Great article, should be required reading for those that think that all GOAT debates begin & end with Sampras or Federer. "Remembering Big Pancho" By Joseph B. Stahl Tennis Week Curator & Editor At Large Joseph B. Stahl has served as an analyst for Radio Wimbledon since 1995. The announcement, in connection with a series of events celebrating Latino Tennis, of the showing of a documentary film on the life and tennis-playing career of the great Richard Alonzo "Pancho" Gonzales (I don’t use the final-z spelling to which Pancho legally changed his name late in life at the silly insistence of one of his petulant wives) on August 16 in the Bronx during the 2006 GHI Bronx Tennis Classic in New York, again at the 2006 U.S. Open on September 3, and again on PBS television on the evening of November 23 (Thanksgiving), prompts in me the following thoughts about this titanic competitor whom I saw playing in the 1950s. The 6-foot-3 1/2 Pancho Gonzales burst upon the tennis scene like a fireball every time he set foot on a tennis court. There was something smoldering about his behavior and his power that was overwhelming to both opponents and spectators. I feel sorry for the relatively recent newcomers to tennis who seriously believe that Rod Laver is the greatest tennis player who ever lived. They not only never saw Gonzales at his best in the middle to late 1950s, they are also ignorant of records that conclusively demonstrate that Gonzales, way past his prime in his early forties, was still a better player than Laver even though Laver was ten years his junior. Gonzales was not only beating their hero then, he was doing it in five-set matches when serious money (for that era, the early ’70s) and pride and prestige were all on the line. They are also blinded by a meaningless record, the fact that Laver won the Grand Slam — all four majors in a calendar year — twice (in 1962 as an amateur and in 1969 as a pro after open tennis began), and Gonzales never did. Reference to that record is meaningless because Gonzales was banned from trying for it from the age of twenty-one on, once he turned professional at that age in 1949 before open tennis began in 1968, by which time Gonzales was thirty-nine, a circumstance that effectively exiled him from the conventional record-books for life. Keep in mind that I will always be in awe of the things that Rod Laver could do with racket and ball. Laver’s running shotmaking was simply fantastic and amazing, and Gonzales’s was not. Laver did things that you had to see to believe, and even then you were left with doubts, for he literally invented new ways of pulverizing tennis balls — which he did with shocking brutality, using a forearm that looked as big as a treetrunk —, and he was the first left-hander with a one handed backhand who could hit it with not only slice but also flat or with overspin. But Gonzales didn’t need to be fantastic and amazing to beat Laver, and Laver needed to be fantastic and amazing just to stay on a tennis court with Gonzales. The reason is that Gonzales’s game was just bigger, much bigger, period. When Gonzales toured head-to-head in 1955-56 against Tony Trabert, a big brute of a strongman in his own right, Trabert had to reach for the sky just to get a racket on Gonzales’s serve, that’s how high that powerhouse weapon bounced, and if Trabert was able to return it at all, Gonzales was already at the net needing no more than two shots at most to win the point. Trabert, mind you, is one of only eight men in history (besides Grand Slammers Don Budge and Laver) to have won three of the four majors in a calendar year (the others are Jack Crawford, Fred Perry, Lew Hoad, Ashley Cooper, Roy Emerson, Jimmy Connors and Mats Wilander), yet Gonzales ruthlessly humbled Trabert on their tour, 74 matches to 24, Trabert managing to do well against Gonzales only on the clay segment of that series, where Gonzales’s serve was somewhat neutralized. Laver did do supernatural things, but he was a little guy, about 5'-7", and he didn’t have a big serve. He and Ken Rosewall, a demolition expert able to blow up much bigger games than his own — he had the technical expertise of a safecracker or a lock picker, no big shots but he could put every ball on a dime —, who astoundingly remained in the world’s top ten for twenty-five years (prompting Bud Collins to call him "the Dorian Gray of tennis," a reference to the fictional character in an Oscar Wilde novel whose portrait conveniently grew old for him while he stayed young), were competitive with each other throughout their careers, Rosewall beating Laver twice when the chips were down in the 1971 and ’72 World Championship Tennis finals, the latter of which is a famous all-time match. But Rosewall on his pro debut had been massacred on tour by Gonzales so badly, 50 matches to 26, that Kramer had offered Gonzales higher pay to go easy on him. Of course Rosewall got much better after that, even Gonzales characterizing him as some kind of freak because little Kenny was the only player he ever saw who kept improving even after he was thirty(!), for remember, Rosewall reached both the Wimbledon and U.S. finals in 1974 when he was only a few months shy of his 40th birthday! The only man who could stay with Gonzales once the latter hit his full stride (Jack Kramer had slaughtered Gonzales on their 1949-50 tour, 96 matches to 27, but that was when Gonzales was a rookie) was Hoad. Hoad was leading Gonzales 18 matches to 9 when Hoad’s chronically bad back went out on him, and thereafter Hoad was not competitive on their tour in 1958-59, Gonzales winning it 51 matches to 36, although Hoad did have a 15-14 winning record over Gonzales as part of a round robin tour in the following year. Yet, three years later, when Laver turned pro, Hoad mercilessly beat up on Laver so badly, fourteen straight matches to none, that Laver, who had just won the first of his two Grand Slams less than a year earlier, told a reporter who asked him how he felt after that drubbing, "It’s nice to find out where you really stand in the world." Hoad, however, a modest man, later told me in his correct Australian mispronunciation that " ‘George’ [Laver’s middle name] becyme a helluva plyer awfter thet," implying that the sides had not been fair at the time and that the later Laver might have beaten him. But to this day Laver will tell you that Lew Hoad was "my idol both on and off the court." Hoad, on the other hand, when asked by me whom he thought to be the greatest ever, immediately responded, "That Mexican *****" — referring to his good pal Gonzales (they had a genuinely affectionate relationship, prompting Kramer to observe that they should put on the gravestone of the universally and immensely likable Hoad that "even [the perennially morose] Pancho Gonzales liked him"). I have my doubts as to whether Laver even at his best could have lived with heavyweight hitters like Ellsworth Vines, Budge, Kramer and Hoad, who all had huge, overpowering attacking games like Gonzales’s, and doubts as well as to where Gonzales himself stacks up against those tigers. I do give Pancho an edge over them all, as I did in a 1993 article, but only a slim one, and with misgivings. Vines and Hoad were very much up-and-down erratic geniuses who had bad days in which they could and did lose to anybody, but it was generally agreed among their peers that when they were on, "you might as well just go have tea or go home" (Budge), and Gonzales said of Hoad, "When Lew Hoad was at his peak nobody could touch him." People ask me where I think Roger Federer would fit in with that mix of bombers. Forget about it: as hard as it had always been to compare players of different time periods within the wood-racket era, the fact that tennis with modern rackets is a completely different sport makes it impossible to compare players across the technology gap. All I can tell you is that if you gave Federer a wooden racket and told him to go out and beat Gonzales at his best, my money would be on Gonzales, though conversely if you gave the mid-1950s Gonzales a high-tech racket and told him to beat Federer today, my money would have to stay in my pocket for that one. Gonzales was a fulminating maniac on a tennis court, and it’s hard to see him losing to anyone when he was at the top of his powers, but if Gonzales had to face a shark like Federer while using a strange racket, you’d have to be mad as a hatter to count Federer’s chances out completely.