Richard "Pancho" Gonzales
Taught Himself To Play
Richard Alonso "Pancho" Gonzales, born in Los Angeles in 1928, was the son of Mexican immigrants Manuel and Carmen Gonzales. When Manuel was a child, he walked with his father 900 miles, from Chihuahua, Mexico, to Arizona. He later settled in South Central Los Angeles, where he met and married Carmen, and worked as a housepainter. Despite his father's strictness, Gonzales, one of seven children, was often a wild and unruly child.
When Gonzales was twelve years old, he asked for a bicycle for Christmas, but his mother gave him a 50-cent tennis racquet instead. Gonzales instantly took to tennis, teaching himself how to play on the public courts of Los
Angeles. He played as often as he could, and by the time he was fourteen he was winning tournaments in his age group.
After two years of high school, Gonzales dropped out so that he could devote himself to tennis full time. The decision would hurt him, though, because as a dropout he was banned from many junior tournaments. Turned away from tennis, Gonzales became a trouble-maker. At fifteen he was caught burglarizing houses. "You don't know the thrill of going out the back window when someone's coming in the front door," he once told his brother Ralph, as quoted by S.L. Price in Sports Illustrated.
Gonzales spent a year in juvenile detention, then joined the U.S. Navy in 1945. After two years of swabbing decks in the Pacific, Gonzales—who had been AWOL (absent without leave) and had returned late from leave a few times too many—received a discharge for bad conduct. Returning to Southern California, he resumed playing tennis, making astonishingly quick progress in the sport. Within a year he was playing the major national men's tournaments. In March 1948 he married Henrietta Pedrin, learning soon afterward that she was pregnant with their first child. Together they would have three sons.
Gonzales shocked tennis fans around the world when, at age twenty and ranked only 17th in the country, he won the 1948 U.S. Championships. His opponents took note of Gonzales's deft, powerful serve, strong volleying skills, and fierce competitiveness. Yet Gonzales was in many ways a fish out of water in the predominantly white, Anglo-Saxon world of tennis; he was sensitive to any slights against him, and resented Anglos' habit of calling every Mexican male Pancho. Nevertheless, he thrived, defending his title at the 1949 U.S. Championships, where he prevailed in a five-set match against tennis great Ted Schroeder. Also that year, Gonzales took two doubles titles—the French Open and Wimbledon—with his partner Frank Parker. After these triumphs, Gonzales joined U.S. tennis's touring circuit, accepting a contract of $75,000 under tennis pro Bobby Riggs. As a professional player in the touring circuit, however, Gonzales was no longer eligible to play in the major tournaments.
At first, the career move nearly proved to be his undoing. The touring circuit paired Gonzales against 28-year-old champion Jack Kramer, considered to be the best player in the world. Gonzales, as the challenger, faced Kramer in 123 matches, of which he won a mere twenty-seven. His reputation tarnished by the losses, Gonzales took a four-year break from tennis, but by late 1954 he got a second chance. Kramer invited him to join another round-robin tour, and Gonzales was back playing tennis, and often winning. Among those he beat was Tony Trabert, winner of three Grand Slam titles in 1955; Gonzales took 74 out of 101 games. Yet "[Gonzales's] nature had changed completely," Kramer recalled to Price of Sports Illustrated. The once happy-go-lucky player became "difficult and arrogant. Losing had changed him. When he got his next chance, he understood that you either win or you're out of a job."