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Pancho Gonzales: The Man to Play for the Earth
In part one of an out-of-this-world, pressure-packed tale—one man and one woman to play for the fate of the planet—an American legend is called up to serve.
Published Jan 12, 2022
Billie Jean King said it best: "Pressure is a privilege!" In Pressure Point, players, legends and coaches take a deep dive into the polarizing topic of pressure in tennis.
This film explores that notion, and examines the various dimensions of pressure associated with the sport—from its scientific definition, to how Roger, Rafa, Novak and Serena handle pressure-packed situations.
Streaming now on TennisChannel.com (in Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Greece, UK and India)
The time is the imminent future. As long anticipated, space invaders have at last made their way to Earth and claimed the planet for their own. But as fate has it, the invaders play tennis, and are willing to give the planet the chance to earn its freedom in the form of two singles matches. Zed and Zee are the invaders’ respective male and female racquet-toting representatives. Here now, the tale of an intriguing pressure situation: one man and one woman to play for the fate of the planet.
“Where is he?” asked Zed. “Is he going to default?”
Looking out the window, Vic Braden heard the roar of a sports car. Braden had spent years apologizing for this man’s rudeness, be it everything from his refusal to sign autographs for children to berating officials, treating his peers dismissively and insulting potential sponsors.
“There he is,” said Braden. “There’s Gorgo.”
The man was Richard “Pancho” Gonzales, tennis’ original fire-breathing dragon. “Gorgo” was the nickname he’d been given after winning the US Nationals (precursor to the US Open) in 1948. Soon after that, in the wake of a few losses, a peer questioned Gonzales’ staying power, dubbing him a “cheese champion”—as in Gorgonzola cheese. But the next year, in the US finals, Gonzales made a major comeback to win 16-18, 2-6, 6-1, 6-2, 6-4. That was just one of many high-stakes five-setters Gonzales won in the 1940s, 1950s, 1960s and 1970s—the last being a big win over Rod Laver at the age of 41.
In came Gonzales. Per usual, he was glaring.
“What the hell is this match about, Vic?”
“Well, Richard, it’s for the fate of the planet.”
“Sounds like another one of Jack’s schemes. He better not be cheating me this time.” Jack was Jack Kramer, the great player and pro tour promoter from the 1940s well into the 1980s.
“Jack has nothing to do with this one,” said Braden. “It’s strictly between you and Zed here.” Zed reached out his hand, but Gonzales didn’t even look at him, opting instead to wrap his grip.
As Zed and Gonzales walked on to the court, Gonzales turned to his opponent.
“The net’s a bit high, don’t you think?”
“Looks fine to me.”
“Really? You want to play with a net that’s too high? Kid, I thought you were smarter than that.”
“Kid? I’m 70 million years old. I span eons.”
“Well, let’s see your span when you’re at the net.”
During the warmup, Zed moved forward to take practice volleys. One missile after another flew off Gonzales’ racquet, each aimed at Zed’s body—chest, stomach, legs.
“This match will be two-out-of-three tiebreak sets,” said the chair umpire.
“Two-out-of-three?” asked Gonzales. “We’re playing for the fate of more than seven billion people and you want to play two-out-of-three? Nothing doing. And tiebreakers? That’s a joke. Those things weren’t even invented until I was 41. Fix it, Vic.”
As the first set got underway, Zed was struck by the contrasts in Gonzales’ game. The serve was a bomb, a silky-smooth delivery that was impossible to read. Time after time in the first set, Zed held break points. Each time, Gonzales fought them off. As Julius Heldman wrote in his article, The Style of Pancho Gonzales, “At 0-40, 15-40 and 30-40, his batting average on first serves must be .950. It is incredible to have so high a percentage while still hitting hard and almost flat. The number of aces served on these important points is also astonishing.”
At 0-40, 15-40 and 30-40, his batting average on first serves must be .950. It is incredible to have so high a percentage while still hitting hard and almost flat. The number of aces served on these important points is also astonishing. Julius Heldman
But other than the serve, Gonzales hardly gave Zed a ball he could really sink his teeth into. His backhand returns were chipped, soft and low. Occasionally, Gonzales cracked a forehand, the ball going to various corners of the court. Sometimes Gonzales surprised Zed by coming in on a return. The Gonzales volleys were deftly angled, placed accurately into one comprising corner after another. This was how, at the age of 43, he’d beaten the 19-year-old Jimmy Connors in the finals of the 1971 Pacific Southwest Open, a Los Angeles-based tournament that at the time was considered one of the most important events in the world. Amazingly, Gonzales had also won that tournament in 1949 and 1969.
The first set was epic, Zed only winning it in the 46th game. By now, the two were playing under the lights.
“Are you sure those lights are as bright as possible?” asked Gonzales. “If they’re not, I’ll quit now and pretty soon we’ll all be leaving on that spaceship that probably couldn’t outrace my T-Bird.”
“They’re fine, Richard,” said Braden.
“I don’t think so,” said Gonzales.
“Play on,” said the umpire.
An angry Gonzales won just one game in the second set.
Zed surely felt good about his chances. Meanwhile, in the locker room, Zee began her pre-match exercise routine. Earth’s female representative was nowhere to be found.
Zed and Gonzales resumed. As Gonzales prepared to return serve, he asked the chair umpire, “Is this guy foot-faulting?”
He asked the same question two games later.
Zed’s plan was to tire Gonzales out with low returns and lobs. Deep into the third set, on a changeover, Gonzales yelled, “Hey, Zeek, or whatever your name is: I know what you’re trying to do—and it’s not working.” Gonzales had said these same words to Charlie Pasarell during the 5-hour-and-12-minute match they’d played at Wimbledon in 1969. On that occasion, Gonzales had rallied from two sets to love down to win.
As the third set continued, Zed earned several match points, all on Gonzales’ serve. Gonzales erased every one of them, always with a fine first serve, that if it wasn’t an ace or service winner was briskly followed up with a volley winner that either darted or died on the grass (Zed had let Gonzales choose the playing surface).
Somehow, Gonzales won the third set in the 30th game. Jolted by having seen those match points vanish, Zed missed three first serves in his opening service game of the fourth set and, quite quickly, Gonzales had taken it into a fifth.
Pasarell, watching the match in the stands, turned to a friend and said, “I don’t care if Zed has beaten people all over the galaxy. He has no idea what he’s going to see now. And the funny thing is, I don’t think Pancho cares about the billions who are hanging on the fate of this match. All he’s thinking is this: beat this guy, beat this guy.
More match points came Zed’s way. On two of them, Gonzales volleyed short. But instead of striking a passing shot, Zed floated a lob, only to see each go an inch long.
Zed served at 9-all. At 15-all, he approached to Gonzales’ backhand, figuring the next shot would be the soft crosscourt chip he’d played all day. But instead, for the first time all match, Gonzales drilled one down the line. Shocked by that, Zed double-faulted at 15-30 and on break point netted a low Gonzales return.
Leading for the first time in the match, Gonzales knew precisely what to do. He opened the game with a sharp service winner down the middle. Next, a crisp forehand volley behind Zed. Then, a wide slice Zed could barely touch. On match point, Gonzales aimed his serve at Zed’s body and watched the return float wide.
“Tough one, kid,” Gonzales said as the two shook hands.
The final score was 22-24, 1-6, 16-14, 6-3, 11-9—precisely the tally when Gonzales had beaten Pasarell in their Wimbledon epic. Versus Pasarell, Gonzales had fought off seven match points. Versus Zed, he’d faced 14.
“See Charlie,” said Gonzales, “this guy’s twice as good as you. Or maybe twice as bad. You tell me.”