Pancho Gonzales might be the greatest tennis player you’ve never heard of.
But how could a former top-ranked player, who won 15 major singles titles and is the greatest Latino tennis star America has ever produced, get lost in time? That’s what his son Dan and nephew Greg have been wondering since Pancho passed away in 1995, and even long before that.
Gonzales and his peers have been casualties of the historical distinction made between the Open Era, which began in 1968 when federations started allowing pros and amateurs to compete amongst each other, and all that preceded it. Gonzales was inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame that same year, but before 1968, only amateur tennis players were allowed to compete in amateur slams, like Wimbledon, the U.S., French and Australian championships. He won eight U.S. professional championships.
His son and nephew maintain that Pancho hasn’t been treated as legendarily as his resume would warrant, mainly because people have chosen not to recognize tennis history predating 1968.
“Going back politically, you had the professional guys trying to do their own thing, and then you had the governing bodies of the U.S., Wimbledon, French, and others, they were trying to keep things amateur,” Greg Gonzales told Latino Rebels via Zoom. “They had their amateur champions, and around the 1980s, they started emphasizing the Grand Slams. My uncle was the best in the world for 10 years! This emphasis on the Slams, as opposed to being number one or the best in the world, really cut my uncle out.”
Even though Gonzales won nine U.S. Open Pro and four Wembley Pro titles, they’re not even recognized on his Tennis Hall of Fame profile, which does note: “Perhaps the only blemish on his career might be labeled as the best player in history never to have won Wimbledon.” The profile also credits Gonzales for being No. 1 in the world from 1952 to 1960. In his New York Times obituary, 1938 Grand Slam Champion Don Budge agreed that he was the best never to win Wimbledon.
On the Tennis Channel’s Top 100 Greatest Tennis Players of All-Time ranking from March 2012, Gonzales stood only at no. 35 overall. It is one of the only lists you’ll find him on, his son Dan says.
“They didn’t recognize the fact that he was the number-one player in the world by playing independent pro tournaments, not being on the tour,” he told Latino Rebels. “Today they would think of that as a heroic thing for a person to take off like that and go do that, you know? My dad was not looked at that way. He had to fight to get back on the tour, and when he did get back on, he dominated.
“For the next eight, nine years,” Dan added, “they tried to change the rules on them. They tried to keep him from coming to the net. They made him serve three feet behind the baseline. I can’t imagine them doing that to a server today because he dominated so much with his serve. They never really gave him credit for his game.”
Of what people remember about the elder Gonzales, you’ll often find mentions of his “fiery” demeanor. He was passionate on the court, some might say temperamental. As a Mexican American, he bad boy image. Some players with such an attitude would be lauded —à la McEnroe— but Gonzales wasn’t, despite his greatness.
The Gonzaleses contend that his personality greatly outweighed the good Pancho did, at least according to the media. He worked with young players as they came up, like Arthur Ashe, who once called Gonzales his “only idol.”
“Skin-wise, he was the nearest thing to me, and he was also the greatest player in the world,” said Ashe. “That’s a pretty good combination.”
Pancho also helped coach the Davis Cup team in the 1960s, which was uncredited, according his son and nephew. And he was unapologetic in pushing tennis officials to improve conditions for players, as he was in questioning why he should cooperate with reporters who he felt constantly threw mud on his name.
“If they’re looking for something on my dad, they’re looking for his six marriages,” Dan joked.
“It’s a long-standing issue,” nephew Greg said. “When he passed in 1995, I sent some information to a couple of big publications and they never did an article on him or anything. It’s been duly noted that the tennis world didn’t recognize my uncle’s passing to a certain extent. If a guy, let’s say, won Wimbledon, and they decided he was good enough and enough of an attraction, he would turn professional, and he would challenge my uncle. (Pancho) beat every Wimbledon Champion for 10 years in a row. (Ashley Cooper) won three Slams in 1958—my uncle played him like 15 times the next year when the guy turned pro, (and) the guy didn’t win a match.”
A big part of why Gonzales remains forgotten is simply tennis itself, argues Meadowlark Media’s Howard Bryant, a best-selling author who has extensively covered tennis and other sports at ESPN. While Bryant acknowledges that time plays a significant factor, he insists that the sport does itself no favors.
“When you erase a piece of your institutions, you erase the people who came along with it as well,” Howard told Latino Rebels. “(Gonzales is) a victim of that erasure. Tennis has essentially made a demarcating line between its hundred-year past and the (54 years) of the Open Era. And so anything that existed before the Open Era, people act like it never happened.
That’s especially compounded when you have the amateur vs. professional split, and Pancho should be in the middle of that. The sport itself was already erasing certain guys for going pro the way he did, the way Rod Laver did, the way a lot of those famous guys did.”
Bryant thinks tennis suffers from a kind of self-induced amnesia.
“Tennis has done a horrible job tracking itself,” he explained. “They have not done a service to anyone who played or anyone who wants to research the game. It goes back to what one of my favorite writers, David Maraniss, always says: ‘History writes people out of the story, and it’s our job to write them back in.'”
And, yes, like many people who are excellent at their craft —and like most human beings with a pulse— Gonzales was complicated.
Born and raised in Los Angeles, he began cutting classes to practice tennis at 15, was taken to court for truancy, and eventually dropped out of school. his son says. Tennis clubs didn’t welcome him, and many junior tournaments turned him away.
His story began as one of a young man on the verge of being failed by the streets. He hung around ’a mischievous crowd of people,’ as his son Dan says, with whom he broke into houses. He was sent to an all-boy juvenile delinquency prison for a year and a half, unable to play tennis. At 17, he had a choice of joining the U.S. Navy as World War II was ending or go to adult prison. He served in the military for two years and reportedly earned a bad conduct discharge in 1947 at 19 years old.
As he displayed continual excellence throughout his career beginning shortly theraafter, his early years of delinquency were seemingly held against him, the Gonzaleses say, even as Pancho overcame all of it.
“The media basically took to him and looked at the bad boy image that he had when he was a kid, being a high school dropout and basically kid from the hood. They played up on that,” Dan said.
“The USTA is doing the Hispanic Initiative, but eight years ago, we were just beginning (The Pancho Foundation) at that time,” said Dan, president of the foundation. “Now we have the biggest name they could ever have. We have their greatest American champion they ever had.
“My dad was a man who, (after being) a high school dropout and being in prison for a year and a half, he went back at the age of 55 to get his GED. That’s how much he believed in education. He believed in the kids working hard. And if they were truly looking for Hispanic kids to have a hero, this man would have been something to follow,” Dan added.
On the importance of similar stories to Pancho’s, Bryant notes that “we don’t tell the stories that are the most important. We tell the stories that are the most repeated. So, if you want to stay in the public memory and you want to stay in the public eye, people have to keep repeating your story.
“The biggest thing that has happened to the Pancho Gonzaleses of the world, him specifically, is you also haven’t had a Latino player come up and revive him, because that’s how media works. The next great American Latino player is going to conjure up memories of the last great Latino American player, which is Pancho Gonzales. And when you don’t have that, he sort of floats out there in the history. It’s important to revive players like him.”
And the importance of reviving him is not simply because he was a Latino dominating a predominately white, genteel sport—but because he was awesome.
“At the U.S. Pro Championship, when he won the tournament eight times in nine years (from 1953 to 1961), they just gave him the trophy because he won it so much,” Dan recalled, laughing. “It was one of those trophies you got that one year and put your name on it. There were 10 names on it—eight of them were his. How can you not give recognition to a guy like that?”
“When you’ve been the number-one player in the world, that speaks for itself,” Bryant argued. “When you’ve won the U.S. championships twice, that speaks for itself. When you are the greatest Latino player that this country has ever produced, that speaks for itself. And yet, nobody knows who you are.
“This goes back to the stories that get told. How many are told? There are all kinds of different reasons for that, but the biggest thing is it’s up to us as a society, and as journalists and storytellers and all that—who are we going to revive? Whose stories are we going to keep alive?
“Tennis needs to find a way and make it a priority to return those great players to their glory from the 1950s, the guys that did go pro,” Bryant added. “Part of the reason they’ve been erased was because they went pro, which was an incredibly anti-labor thing to do. These guys wanted to make money and be paid as professionals, so you erased them from the history books? It’s awful for the players because they had a right to earn.”
And Greg Gonzales punctuates by comparing Pancho to another one of the greatest athletes of the 20th century, one whose rise overlapped with the later portion of Pancho’s career.
“In my mind, like a Muhammad Ali was for boxing, my uncle was for tennis,” Greg said. “I saw him when he’d go down into the tennis court. The excitement in the arena was like Ali.”
And like Dan, he asks the exact same question, word-for-word, with a smirk: “How can you not give recognition to a guy like that?”
Bryan Fonseca is an award-winning content creator and sports journalist. He is also the author of Hidalgo Heights, and the founder, host and executive producer of the Ain’t Hard To Tell Podcast and Side Hustle. Twitter: @BryanFonsecaNY