Gonzales vs Pasarell
It’s 1969 in Wimbledon, England, the opening round of the Men’s Tennis Championship. The first round match is between Charlie Pasarell and 12th seeded, Pancho Gonzales.
Charlie Pasarell was a 25-year-old Puerto Rican who two years earlier had won the NCAA Men’s Championship while playing for UCLA. He was the #1 Amateur Player in the United States before turning pro in 1968.
His opponent was the volatile legend Richard Pancho “The Big Cheese” Gonzales. Born in 1928 in Los Angeles, Gonzales began his tennis career in his early teens in the Southern California Youth Tennis Circuit. After some minor scrapes with the law that got him suspended from the circuit, Pancho joined the U.S. Navy at the end of World War II. He was given a bad-conduct discharge in 1947.
Returning back to Southern California, Gonzales took up tennis again, and began playing the West Coast Tournaments. It started a rapid rise to the top of the tennis world. In 1948 as the 8th seed he won the United States Championship (now known as the United States Open) in overwhelming fashion, then for good measure defended his title in 1949. Pancho then turned pro, where he would be the world’s number one player for a record eight straight years (he still holds this record). By turning professional he was ineligible for the four major tournaments (Australian, French, Wimbledon, and U.S. Championships) until they opened their entries to pros in 1968. The 1969 Wimbledon was only the second time Pancho had played in the tournament. It had been 20 years since he had last played as a 21 year old.
On the cool cloudy day of the first-round match, play began at 7 PM. The players held the first 45 times they served. Gonzales had to save set point 11 times in the 18 games he served to stay in the set. Finally, on the 12th set point Pasarell broke serve on a magnificent lob that caught the back line to win the first set 24-22.
Before the second set began Gonzales asked the match referee, Mike Gibson, to suspend the match due to darkness but Gibson refused. Gibsons refusal ignited Pancho’s notorious temper as he shouted at Gibson “How the hell can I play when I can’t see?!” Taking advantage of Gonzales’ unhappiness Pasarell proceeded to dismantle the 41-year old 6-1 in the second set. Gibson then suspended play until the next morning.
The weather was sunny and pleasant when the two men resumed the match the next morning. Both players held serve in the third set until 14-15, when Charlie Pasarell, feeling the pressure of not being able to close out the old man, double faulted twice to lose his serve and the set. Pasarell again doubled faulted on a critical break point in the 4th set to allow Pancho Gonzales to even the match at two sets apiece making way for an epic fifth set.
Players were on serve when at 4-5 Pasarell seemed to take control of the match. He had Gonzales down 0-40 on Pancho’s serve, but two of Charlie’s lobs to close out the match landed just long and Gonzales got it back to 40-40. Seven deuces later Pancho held serve to make it 5-5. Pasarell held easily and Gonzales again was serving to stay in the match at 5-6. Once more he fell behind 0-40 on his served, but rallied back to hold his serve and continue match. Charlie Pasarell would again work his way to a 7th match point at 7-8, only for Gonzales to survive again and hold serve. Finally, at 9-9 the legend took charge, breaking Pasarell’s serve at 0-40, then winning four straight points on his serve to win, 22-24, 1-6, 16-14, 6-3, 11-9. The match took two days and a total playing time of 5 hours and 12 minutes. This is the match that inspired the Major Championships to implement the Tie-Breaker at 6-6.
Charlie Pasarell would continue playing on tour until 1977, rising as high as 11th in the world rankings. He was also an accomplished doubles player. He currently resides in Indian Wells, California.
Gonzales would go on to win in the second and third rounds in straight sets before falling to Arthur Ashe in the Fourth Round in 4 sets. Pancho would play on the Men’s Tour for another three years with mixed results. He died in 1995 at age 67 in Las Vegas, Nevada lonely and broke. The last of his five wives was Rita Agassi, sister of Andre Agassi. Andre paid for the funeral.
Pancho Gonzales is one of the forgotten greats of tennis. There is a good argument that he is the greatest player of all time (more on that later). He should at least be in the discussion. He was clearly the best player in the 1950s, being ranked # 1 in the world in 1952, then from 1954-1960. He had a winning record against most of the top players of his era, going 101-59 vs. Ken Rosewall, 51-36 vs Lew Hoad, along with overwhelming advantages over Pancho Segura and Tony Trabert. The only greats he had a losing record to were Jack Kramer, (most of that came from Kramer’s 96-27 advantage during Gonzales’ first years as a pro in 1949-1950) and Rod Laver. Laver, the only man to win two calendar Grand Slams (1962, 1969), held a 42-22 match advantage over Gonzales, but Gonzales held a 4-2 advantage over Laver in 1970 when Gonzales was 41 and Laver 31. Laver was still ranked first in the World that year but the 41 year old had a winning record against him. Included in that match total is the Laver/Gonzales most famous match held at Madison Square Garden, winner take all for $10000. Gonzales defeated Laver before 15000 spectators. Laver is regularly called the greatest player of all time. Gonzales and Laver first met in 1964, when Gonzales was 36 years old, facing each other 64 times until there last meeting in 1970, when Pancho was 42. Remember; Laver was #1 in the world every year between 1964 and 1970, proving that Pancho Gonzales was still competitive with the best players in the world well into his 40s.