“Gorgo” was what Ken Rosewall and Rod Laver called their fellow pro Pancho Gonzalez. It was short for “gorgonzola”—i.e., the Big Cheese. The young Aussies, who dominated the barnstorming pro tours for much of the 1960s, resented the fact that the moody and mercurial American always got the lion’s share of attention from press and fans. No matter how many matches, tours, or tournaments that Muscles and the Rocket won, people still believed that the only thing keeping the pros in business was Gonzalez’s dark allure. Whether he was playing brilliantly or behaving badly, all eyes were on the Big Cheese.
“Pancho always found a way to upstage you,” Laver said, referring to their respective performances at Wimbledon in 1969. By then both men had come in from the pro-tour cold and been allowed back onto Centre Court; yet from Laver’s viewpoint, nothing much had changed. While he went on to win the tournament that year, and complete his second calendar-year Grand Slam in New York two months later, the only match anyone wanted to talk about was Pancho’s now-legendary first-round win over Charlie Pasarell.
It’s easy to understand why. Gonzalez-Pasarell more than stands the test of time, for its statistics and its symbolism, and most of all for the show that Gonzalez put on in front of a Wimbledon crowd that had missed him during his prime.
He was a 41-year-old grandfather by then, but after two decades as a professional outlaw, the world’s most famous player had entered the world’s most famous tournament for just the second time since 1949. He had a lot to prove, and he proved it all in the space of 24 hours. Few players have ever been booed as lustily by the well-mannered Wimbledon audience as Gonzalez was when he walked off, enraged, after the first day’s play had been brought to a halt. And few players received as long and loud an ovation as that same man did when he walked off, head high, a winner the next afternoon.
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Gonzalez never won a popularity contest among his peers, but he was a revered figure among the generation that came up after him, and he was a generous, if tough-minded, mentor to them. As one of the game’s few Mexican-American stars, Gonzalez came from the wrong side of the tennis tracks in Los Angeles, and he was especially partial to fellow outsiders. He worked with Jimmy Connors and Arthur Ashe in the 60s, as well as Pasarell.
The native of Puerto Rico, who was 16 years Gonzalez’s junior, traveled often to the older man’s home base in Las Vegas to train. With his help, the smooth-swinging Pasarell—“Watch Charlie play and copy his strokes,” Ashe told students—became the No. 1 U.S. amateur in 1967. That year, with his upset win over Manuel Santana on Centre Court, he also became the first man to knock out the defending champ in the opening round at Wimbledon. Pasarell had a knack for first-round classics at the Big W. In ’68, he lost a five-setter to Rosewall, but even that much-celebrated match was instantly overshadowed by what happened a year later.
Pasarell and Gonzalez began the proceedings by holding serve 45 straight times between them; Gonzalez served to stay in the set 18 times, and saved 11 set points. Finally, on the 12th, a Pasarell lob found the back edge of the baseline and the first set was his, 24-22. From there, Pasarell, “swaggering, splay-footed across the baseline, gripping his racquet like a tomahawk,” as British writer Richard Evans put it, made short work of the second set 6-1.
“Short work,” but not quick work. The set began a little after 7 P.M. on a gloomy day, and Gonzalez spent most of it complaining about the deteriorating visibility. “How the hell can I play when I can’t see?” he bellowed, while slamming his Slazenger Smasher in front of the umpire’s chair. When the frame clipped the BBC’s courtside microphone, “the explosion sounded like the end of the world” to television viewers at home, according to Evans. “Their screens were filled with a close-up of the Gonzalez scowl, and, with the light so bad, the whole face was tinted green, making him look like some great Aztec god—an awesome, fearsome sight.”
Still, god or no god, even this Lion in Winter, raging against the dying of the light, had to bow to Wimbledon’s iron-fisted authority. These were the days when the tournament was run by grim-faced former military men; the tournament referee, Captain Mike Gibson, remained unmoved by Gonzalez’s histrionics. For his part, Laver sounded unmoved as well: “No light is ever good enough for him,” he said of Gonzalez. Play was finally called at the end of the second set, and Pancho stalked toward the locker room accompanied by a storm of boos and whistles. He was so agitated that he stayed up until 2:00 A.M. the next morning, fuming over a backgammon board.
The weather was much better the following day, but Gonzalez’s play wasn’t. Pasarell nearly sent a serve into the old man’s gut; he had to double up and fend the ball off with his racquet at the last second. But while Gonzalez bent, he was never broken, and the student gradually began to feel the pressure of trying to finish off the master. At 14-15 in the third set, Pasarell double-faulted twice and lost his serve for the set. Confidence shaken, he double-faulted again to the lose the fourth set 6-3. Pasarell had begun, as Bud Collins said, to look “like someone run over by a geriatric in a wheelchair.”
In the fifth set, the rallies grew more dramatic and complex as the two men, who had faced each other so often, went to greater lengths to gain an edge over the other. “Gonzalez smelled blood,” Evans wrote. “He knew where to look for it, too.” But few expected Pasarell to lose a final-set war of attrition to the weary-looking Gonzalez, who had begun to lean on his racquet and stall for time between points.
So it came as no surprise when Pasarell reached match point first—three of them in a row, in fact—with Gonzalez serving at 4-5, 0-40. Pasarell had tormented Gonzalez with his lob earlier in the match, but now two of them landed inches long. Seven deuces later, the tension building with each of them, Gonzalez held for 5-5. At 5-6, he had to do it all over again, digging himself out of another 0-40, triple-match-point hole to hold for 6-6. Then, three games later, serving at 7-8, Gonzalez faced a seventh match point.
“A hush fell over Centre Court,” Evans wrote. “Could this be it? Up went another Pasarell lob as Gonzalez’s tired old legs carried him to the net. But, as gasps were emitted all around the arena, the ball again landed inches long.”
From there, Gonzalez held, and Pasarell snapped. The Lion in Winter, the Old Wolf, the Big Cheese: He lived up to all of his nicknames by winning the final 11 points to claim a 22-24, 1-6, 16-14, 6-3, 11-9 victory. It had taken five hours and 20 minutes and lasted 112 games, shattering the previous 82-game Wimbledon record of 1918. You don’t see set scores as mind-boggling as those today, and that’s partly a product of what happened between Gonzalez and Pasarell. Their match hastened the advent of the tiebreaker, which made its debut the following year at the U.S. Open. After Wimbledon finally instituted the tiebreaker at 6-6 in the first four sets, it seemed that those 112 games would never be surpassed. But they were, in 2010, when John Isner and Nicolas Mahut played 183 games (138 of them in the breaker-less fifth set) in their own first-round epic.
Gonzalez would win his next two matches in straight sets before going out in four to Arthur Ashe in the round of 16. But he had made his point on those opening two days, one stormy and one sunny, when he showed everyone at Wimbledon, and everyone in tennis, what they had been missing for all those years.
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