superb net game -- that is, the deft touch of a John McEnroe rather than sheer power. Swarming opponents like a cat, Gonzalez was nimble, balanced and commanding.

But technical matters hardly do justice to Gonzalez's legacy. The cornerstone of his game was something everyone possesses, but few can harness into sustained victory: anger, often curdling into rage. Although Gonzalez the server had the variety of a pitcher such as Pedro Martinez or Juan Marichal, his competitive makeup was more on the order of legendary St. Louis Cardinals ace Bob Gibson.

Born in 1928 in Los Angeles, Gonzalez spent his entire life bristling at real and perceived slights. As the child of middle-class Hispanic parents, young Richard was well aware of the social prejudices of his day; the name "Pancho" was generically applied to people with his background. During that time, tennis in Southern California (and much of the country, given the way weather gave that region a head start in tennis) was governed by Perry Jones, an autocratic leader who embodied much of the supercilious and exclusionary sensibilities that governed tennis for decades. Although Gonzalez was a promising junior, once Jones discovered that the youth was truant from school, he banned him from playing tournaments. That was only the start of Gonzalez's rage at leaders -- at least in tennis.

At last, after serving a stint in the Navy, Gonzalez was given the chance to compete. He rose rapidly. In 1948, he won the first of his two U.S. singles championships. Even then, though, Gonzalez scarcely was welcomed. As The New York Times story of that first win began, "The rankest outsider of modern times sits on the tennis throne."

As Gonzalez stumbled through 1949, word spread throughout the tennis world that he was a one-Slam wonder, what some would call a "cheese" champion. Hence a new nickname: "Gorgo," as in gorgonzola. But he defended his title superbly. He overcame a two sets-to-love deficit in the 1949 finals and earned the chance to become a barnstorming pro.

Here is where assessing Gonzalez's greatness becomes tricky. Barred from such events as the U.S. National Championships, Wimbledon Championships and French Championships because of this pro status, he trekked around the globe, akin to Negro Leagues baseball players. When he saw these pros up close, it was instantly clear how much better they were than the amateurs. The problem was that they were hardly seen. And so Gonzalez commanded the tour in exile -- a first-rate competitor once again seething at his exclusion from greatness. As such amateur champions and future Hall of Famers as Tony Trabert, Ken Rosewall, Lew Hoad, Ashley Cooper, Mal Anderson, Alex Olmedo and Rod Laver entered the pro ranks, Gonzalez frequently manhandled them.

Alas, so singular was Gonzalez in his devotion to winning that he often sabotaged his quest for recognition. Fellow pros such as tour promoter Jack Kramer, Trabert and others were working feverishly to promote the pro game. But Gonzalez often was obdurate, declining interview opportunities and disdaining the occasional sponsor who would donate a few thousand dollars to a pro event. He also generally refused to pitch in with his fellow barnstormers.

But his competitive fire never dimmed. When the game went Open in 1968, Gonzalez continued to compete at the age of 40. That year, he reached the semifinals of the French Open and toppled defending champion Roy Emerson in a five-set quarterfinal. At the U.S. Open in Forest Hills, N.Y., he took out second-seeded Tony Roche and made it to the quarterfinals.

A year later, he played what likely is his most memorable match. In the first round of Wimbledon, he came up against Charlie Pasarell. Pasarell -- who was 16 years younger than Gonzalez and was born in Puerto Rico -- revered his opponent.

The first day, Pasarell won a titanic first set, 24-22. With daylight fading, the 41-year-old Gonzalez argued that the match should be suspended. No go, the referee said. Petulant, Gonzalez virtually threw the second set, losing it 6-1. This time, the referee agreed the players should stop. As Gonzalez walked off Centre Court, he was booed.

The next day, Gonzalez rebounded to win three straight sets, 16-14, 6-3, 11-9. He overcame seven match points to win a 5-hour, 12-minute epic and left the court to applause. He earned his victory in true Gonzalez style. The serves, the volleys and all the prowess that made him a fiery competitor surfaced with trademark vengeance. Pasarell, seeking to exploit Gonzalez's advanced years, tried to aim soft service returns at Gonzalez's feet and tire him with frequent lobs. Barked Gonzalez on a changeover, "Charlie, I know what you're doing -- and it's not working!"

Gonzalez continued playing well into his 40s. In 1970, he beat Laver in Madison Square Garden just after the Australian had completed a calendar-year sweep of the Grand Slams.

If his achievements do not quite rank him on par with Laver, Sampras or Roger Federer, Gonzalez's résumé clearly fits in with such all-time greats as Don Budge, Kramer, Bill Tilden, Jimmy Connors, McEnroe, Rosewall, Ivan Lendl and Andre Agassi.

At 42 years old, it was fitting that Gonzalez, dubbed the "Lone Wolf," would tear his way through Rosewall, John Newcombe and Arthur Ashe to win a Las Vegas tournament sponsored by another notable loner, Howard Hughes. A year later, he beat the 19-year-old Connors in the final of a tournament in Los Angeles. Around this time, Gonzalez relocated to Las Vegas, working as the tennis director at Caesars Palace.

But Gonzalez was never particularly comfortable as a champion emeritus. He was adequate but unmotivated as a television commentator for ABC, a rare presence at tournaments. From time to time Gonzalez would issue thoughtful comments on contemporary pros -- often magnanimous, occasionally harsh, always candid -- but the picture from the end of his playing days is of an old soldier who'd preferred dying in battle than merely fading away.

It was reminiscent of a tale of another zealous competitor, baseball great Ty Cobb. Late in life, Cobb was asked what he'd be hitting if he was still playing. He responded that he'd hit .320. The interviewer was astounded. But Mr. Cobb, he said, your lifetime average was .366. Yes, Cobb said, but remember, I'm 74 years old. Gonzalez died in 1995 at the age of 67. Per Cobb, just four years earlier he'd struck a serve timed at 116 miles per hour. Indeed, he was a man you'd want to play for your life.

Joel Drucker is based in Oakland, Calif., and writes for Tennis Magazine and Tennis Channel.