Happy Birthday, Pancho

Written by: on 9th May 2012
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Happy Birthday, Pancho  |

By: Jack Neworth

The son of a milkman, actor/director Robert Redford grew up in the 1950’s in Santa Monica in the shadow of the dream factories where movies were made. Rebellious, he had two sports heroes, Ted Williams, whom some consider the best baseball hitter of all-time and Richard (Pancho) Gonzalez, whom some consider the best tennis player of all-time.

Neither was exactly a “people pleaser” but in an era of oppressive conformity it was inspiring to see an athlete go their own way and still excel. As a result, fans and peers who loved each, did so with a remarkable passion.

Redford was 16 when he met Pancho, strictly by chance. A promising junior tennis player, Redford was a ball boy at the prestigious L.A. Open when Gonzalez asked the eager teenager if he’d warm him up.

Redford raced onto the court intending to impress his hero with brilliant shot making so that Pancho would surely have to ask, “Say kid, what’s your name?”  Instead, after five minutes of Redford going for winners Gonzalez snarled, “Hey, just hit me the balls, okay?”

Thoroughly embarrassed, Redford resumed the warm up by hitting the balls to Gonzalez. Sure enough, after ten minutes Gonzalez thanked Redford and disappeared into the locker room.  Even though he never met Gonzalez again, Redford still considers that day as among the finest in his life. “He just got to me,” he said years later, “for above all there was grace.” Today, May 9th, would have been Gonzalez’ 84th birthday.

Last July I was writing a tennis column about the upcoming L.A. Open (Farmers Classic) at UCLA and was struggling to find an angle. For inspiration, I searched the tournament website and made two startling discoveries.

One, I hadn’t realized the tournament began as far back as 1927 or that “Big Bill” Tilden had won the initial championship. And two, that Pancho Gonzalez won the event in 1949 and then again in 1971.  Twenty-two years apart?  Surely it had to be a typo. It wasn’t.

In 1971 Pancho was 43 while his opponent, Jimmy Connors, was a month shy of 19. And yet, shockingly, Gonzalez won the championship 3-6, 6-3, 6-3. How was that possible?

Searching the Internet for answers I came upon a YouTube video, a trailer to an award-winning documentary about Gonzalez. (Including interviews with Redford and Connors.) The film was entitled Pancho Gonzalez: Warrior of the Court. At the bottom of the page was a section for comments so I inquired how I could find out more.

There are many disadvantages of the cyber age not the least of which is the excessive time one can spend on the computer. (I plead guilty.) That said, the next day not only did I have the documentary but it was delivered to me by the film’s director and co-executive producer, Danny Haro.  In fact we watched it in my living room. (Now if only Scorsese would do that.)

And so began my fascination with the extraordinary life and talent of Richard Alonso (Pancho) Gonzalez. The son of an immigrant house painter, Gonzalez was born in 1928 and raised in Los Angeles in the shadow of the Memorial Coliseum where the world’s greatest athletes often performed.  Naturally athletic himself, the incorrigible Gonzalez took up tennis at age 12 and was completely self-taught as he practiced endlessly on public courts near the Coliseum.

A mere eight years later Gonzalez shocked the elite tennis world by winning the first of his consecutive U.S. Championships. At the time the sport was lily white and not exactly thrilled that their champion was a person of color. Often referred to as “the Jackie Robinson of tennis,” Gonzalez had taken the game from behind country club walls and onto the streets.

But whereas Robinson was coached to be unemotional, the 6’3” movie-star handsome Gonzalez had a fiery temper. On his way to eight years as the world’s #1 player (still a record) Gonzalez is frequently credited with having revolutionized the game with his huge serve and remarkably graceful footwork. But his competitive fury always made him controversial.

But Gonzalez’ was more than a sports story, it was an epic American tale.  In 1918, his grandfather and father walked barefoot 500 hundred miles of Sonoran desert to America fleeing the bloody revolution that killed much of their family. (Perhaps it was that inherited DNA that propelled Gonzalez to the  ‘71 victory over Connors who was less than half his age.)  Pancho’s embattled life embodied the 1950’s American dream which appeared so idyllic but masked widespread racial and class discrimination.

Never fully appreciated, in 2011 Gonzalez was finally inducted into the U.S. Open Court of Champions. Though it had been nearly sixty years since he had met Pancho, Redford asked to a part of the ceremony and his heartfelt contribution was touching to the crowd at Arthur Ashe Stadium.  Days later, I heard through a mutual friend that if there were ever a screenplay about Gonzalez’ life, Redford would be interested in seeing it.

Well, after three months I had written one. In fact “Fury and Grace”

currently sits in Redford’s Santa Monica office where I’d like to think it’s aging like a great wine.  But, more importantly, today is Pancho’s birthday. Were he alive I bet he’d still be playing tennis. And were he playing, I bet he’d be winning. The truth is he just got to me, too.  Happy birthday, Pancho.

(Jack Neworth can be reached at [email protected].)

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