Now with the U. S. Open over and fourteen slam titles under
his belt on his "come-back" victory, Pete Sampras will undoubtedly
be hailed more than ever as "arguably" the greatest tennis
player of all time. Many previous doubters will now be convinced
of Sampras's unique place in tennis' hallowed pantheon.
submit, however, that there would be no "argument" whatsoever
about whom the true winner of that ranking would be if we
would but take a little effort to make sense of the exact
meaning of this special honor: the greatest tennis player
of all time. Heretofore we have been dazzled by the glitter
of the slam (Australian, French, Wimbledon, U. S. Open)
titles, because we have made a fetish of them without giving
the matter a great deal of thought - incredible as it may
seem for such ardent devotees of the game.
Whenever the name of Richard Pancho Gonzalez comes up in
these discussions, he is summarily dismissed for the same
incredibly obtuse argument reflected by former great tennis
player, and Pancho nemesis, Jack Kramer, when he said, however
well intentioned: "The tragedy of his greatness is you look
up the records 25 years from now, they don't show anything
Gonzales really did, because he turned pro so early."
Kramer (and all the sportswriters who echo him) is referring
to is that Gonzalez turned professional in 1949 at age 21,
making him ineligible to play in the slam tournaments, which
were available only to amateurs. He was, thus, emasculated
and banished from the top spot on the hierarchy of the greatest
tennis players. In recent polls at the end of 1999 that
tried to select the greatest tennis players of the twentieth
century, Pancho was not even listed among the top twenty
in some surveys.
So, we ask, what does winning slam titles have to do with
measuring the greatness of a tennis player? Amazing that
sportswriters and historians of tennis have yet to ask and
assess this most basic of questions in relation to our subject.
To answer this simple but indispensable question, we should
at least try to make a tiny bit of sense of the value of
these mindless sacrosanct titles.
Anyone who is even a little conversant with tennis knows
that "open tennis" began in 1968. That is, before then,
only amateurs could play slam tournaments, like little,
unseasoned boys, while the professional tennis players,
barred from these tournaments, could only compete in the
professional circuits. And, as Bud Elsie said, ". . . there
isn't an amateur to be found who can beat any of the top
pros." In short, there was virtually no competition between
the amateurs playing the slam tournaments and the pros playing
on the pro tours. It would seem obvious to conclude that
the winners of slam titles before the open era were inferior
players, while winning those titles, to the pros playing
in the pro tours. Therefore, neither the slam titles nor
the amateur players winning them should be given anywhere
near the same value before 1968 that we have given them
since then, the beginning of the open era.
It is pure idiocy, then, to consider those slam titles as
a yardstick for measuring the greatness of a player throughout
history as if there were no difference in the play and players
before and after 1968. If the term "greatness" is to take
on any kind of rational meaning, it should refer to the
players' ability on the court in relation to their competition,
and not confuse it with the specious glitter of the slam
titles, per se, especially if a difference is to be made
between those who won them before 1968 and those after.
What is clearly in order (and has been for years) is the
re-writing of tennis history so as to give the true owner
of the title "The Greatest Tennis Player of All Time" his
rightful due. Why it has not been done until now defies
Our concern here, then, is the question of greatness of
play and not the misunderstanding and distortion of the
value of amateur "slam" titles. We can begin by assessing
the play of Roy Emerson, king of amateurs, who won 12 slam
titles before 1968 but was a wholesale flop on the professional
level, where he failed to win even one championship and
was crushed by Gonzalez when they met on the pro tour. Yet
when Sampras was challenging Emerson's twelve (amateur)
titles, much was made of the fact that Sampras, as a pro,
had the chance of tying, and later breaking, that record
of slam titles, as if Emerson's titles were the equal of
those Sampras had won.
the case of Rod Laver, often listed among the best, if not
the greatest, player of all time, his reputation derives
in great part from his having won two grand slams (all four
titles won in the same year). When he won his first in 1962,
Laver was still an amateur. His play was that of an amateur,
as his play against his first pro opponent, Lew Hoad, emphatically
showed the following year when Laver turned pro.
Cas Fish describes the debacle in Tennis Today: "Contracted
to play Hoad 13 best-of-five set matches, Laver won the
first set of the first match, but was unable to win another.
It doesn't take a mathematical genius to work out that this
meant that Hoad won 39 con-secutive sets from Laver. . .
. Hoad at that time had virtually retired from the game,
was suffering with a chronically bad back, and had had only
three weeks to practice before the match. . . . It rather
makes nonsense of Laver's first grand slam."
Dave Anderson adds another brush stroke to the thoroughness
of Laver's introduction to the pro tour, talking about how
Laver reacted after being trounced by Ken Rosewall in his
next match: "Laver was thrashed [by] and rated Hoad as 'the
best I've ever played against.' The next day he lost to
Rosewall. 'I thought Lew was good, Laver said . . ., 'but
Kenny is twice as good as Lew. . . . If I'm going to beat
[Rosewall] consistently, I've got to learn how to play tennis
all over again.'"
These impressions give the necessary perspective to Laver's
first "grand slam": the excellent play of an amateur, who
cannot give a top pro a decent game. Laver himself says
he needs "to learn how to play tennis all over again" if
he hopes to compete with the pros. As good as Laver was
during his relatively short professional run, he was not
in any strict sense dominant from 1963 to 1969, the latter
year when he won his only pro-fessional grand slam and also
the last year he ever won a singles slam title, at age 31.
Perhaps his major claim to fame is the two grand slams no
one else has been able to match. But as we have seen, his
first grand slam (in amateur competition) should not be
given nearly the same weight as the one he won as a pro.
We have also talked about Sampras' 14 professional slam
titles. They were won sporadically over the course of several
years. He was relatively dominant for a few years but was
blanked completely for two years (2000-2002) at age 29 and
has never won on clay (French Open). For his latest victorious
tournament, the 2002 U. S. Open, he was seeded No. 17 in
a desperate attempt at a comeback. Many sportswriters were
writing him off as a washed-up former champ. With increasing
odds it may well have been his last hurrah.
On the other hand, Pancho Gonzalez was, as Bud Elsie says,
". . . absolute and merciless ruler of the tennis world.
Gonzalez dominates tennis as probably no other athlete does
in any other sport." That dominance was not for a few sporadic
tournaments but for an unbroken span of twelve years (1951-62)!!
Unlike Sampras he also won on clay. And was still winning
major tournaments, beating the top pros into his 40s!
Richard Pancho Gonzalez (1928-95) did not have coming up
the advantages of his contemporaries or predecessors. [A
detailed biography falls beyond the scope of the present
discussion.] With little competition in relatively insignificant
amateur venues and a two-year interruption for service in
the Navy (1945-46), Pancho was a diamond in the rough when
he got the opportunity to compete in important tournaments
after his service. Even with so little formal instruction
and preparation after leaving the Navy, however, he was
already beating such world-class players as Jaroslav Drobny,
Frank Parker, and Bob Falkenburg in 1947, which earned him
a No. 17 national ranking and a No. 8 seeding for the 1948
U. S. Championships (still an amateur slam tournament).
Because Jack Kramer (winner of the 1947 U. S. Championships)
had turned pro and the top-ranked amateur, Ted Schroeder,
did not compete in the 1948 U. S. Champion-ships, Pancho
was seen as a hallow champion when he won the title. But
Gonzalez made believers of the doubters when he defended
his title in 1949, beating the highly touted Schroeder himself.
After his shocking victory over Schroeder, Gonzalez was
lured by the enticing emoluments of the pro tour, the kind
he had never known before or dreamed of in his life. His
introductory tour in 1950 proved a rude awakening for him,
however, when he was embarrassed by Jack Kramer (winner
of the U. S. Championships in '46' and '47 and Wimbledon
'47 and considered the greatest player of his time), who
walloped him 96-27 in 103 matches.
Because of his dominance between 1946-53, a span of eight
years, Kramer has been considered one of the greatest players
of all time, if not the greatest. However, this span is
grossly overstated and misleading, perhaps mainly due to
Kramer adherents among the sportswriters and Kramer himself,
while Kramer was still considered King of the Court by the
sportswriters and the public in 1951, the year after Gonzalez's
disastrous loss to Kramer on his maiden pro tour, Gonzalez
was not only beating Kramer regularly but dominating him.
Hence, though Kramer (as well as sportswriters) may speak
of Gonzalez's reign as King of the Court not beginning till
1954, Gonzalez consistently trounced Kramer from 1951 onward.
So, though sportswriters insist on crediting Kramer as King
of the Court from 1946-53, the facts show otherwise. In
the 1953 World's Professional Tennis Championships, presented
by Jack March, he says: "Vastly improved since losing a
cross-country exhibition tour to Jack Kramer three years
ago, Gonzales didn't mature tennis-wise until 1952, although
he beat Kramer for the World Indoor title as far back as
1951, and has had the 'Indian sign' on Kramer ever since
having defeated Jack each time during the past three years."
Gonzalez himself confirms the facts: "As a matter of fact
I haven't lost to Kramer since 1951 . . . And in 1952 I
beat him twice - once in the Philadelphia Inquirer tournament,
in straight sets, and later in the year in the finals of
the International at Wembley, England. Jake [Kramer] even
had me 4-1 in the fifth set in that match, and I still beat
In an interview in Racquet (May 1953), Gonzalez reiterates:
"Kramer played in two tournaments and lost both of them
. . . I've played Kramer three tournament matches and won
all three . . . the tournament in Europe which is called
the International Champion-ship, in which all top pros are
invited to participate, I have won the last three years."
The last three years means and includes '53, '52, and '51.
And the sportswriters and histori-ans persist in considering
Kramer King of the Court during this period, when the record
clearly shows that Gonzalez was dominating him and everyone
else since 1951.
the death of Gonzalez in 1995, Kramer, still promoting himself
as King till '53, commented: "He [Gonzalez] had no Wimbledons
[singles] . . . but from 1954 to 1962, he was the best player
that walked on the court."
Neil Anderson, who spoke two days after Gonzalez's death,
adds: "Gonzalez went on to dominate the pro tour from 1954
to 1962, beating amateur champions as Frank Sedg-man, Pancho
Segura, Tony Trabert, Lew Hoad and Kenneth [Ken] Rosewall
in head-to-head matches before retiring in 1963."
It should be clear by now, if we consider performance rather
than sporadic titles, that Gonzalez dominated the World
of Tennis from 1951 (not 1954) to 1962, a twelve-year span
of dominance, as opposed to Kramer's five (1946-50, not
'53), making Gonzalez by far the greatest tennis player
in history. Who else has such a record, of unbroken dominance,
that even begins to approach Gonzalez's?
The Los Angeles Times (August 24, 1988) contained a review
of the careers of the best tennis players in history soon
after Jimmy Connors had been ranked No. 1 five times. No
one, including the likes of Tilden, Budge, Kramer, Laver,
et al., had won more than nine No.1 rankings - except for
Gonzalez, who won 14!! This is not for occasional amateur
or pro slam titles. That is for an unbroken string of No.
1 world rankings! How many does Sampras have, or likely
When we hear of Borg's astounding feat in having won five
straight Wimbledons, we should consider (1959 winner of
the Australian and Wimbledon titles) Alex Olmedo's observation
when he says, "Nobody mentions the fact that he [Gonzalez]
beat every Wimbledon champion 10 years in a row . . . if
there had been open tennis, he might have won 10 Wimbledons."
The record shows that most Wimbledon winners have won at
least one other slam tournament. Hence, it would not compromise
our credibility unduly to believe that Gonzalez, conqueror
of every Wimbledon champion for 10 years, would not have
won at least one other title each of those 10 years. That
would make it at least 20 slam titles, and probably a few
grand slams! That's dominance!! Is there any other tennis
player on record who comes anywhere close to that?
S. L. Price in Sports Illustrated ("The Lone Wolf," June
24, 2002) writes: "Pancho Gonzalez may have been the best
tennis player of all time . . . Kramer rates Gonzalez a
better player than Sampras or Laver. Ashe called Gonzalez
the only idol he ever had. Segura, Olmedo and Ralston say
Gonzalez was the best player in history. Connors said once
that if he needed someone to play for his life, he'd pick
Gonzalez. Pasarell agrees: 'He was the toughest competitor
who ever played. He just fought and fought until he died.
. . . [In 1971] the 43-year old Gonzalez beat a 19-year-old
Connors from the base-line in the Pacific Southwest Open."
To illustrate how dominant Pancho was over these newly minted
winners of the amateur slam titles, we can highlight some
of the most stellar examples, who were advertised on winning
more than one of these titles in a given year "the world's
greatest tennis player." Some of them became outstanding
pro champions - once Gonzalez retired.
As a promoter of perhaps the most successful pro tour, Jack
Kramer tried recruiting the best competition against King
Gonzalez, usually "the world's greatest tennis player,"
like Tony Trabert, winner of Wimbledon and the U. S. Championships
in 1955, to sell tickets but also to topple Gonzalez, if
possible, with whom he had a running feud over their contract.
To provide this competition against Gonzalez, Kramer had
these novices especially coached for months. Even with all
the coaching his new over-matched rival received, Gonzalez
demolished Trabert 75-27 in 102 matches. This dominance
over Trabert continued throughout all the tours they played
together for years.
The next "world's greatest tennis player" who fell haplessly
into the clutches of the King was Ken Rosewall, the player
whom Laver would consider twice as good as Lew Hoad and
convince him he would have to learn to play tennis all over
again. On his first pro tour in 1957, Rosewall quickly learned
why Gonzalez was King, losing to him 51-26 in 77 matches.
Gonzalez maintained this dominance all the years they played
against each other in the pro tour. For many years battling
Laver on the pro tour, Rosewall gave Laver as much as he
got from him.
Some sportswriters believe that if Lew Hoad had not been
plagued by his chronic bad back, which shortened his career
on the court, he might have become the greatest tennis player
in history. Nevertheless, at his best, Hoad fell victim
to Gonzalez's dominance like the rest of the others, losing
to Gonzalez in every tour they played over the years beginning
with Hoad's initial pro tour. Hoad, after being coached
personally by Kramer for months, while Gonzalez was not
playing and gaining 15 pounds over his competitive weight,
started strong against the King, leading 18-9 at the outset.
But, as soon as Gonzalez got back into shape, he quickly
turned the tide and overwhelmed his young talented opponent
beating him 51-36 in 87 matches.
Bad back or not Hoad, with all his skills, talent, power,
and speed, was not only domi-nated by Gonzalez, but even
Rosewall, who was himself dominated by Gonzalez, could say
in Dave Anderson's The Return of Champion [a book on Gonzalez]:
I'd say that I've beaten Lew [Hoad] in 20 of our 25 matches
in the last three years." Hence, however much good press
Hoad may receive from the sportswriters, it is clear he
could not even dominate a player consistently thrashed by
In Elliot Berry's Topspin (1996), Rosewall expresses his
respect for Gonzalez's greatness: "I am an admirer of the
Gonzalez game . . . Pancho is the toughest opponent I have
ever faced [not excluding his long-time rival Laver]. .
. . He is difficult to play because of his big serve and
his all-around ability. . . . Pancho is not only a great
athlete but a great retriever as well. I have to class him
a notch above Hoad."
Gonzalez's charisma and spectacular dominance on the court
was a magnet for the general tennis public as well as Hollywood
celebrities. Bud Collins remarks: "A large crowd was behind
Gonzalez, as always. To many of them the dark, appealing
Gonzalez was tennis. . . . A pro stopover without big Pancho
was a big bust, most promoters felt."
Collins put it in broader perspective when he added: "For
a decade Gonzalez and pro tennis were synonymous. A promoter
couldn't hope to rally crowds unless Pancho was on the bill.
The other names [Trabert, Rosewall, Hoad, Laver, Cooper,
Segura, Anderson, Sedgman, Olmedo, Parker, MacKay] meant
Tennis great Don Budge is said to have remarked that Gonzalez
is, "the greatest player never to have won Wimbledon." In
an earlier interview with Budge, Julius Heldman says: "For
decades players argued the relative merits of Tilden and
Budge when discussing the never-ending question of the greatest
player of all time. Budge himself now feels that 'Gorgo'
[Gonzalez] has earned the No. 1 spot."
When asked the same question, as to whom he thought the
greatest tennis player of all time was, Hoad, who became
one of Gonzalez's friends on the tour, said humorously,
with no ethnic slur intended, "That Mex-y-can prick Gonzalez."
Yet, there are those persistent parasitical sportswriters
who will search out the most negative things about Gonzalez,
however inane or irrelevant, perhaps with the hope of making
themselves look good if they can bring down the giant. Some
attack him because Gonzalez was "a loner," difficult to
get along with, as if that had anything to do with his greatness
as a player. Others will try to tear him down because of
his "hot temper." Still others will cast their stones condemning
him for his many marriages (six). But even his detractors
do not and cannot attack him as a player or his record.
Much ink has been spilt over the subject of Gonzalez's "hot
temper." Allen Fox, long-time practice partner of Pancho's
and sportswriter, comments on it: "Pancho was one of those
rare individuals who could actually play better when he
got mad. . . . Anger motivated Gonzalez. It increased his
adrenaline and made him more alert, quicker, stronger and
more focused on winning than ever. He became meaner and
more menacing. Compared to Gonzalez, Connors and MacEnroe
Though sportswriters are wont to give a most negative spin
to Gonzalez's hot temper, Allen Fox, as much object of Pancho's
"fury" as anyone, could say after years of playing with
him, "I idolized, loved, and profoundly respected [Gonzalez]
Kramer echoes Fox's assessment of Pancho's mastery when
angry: "When he [Gon-zalez] got upset, he played better.
. . . He played mad most of the time."
Laver (often thumped by Gonzalez despite differences in
age) joins the chorus: "We hoped he [Gonzalez] wouldn't
get upset; it just made him tougher." And though Laver could
at one point say, "He [Gonzalez] was ungracious to say the
least, a loner, and an absolute jerk on court," he could
still appreciate the beauty of Pancho's play. "I was finding
myself enthralled to watch him [Gonzalez], just like any
Almost in apotheosis in speaking of Gonzalez's enthralling
play, sportswriter Rex Bellamy notes: "To watch Gonzalez
was to think in terms of poetry and music. He did not play
the game. He composed it."
Commentators who have never seen Gonzalez play may speak
of him as being a one-dimensional player: cannon serve and
volley. But his game would not have seemed poetry to keen
observers if that were the case. Allen Fox explains: "His
[Gonzalez's] reputation was as a huge server, but in reality,
Gonzalez was a 'touch' player. . . . Pancho had wonderful
control and an instinct for putting the ball in awkward
positions for his opponent."
Fox also observes what probably cannot be said of any other
player in history: "I never personally witnessed Gonzalez
lose his serve when he was serving for a set or match .
. . His first serve went in with uncanny frequency . . .
his nerves were steely calm under pressure. In the clutch
Pancho simply did not miss."
In the clutch Pancho simply did not miss! He never lost
his serve while serving for a set or match! What other tennis
player can lay claim to such adulation?'
We have employed various criteria for measuring the greatness
of Pancho Gonzalez in contrast to other tennis players proclaimed
the best, and in a few cases incorrectly consi-dered the
best in history. We have seen how the record shows that
Gonzalez has won hands down. Not only have we seen his dominance
over all the competition but also for a much longer span
than anyone else can boast, as well as ranking No. 1 many
more times than anyone else.
However, we might add another dimension that cannot be attributed
to anyone else in history: winning at the highest level
of tennis longer than anyone else. Unlike other top players
who fizzled out at a relatively early age, Gonzalez could
still beat the top players on any given day and win pro
tournaments well into his 40s. Borg retired in his twenties
and was unable to compete against top players when he tried
a come-back within just a few years. McEnroe was another
washout when he retired young and could not compete a few
months later. Neither Budge nor Laver was at all effective
as top competitors by the age of 37. For all practical purposes
Laver was burnt out after he won his pro grand slam in '69
at age 31. Budge retired and tried a come-back at age 37
in an attempt to re-place Jack Kramer as King of the Court
in 1953 only to be crushed by Gonzalez, who had already
unofficially dethroned Kramer in '51.
At the top of his game Gonzalez retired a couple of times,
but was lured back to compete again in the pro Championships,
which he won handily. However, just before retiring for
the first time, after the 1960 tour, Gonzalez was made victim
of Kramer's "bounce rule," an attempt by Kramer to control
Gonzalez's indomitable serve-and-volley game for the 1960
tour, and to level the playing field because there was not
enough competition for him from among the top pros. The
idea was to let the ball bounce before the server could
return the service return. But in spite of this ploy (just
one more of Kramer's schemes in trying to control Gonzalez),
the swarthy King demolished all the available competition,
like Rosewall, Trabert, Olmedo, Segura, Ashley Cooper ('58
winner of Wimbledon), and Mal Anderson (winner of the U.
S. Championships) 45-8 (at one point it was 21-1).
Gonzalez returned to win the 1961 pro tour championships
after retiring at the end of the '60 tour, beating Hoad,
Barry MacKay, Butch Buchholz, Olmedo, and the new star Andres
Gimeno, who lost to Gonzalez 16-9, after which Gonzalez
retired again. This time he retired for good as a regular
member of the tour to give more of his time to drag racing,
for which he also had a fanatical passion.
However, the ticket office had been crying out to Gonzalez
in the intervening years to boost sales and replenish his
depleting bank account. After making some preparations,
Gonzalez entered the 1964 World Professional Championships
and won, beating Gimeno for the title as he had done the
last time, as if the King had not left the tennis scene
at all in beating all the pro competition, as he had done
so convincingly for so many years.
At this stage in Gonzalez's career, at the age of 36 and
beyond, there was still no "tie-breaker" in the game, hence
it became the strategy of his younger opponents to make
every effort to survive the first three sets to tire the
aging tiger, who almost certainly would have won many more
titles at this stage in his career had he had the advantage
of today's tie-breaker.
Even without the tie-breaker Gonzalez entered and won the
1964 U. S. Professional Indoor Championships at White Plains,
N. Y., beating Anderson, Hoad, Rosewall (No. 1 pro champ
since Gonzalez's retirement), and Laver (recent 1962 winner
of the amateur grand slam).
Howard Cosell commented on this amazing victory by Gonzalez
some years later: "I remember once when he [Gonzalez] was
long past his prime watching at . . . White Plains (1964
U. S. Professional Indoor Championships) . . . where he
consecutively defeated Anderson, Rosewall, Hoad, and young
Rod Laver to win the tournament. . . . It struck me as one
of the extraordinary achievements in my lifetime in sports."
After a study made by James Fixx, concerned with highest
achievement by athletes of advanced age (sponsored by Nike
Sports Research Laboratory), he concluded: "Gonza-les's
extended heyday could not, of course, last forever, but
while it did it was incompar-able."
That "incomparable extended heyday," unmatched by any other
tennis player in history,"continued through the next few
years. In 1965 at Dallas, Texas, at age 37, Gonzalez entered
and won the first nationally televised tennis tournament,
in which he beat the top pros, including Sedgman, Rosewall,
In another exhibition of extraordinary tennis, at age 38,
Gonzalez traveled to Wembley, England once again to enter
and win, once again, this time beating Rosewall 15-13 in
the semi-final, and, with only a 10-15 minute rest, beat
Laver in three sets in the final for the title.
To inaugurate the "open era" in 1968, Gonzalez, now 40,
entered the French Open, easily beating Istvan Gulyas (finalist
the previous two years while tourney was still for amateurs)
in straight sets, devastated amateur champ Roy Emerson in
the quarter finals but lost to Laver in the semi-finals.
Still remembered as perhaps the most astounding match of
all time is the contest between Gonzalez (age 41) and Pasarell
(age 25 with a 1967 No. 1 U. S. ranking) at the 1969 Wimbledon
Open, in which the two played their historic 112-game, two-day
marathon, in which Gonzalez finally prevailed when his much
younger opponent crumbled under the overwhelming pressure.
Despite his incredible heroics in this match, however, Pancho,
still without benefit of the tie-breaker, lost to his protégé,
Arthur Ashe, in the fourth round.
But that same year Pancho entered the 1969 Howard Hughes
Open and won the tour-nament, annihilating new tennis darling
John Newcome (with a No. 1 world ranking in '67, '70, and
'71), beating Rosewall, Stan Smith (No. 1 world ranking
in '72), to whom Laver lost, and Ashe (winner of U. S. Open,
Wimbledon, and a No. 1 ranking in '75) in three easy sets
for the title, 6-0, 6-2, 6-4.
The following year Gonzalez (age 42) was lured to play in
a special winner-take-all format against Laver (1969 winner
of the only men's pro grand slam) at Madison Square Garden
before a full house of 15,000 fans, which Gonzalez won.
Two weeks later in Detroit with the same format, Gonzalez
battered a hapless John Newcome (age 26) in three easy straight
sets, 6-4, 6-4, and 6-2.
Gonzalez returned late the same year for the 1970 Howard
Hughes Open, in which he trounced Andres Gimeno, Tony Roche
(No. 2 world ranking in '69), and beat Laver in four sets
for the title. At practically age 44, Gonzalez entered and
won his last pro tour-nament at the 1972 Des Moines Indoor
Championships, beating Frenchman George Goven, as the oldest
player in history to win an ATP open tournament. That same
year Gon-zalez played in 14 tournaments, winning 32 of 43
matches (for a .744 average).
One can read in the USTA Official Encyclopedia of Tennis
that: "Many experts believe that if 'open' tennis had come
in the early 1950s Pancho Gonzalez would have been ranked
as the world's greatest player."
The Official USLTA Yearbook adds another dimension: ". .
. [that Gonzalez is] one of the most colorful players ever,
with unsurpassed ability to raise his game when threatened
Julius Heldman observes: "The Gonzalez game has always been
admired by every top player. He has no critics. He is universally
recognized as a great stylist, a hungry competitor and winner."
We have already heard some of this admiration from some
of Gonzalez's rivals. We can complete our discussion with
the feelings of a few more, beginning with perhaps his severest
tormentor, Jack Kramer: "As far as I can see, he has no
weaknesses; he is as perfect a player as I have ever seen
or hope to see."
Though little love was lost between Gonzalez and Trabert,
the latter has been able to say: "Gonzales is the greatest
natural athlete tennis has ever known," and "There's no
question that Pancho has become one of the best of all time.
I rank him along with Bill Tilden, Don Budge, and Fred Perry."
Another intense rival and admirer, Marty Riessen in Match
Point comments: "Pancho was an idol of mine, as he was to
many kids taking up the game in the fifties . . . of all
the players I have seen (Hoad, Rosewall, Laver, et al.),
I would have to rank Pancho number one . . . simply because,
at his best, he could beat everybody else."
Barry MacKay, when asked whom he thought was the greatest
player of all time in the San Francisco Examiner, said:
"I guess . . . I'd go with Pancho, then Jack Kramer, Lew
Hoad, Rod Laver and probably Don Budge. . . . I've seen
. . . films of him [Tilden]," but "even though he was a
fine athlete, I don't think he was as great an athlete as
Gonzalez, Hoad, or even Laver."
opponent in the historic match at Wimbledon, Charlie Pasarell,
familiar with today's competitors, offered as recently as
1995: "His greatest asset was that if you had to beat one
player for one match where everything was on it, among the
players of all time, the player I would take would be Pancho
More recently in the San Francisco Chronicle, "King of the
Court" (1999), sportswriter Bruce Jenkins makes a telling
comment about Gonzalez in relation to today's stars: ".
. . you put everyone on equal terms, and he [Gonzalez] kicks
everyone's butt. . . . As much as I like Sampras, if you
put these two guys on the court, I'm betting that Gonzalez
is the last man standing."
Former player, coach, and manger, Ion Tiriac, commenting
in 1995, the year that saw the loss of Gonzalez, Hoad, and
Fred Perry, said: "Pancho was more the man of the day than
anyone else. . . . He was the beginning of professional
tennis as we know it. He was the father of everything we
have today. . . . He was one of the greatest . . . "
Though there are still those who qualify Gonzalez's greatness
with "he was one of the greatest," we should no longer hide
shyly behind such qualifiers and give the man his due by
admitting without the smallest doubt that the unadulterated
and objectively assessed record patently shows Gonzalez
to be the greatest tennis player of all time - by far!
We can only wonder why the record has not been set straight
these many years, and why since Gonzalez broke the "racial"
barrier long before Althea Gibson or Arthur Ashe, Gonzalez
has not received at least as much credit, having been the
trailblazer who brought down the ethnic barriers in a previously
all-white sport, especially considering that Gonzalez was
a much superior player to Ashe. So, whether for being the
first to overcome the prejudices of the white tennis community
or for his surpassing accomplish-ments and talent, it is
criminal not to give Gonzalez what he has richly earned.
Fair is fair. The grand slam venue in New York has been
named after Ashe. Where is Pancho's stadium, the man who
"was the father of everything we have today" in tennis?