TBT, 1969 Wimbledon: The lion inside Pancho Gonzales comes out

TBT, 1969 Wimbledon: The lion inside Pancho Gonzales comes out

The roots of this Centre Court moment went back more than 20 years. At the end of 1949, Gonzales had turned pro—and thus been banned from such prestigious events, forcing him to play in dim-lit arenas, on surfaces that ranged from slick wood to cow dung.

The summer of 1969 was in its first week. This first round Wimbledon match had now lasted five hours and 12 minutes. Charlie Pasarell stood to receive serve. For the third year in a row, his opening-round match had proven exceptionally dramatic. Today, though, the 24-year-old Pasarell was about to learn a cruel lesson: A lion in winter is still a lion.

The man with the roar was Pancho Gonzales. The roots of this Centre Court moment went back more than 20 years. In the late ‘40s, Gonzales, a player who’d cut his teeth on the public courts of Los Angeles, had become the world’s best amateur. Only once had he played Wimbledon, losing in the round of 16 in 1949. At the end of that year, Gonzales turned pro—and thus been banned from such prestigious events as Wimbledon. Instead, over the course of nearly 20 years, Gonzales excelled in exile, playing superb tennis in dim-lit arenas, on surfaces that ranged from slick wood to cow dung. Often, his victims included the most recent Wimbledon champion, a bittersweet kind of victory that led Gonzales and others to ponder glories that might have been.    

The coming of Open tennis in 1968 had given the fiery Gonzales the chance to return to Wimbledon. That first year, after a semifinal run at Roland Garros, he’d played poorly, losing in the third round to Alex Metreveli. 

By 1969, Gonzales was 41 years old. He was also Pasarell’s idol and, while Pasarell was enrolled at UCLA, a frequent practice partner and mentor. Pasarell would credit Gonzales’ tutelage as a key factor in him becoming America’s No. 1-ranked amateur in 1967. That was the year Pasarell had beaten defending Wimbledon champion Manuel Santana in the first round.    

Pasarell and Gonzales entered Centre Court on a Tuesday night just before 6:30 p.m.  Each of them had serves that ranked among the very best in the game. The Pasarell motion was a full-bodied effort, marked by a profound hip and shoulder turn, a robust Cadillac of a delivery. Gonzales’ delivery was more compact, as elegant, sinewy, and powerful as a Mercedes. Through 45 games in those pre-tiebreaker days, each held comfortably. At last, with Gonzales serving at 22-23, Pasarell broke to win the two-hour opener. 

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Gonzales now made a plea to stop the match and resume the next day. No go came the word from Wimbledon referee, Mike Gibson. An angry Gonzales earned but one game in the 18-minute second set. Just prior to 9:00 p.m., Gonzales whacked his racquet on the umpire’s chair and left the court to a round of boos.

The match continued the next afternoon. It took a while, but on his eighth set point, Gonzales won the third set, 16-14. He made his way more easily through the fourth, 6-3.

One of Pasarell tactics was to wear Gonzales down with soft chips at his feet—both players served-and-volleyed on their first and second serves—and then throw up repeated lobs.

Though the term smack-talking was not yet deployed in 1969, Gonzales was an expert at it; even then, back in the days when tennis was theoretically far more civilized than what it would become in the next decade. On changeovers, as each player stood and toweled off alongside the umpire’s stand—no chairs for players at Wimbledon until 1975—Gonzales spewed a few words in Pasarell’s direction. “Charlie, I know what you’re doing,” he said, “and it’s not working.” 

Pasarell was well aware of Gonzales’ capacity for intimidation. He’d seen it first-hand when they’d practice and Gonzales would fire a ball out of the court. But just because Pasarell knew the drill, didn’t mean he was immune to it. Years later, a number of tennis notables, including Jimmy Connors, would cite Gonzales as the man they’d have play for their life. Now, in the fifth, Pasarell was going to learn why first-hand, in painful, drip-by-drip fashion.

Gonzales served at 4-5, love-40. A long lob. A missed backhand return. Another long lob. Gonzales held for 5-all. A similar scenario occurred in the next game, Gonzales again holding from love-40 down. And again, at 7-8, Pasarell held an ad, repelled by a forceful Gonzales.  Seven match points, gone.

The end came swiftly. At 9-all, Gonzales broke at love, then held at love to win the match by the now-unrepeatable score of 22-24, 1-6, 16-14, 6-3, 11-9. In the fifth set, he’d converted 57 of 69 first serves. Booed upon exit the night before, Gonzales now left to cheers, cheers he had heard all over the world, but never on tennis’ grandest stage. Not only could the lion still roar. He could kill.