Richard “Rancho” Gonzales
Richard “Pancho” Gonzales broke down color and class barriers while he became a dominant and exciting tennis player. He drew unprecedented crowds to his sport. Gonzales was born in South Central Los Angeles to poor working class parents who had emigrated from Mexico. When he was twelve, his mother gave him a secondhand tennis racket.
He began hanging around the nearby public courts, watching the other players, observing their technique, and practicing late into the evening. At the age of fourteen, with only two years of experience, the self-taught Gonzales earned the number one ranking in southern California for his age.
Soon after, the Southern California Tennis Association (SCTA) suspended him for poor attendance at school. Gonzales quit tennis and drifted into a life of delinquency. At seventeen, after a year in a juvenile hall, he joined the U.S. Navy. The structured discipline of the armed forces did not suit his independent nature, however, and he was back home in a year.
In 1947, after a three-year layoff and with only a few months of preparation, Gonzales reached the finals of the Southern California Tennis Championship. He lost to Jack Kramer, the number one player in the nation. Gonzales’s impressive performance earned him a spot on the eastern amateur circuit.
He performed remarkably well there and returned to California as the seventeenth-ranked player in the country. Again, organized tennis suspended him, this time for a violation of an obscure rule. Many Gonzales supporters believed that the all-white tennis establishment was determined to keep a young man of Mexican ancestry from breaking into the sport.
Gonzales, however, remained undaunted. He improved his nation¬ al ranking to eighth and won the National Clay Court Championship and the U.S. Lawn Tennis Championship. In 1948 and 1949, he won the U.S. National Championship, today known as the U.S. Open. Later in 1949, he turned professional.
Gonzales soon became the best player on the professional tour and arguably the best player in the world. He remained dominant through¬ out the 1950s, winning the U.S. professional championship seven years in a row, from 1953 to 1959. Gonzales drew immense crowds throughout his career.
They came to see his graceful style of play and brilliant shot mak¬ ing, as well as his fiery temperament. His out¬ sider status also attracted new fans to the staid, tradition-bound sport of tennis. His domi¬ nance and fan appeal helped propel tennis to a new level of popularity.
In 1968, Gonzales was inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame. The next- year, as a forty-one-year-old grandfather, he won a first-round match at Wimbledon. At the time, the match was the longest one in the tournament’s history. Gonzales continued to play into the early 1970s, stretching his career over four decades.