Column: The greatest player ever that might have been passed over
Twenty-one years after the “Lone Wolf” died there are still many who think that just maybe the one-and-only Pancho Gonzales was the greatest American tennis player and maybe throughout it’s history so far.
A good question would be, “Based on what exactly?”
That’s a harder to answer than you might think due to the fact that he played the game prior to open tennis (1968) which then allowed all tennis players to compete against one-another. Prior to that you were either an amateur or professional with two separate tours.
Richard was given a cheap racquet by his mother and as a self-taught player really took to the game and became quite good on the public courts around Los Angles at the age of 12.
It finally reached the point where the powers to be in Southern California couldn’t ignore the 6’3” teen and finally sent him to play the tournaments back east, where in 1948 and 1949 he won the U.S. Championships in singles.
The then happy-go-lucky kid was made an offer to turn pro by Bobby Riggs to tour against the great Jack Kramer for a sum of money he couldn’t turn down. And he learned a lot as he got beat 96 times with only 27 wins, while making $85,000 in 6 months - but it took it’s toll on him. Gonzales became a loner, his smile disappeared and he became somewhat arrogant and mean. Losing had changed him.
The lesson Richard learned almost too well was that in the professional ranks, you either won, or you lost your job to the new amateur about to turn pro-at least as far as the barn-storming tours went.
Along with his two U.S. Championships as an amateur, Pancho, won an additional 15 professional slam singles titles.
Seven times he won the World Pro Tour, taking on all new-comers to the Professional ranks.
Being #1 in the world more times and longer than anyone has to date. Federer, Nadal, Sampras, Tilden, Laver, or Rosewall.
If he had stayed amateur he surly would have amassed even more titles than the 18 that Roger Federer currently has - at least one can assume that with the record he had in the pro’s.
But he had some flaws that stood out. He wasn’t liked very well by this peers, or the people that surrounded him, including his wives - of which he had 5. He lost many sponsors due to his dark moody side and it hurt him later in life.
That probably hurt him in the accolades of which he deserved many for his special talents and successes - he was respected on the court, but off it he wasn’t. If he hadn’t died at such an early age (67) maybe he would now be the poster-boy of how to over-come depression, he didn’t get that chance.
Pancho Gonzales was inducted into the International Hall of Fame in 1968, just shy of the age of 44 he won his last professional tournament; in all he won113 singles titles - and beat every good player of his era and many way after his best years were gone.
Bud Collins once said, “If I had to have a player play a match for my life - I’d want Pancho Gonzales to be that person.” A story in itself.
Should he receive the honors that Arthur Ashe, Billie Jean King and others in the U.S. have received - probably, will it happen....probably not.
Chris Howard is a local USPTA Tennis Professional with over 40 years in the racquet and fitness industry. He can be reached at 928-642-6775 or firstname.lastname@example.org.