Skip to main content
Original Issue


Even the memory of his earlier days as the world's most exciting tennis player seemed remote as aging Pancho Gonzalez made a pathetic bid to come back

It is a sad thing to watch the fall of a great champion, and sadder still when the fall occurs in an atmosphere of petty bickering and name-calling. Had Pancho Gonzalez been the athlete he once was, the schism dividing him and the rest of the pros might have made the U.S. Professional Grass Court Championships at Forest Hills last week the most exciting tournament yet. It might even have made Pancho a bigger hero than ever. But Pancho was far from the man he used to be.

Under a fierce 95° sun in the stadium where he had scored his greatest triumphs, the most colorful and controversial tennis champion since Bill Tilden was beaten in the first round of the tournament, and beaten hopelessly. Even worse, he looked pitiful. Attempting a comeback at 35, after 21 months away from competition, Gonzalez staggered about the court like a stunned fighter. The small crowd, which applauded happily when Gonzalez won the second set with shots that reminded them of other days, sat in silence at the finish. Even Gonzalez' opponent, Alex Olmedo, looked embarrassed when the match was over.

With Pancho fallen—and fallen with such a soggy thud—the bickerings in the world of tennis suddenly lost their power to generate excitement and became just mean. The meanness was perhaps most unfortunately evidenced in the post-match behavior of Pancho's principal off-court antagonist, Tony Trabert. Sitting in a box seat at courtside, Tony giggled with delight at the old champion's defeat. Trabert, a former champion himself, though never in a class with Gonzalez, is director of the International Professional Tennis Players Association, an organization from which Gonzalez had recently been suspended. "This is one of my happiest moments in tennis," Trabert said.

Bad blood has existed between Gonzalez and Trabert since 1956, when Gonzalez, whose pay was less than half of Trabert's, trounced the latter on Jack Kramer's pro tour. Gonzalez was angry that Trabert made more money than he did. Trabert resented the beating Gonzalez gave him. The feeling between the two was not softened this winter when Trabert replaced Jack Kramer as head of the tour and tried to sign Gonzalez. Pancho, making a comfortable living as a teaching pro at Huntington Hartford's Paradise Island, agreed to join only if he could play Rod Laver, the amateur king, man to man. Trabert preferred a round-robin format, and Gonzalez stayed home. Without Pancho, the only drawing card in tennis, the tour did poorly.

The latest disagreement between the two arose over the filming of a television series similar to those in golf. Trabert's IPTPA, of which Gonzalez was (technically) a member, shot several pilot films with such players as Ken Rosewall, Rod Laver and Lew Hoad. Gonzalez, a man with Hollywood connections, decided to promote his own series with Pancho Segura. The IPTPA promptly suspended both of them. Meanwhile, Trabert had gone to work for The Adler Company, a hosiery firm sponsoring an invitational professional tournament in California from which both Panchos were also barred. Gonzalez sued, and the IPTPA sued right back. Such was the mood as the players gathered at Forest Hills.

As luck would have it, the tournament draw pitted Gonzalez against Trabert in the first round. At least the original draw did. When Trabert heard about it, he declared that the seedings were unfair, rearranged them and had a second draw. Trabert said he thought the second draw would be best for the public and the players.

"What players?" asked Gonzalez.

"All," answered Trabert.

"You're not speaking for me," Gonzalez shot back.

"I hope I never have to," Trabert replied.

When it was stated during a court hearing that Gonzalez had received a $5,000 guarantee from the promoters of the tournament, whereas first prize money was only $1,400, the other players got as bitter as Trabert. "This man comes out of retirement, making 540,000 a year, and tries to break up our association," said Ken Rosewall.

"They won't even practice with me," said Gonzalez, "but I'm going to win this tournament and when I do, what are they going to do without the best player in the world?"

On the opening day of the tournament Gonzalez ate a sandwich and drank a glass of iced tea on the veranda of the West Side Tennis Club at Forest Hills. He was wearing yellow Bermuda shorts, a red, white and blue sport shirt, green shin-length socks and brightly shined loafers. His dark hair was long, movie actor style. Completely gone was the tall, shy boy of Mexican descent who had shot from nowhere to win the National Championship at this very club 15 years before. This man, despite his copper skin and the wicked-looking scar on his cheek, could have been born in Newport.

A photographer was buzzing around snapping pictures. "Why don't you give that thing a rest?" barked Pancho. A reporter, offering his hand, was told: "Don't bother me now." Gonzalez finished his lunch, watched a few minutes of the Hoad-Buchholz match and then got ready to play.

The first set was long. Olmedo had no trouble holding service. Gonzalez, on the other hand, was in constant trouble. He was slow getting up to net and he committed a steady stream of astonishing errors. When he made two of them in the 18th game, Olmedo broke through and won the set 10-8.

In the second set Gonzalez came to life for a few minutes. His timing sharpened and his energy was not yet exhausted. For a brief time he was a young man again, covering the court like an animal. He tore off five straight games to win the set 6-2. But in the third set he fell behind 3-0 and all but stopped playing, walking through the last three games to lose 6-0. The 10-minute rest period was not nearly long enough. Olmedo hit short shots and lobs, and the former champion chased them futilely, the loud clomp of his feet on the court revealing how heavy his legs were. At 5-0 Gonzalez managed to hold his serve, then lost four straight points and the match. As he dumped the final shot in the net, Gonzalez looked for a second as if he were going to throw his racket—or perhaps swallow it. Then, head down, he trotted to the net and gave Olmedo a bitter smile.

In the clubhouse Tony Trabert was having a ball. "The king of tennis no longer reigns supreme," he told reporters. "Gonzalez was thoroughly beaten and I enjoyed it very much, particularly after all the threats and boasts he's made. He's just not the man he used to be."

In another part of the clubhouse Gonzalez sat dejectedly on a wooden bench, a towel draped around his waist. "I don't like to quit like this," he said softly. "Such a poor showing. My legs just gave out." Then defiance crept into his voice. "One loss doesn't necessarily finish me. I'll still play any one of them anytime, if they dare. And I'll guarantee the gate. I'll play them Sunday, Monday, Tuesday..." His voice trailed off and reporters shifted uncomfortably from one foot to the other. "In any case," he said at last, "don't write my obituary yet."

Finished, Gonzalez rose, took a shower and dressed. He went downstairs to the club dining room where his wife was sitting alone in a corner. He sat down and took her hand. Then he quietly wept.