Richard “Pancho” González
May 9, 1928 – July 3, 1995
Birth place: South Central, Los Angeles (Mexican descent)
Height: 6′4″ Weight: 180
Inducted into the Tennis Hall of Fame – 1968
Sports Illustrated named Pancho Gonzalez one of the top 20 favorite athletes of the 20th Century. SI said of Pancho, “He could have been the Marlon Brando of tennis…” “If earth was on the line in a tennis match, the man you want serving to save humankind would be Ricardo Alonzo Gonzalez.”
Ricardo Alonzo Gonzalez was born in south central Los Angeles, the eldest of 7 children. His parents were Mexican immigrants. Right from the start it was obvious that young Richard was athletically gifted so his mother bought him a tennis racket when he was 12. Banging balls against the wall late into the night, Richard took to tennis with abandon. By age 14, with no formal lessons, he had become the Southern California #1 ranked player in the ’15 and under’ boys division, winning 4 of 5 major boys titles. However, in spite of his prodigal talent, a boy from Beverly Hills who Richard had soundly beaten was selected for the national championships. The Southern California Tennis Association barred Pancho from tennis for truancy.
What often separates the successful from the unfortunate is that in the swallow of despair, there is the will to beat back the beast. Pancho, as he was now known, found that instinct and with help from some friends, four years later at the age of nineteen returned to tennis. He defeated his old nemesis from Beverly Hills and fiercely descended on the vaunted east coast tennis circuit.
In 1947 the Mexican government told him, “come play, and represent us and we will set you up for life.” But Pancho placed a great value on his American citizenship. The following year he became the U.S. National Lawn Tennis Champion. Pancho was only 20.
He went on to several great amateur titles, but Bobby Riggs convinced Pancho to turn professional which meant in those days before “open” tennis, he couldn’t play Wimbledon, the French, Australian, or U.S. Championships, but he could make some money. There was a World Professional Championships in Cleveland which Pancho won 8 times. Over a 10-year period of his championship reign, Pancho turned back the challenge of every #1 amateur challenger of the day. That list included such names as Ken Rosewall, Frank Sedgeman, Lew Hoad and Tony Trabert, to name a few.
The great sports writer Dave Anderson has written, “Richard “Pancho” Gonzalez was not only an athlete, he was a showman who thrilled audiences over the years of four decades-the forties, fifties, sixties and into the seventies. With his talent and his emotions, he deserves to be on a pedestal with the most flamboyant sports celebrities-Babe Ruth, Arnold Palmer, Joe Namath, among others. But in his best years as a professional, Gonzalez was prevented from playing in the four major championships: Wimbledon; The U.S. Championships; The French Open and The Australian Open. Imagine Joe Namath barred from the Super Bowl, or Babe Ruth from the World Series, or Arnold Palmer from the Masters!” Even tennis legend, Jack Kramer said Pancho could have won as many as 7 Wimbledon championships.
As a grandfather, he was still winning major tennis titles. And even at the age of 42, Pancho was a force to be reckoned defeating players half his age such as Rod Laver, Arthur Ashe, Stan Smith, John Newcombe, Tony Roche, Jimmy Connors and Bjorn Borg. Pancho Gonzalez holds the record as being the oldest player ever (44 years old) to win an Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP) sanctioned tournament. For over 20 years Gonzalez was consistently ranked as one of the Top 10 players in the world.
Pancho Gonzalez passed away at the early age of 67 in 1995 while watching the Wimbledon Championships. In an interview at Wimbledon, Billy Jean King said that Pancho “was the greatest that ever played the game.” Arthur Ashe said he only had one idol in tennis and that was Pancho.