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San Diego Sportscene

It Used to Be for Love or Money

December 12, 1987|Dave Distel

Bo Jackson was born too late.

He might have been the perfect tennis player 40 years ago, when the game was played by people who wore white and did not have so much advertising stitched to their apparel that they looked like bouncing billboards. And awards ceremonies were not sullied by the presentation of . . . ugh . . . paychecks.

Tennis was a hobby.

Or maybe Pancho Gonzalez was born too early.

Gonzalez played tennis like a man ablaze. It was not a hobby to him, not back then. He wanted to win, and the idea of making money while he was at it did not seem at all ugh-ly.

"The game had to go to money to be played hard," he said. "Otherwise, it was just a hobby."

Gonzalez considers tennis to be a fine hobby and an excellent form of exercise these days, but now he is 59 years old. But the Pancho Gonzalez who won the United States Lawn Tennis Assn. national singles championships in 1948 and 1949 would have spit at the idea that what he was doing was something akin to collecting stamps or playing canasta.

Gonzalez and the game went to the money. He never won another USLTA national singles title nor a Wimbledon singles title, because he had the audacity to turn professional. In those days, the tennis hierarchy considered professionals to be creatures only slightly less salacious than practitioners of the world's oldest job description.

Consider that the USLTA national championship is now known as the U.S. Open, and consider also that winning a U.S. Open title is now one of the twin pinnacles of professional success in tennis. Consider that the other such pinnacle is Wimbledon.

And then . . .

. . . Imagine how many such championships Pancho Gonzalez might have won. He was the undisputed best in the world from the mid-1950s to 1960 and one of the best in the world into the 1960s. In 1970, in fact, he beat Rod Laver and John Newcombe.

Pancho Gonzalez does not wonder.

He sat on a veranda overlooking the tennis courts at the Rancho Bernardo Inn one afternoon this week. The sun was dipping toward the horizon, and he squinted off into the distance like a rancher checking his spread. His face was tanned and his hair was streaked with gray.

"It doesn't make sense to look back in that fashion and try to make out what might have been different . . . or to wish it had been different," he said. "I can't think about maybe being born later and having a chance to play McEnroe and Lendl and Wilander and make a lot more money."

He made money, good money, and is comfortable now in what he calls semi-retirement. He lives in Las Vegas with his wife, Rita, gives instructions by appointment and plays maybe a half-dozen senior tournaments a year. Teamed with doubles partner Bill Davis of Rancho Mirage, he begins play in the Senior Grand Prix Masters Championships on the Rancho Bernardo courts at noon today. Rita, meanwhile, is at home, writing what Gonzalez calls the real biography of Pancho Gonzalez.

Tennis people recognize the real Pancho Gonzalez, and they either interrupted a conversation Thursday with requests for autographs or slipped up close with cameras and stole pictures.

It might have been crazy for Gonzalez if he had been as good as he was in today's celebrity fish bowl.

"Look at it this way," he said. "If I had been born later, I wouldn't have been able to play against guys like Frank Sedgman and Pancho Segura and Jack Kramer and Bobby Riggs. I wouldn't want to think I wouldn't have had a chance to know those guys, either. We had great times. We were pioneers."

They were, indeed. These were guys who took a game, or hobby, if you will, and helped put it on top of sports pages.

To do this, Gonzalez--and his contemporaries--had to play tennis in places it was never meant to be played.

"We went places where people didn't know which end of a racket to hold," he said.

All it took was a dimly lit armory or maybe a high school gymnasium with a wall four feet beyond the base line and a basketball net hanging where a ball was tossed on the serve. That was the way it had to be, because professionals were outcasts in the Taj Mahals of tennis.

"But," Gonzalez said, "it was a financially rewarding way of life."

As in most sports, the financial rewards are being reaped more by today's players than by the athletes who came before such things as free agency, endorsements, agents, television and, in the case of tennis, open professionalism.

The younger Gonzalez quite likely would have complained about the seeming inequity . . . or injustice. He was a volatile sort who respected tennis as a profession and did not hesitate to register dismay when conditions were not conducive to the best of tennis. He was frequently at odds with Kramer, who was promoter as well as player.

"I didn't always see eye-to-eye with Jack," he said. "When you're playing for money, it changes the nature of the game, and I suppose I did become temperamental. But we played in some awful conditions, and I think (Kramer) sometimes paid more attention to money than conditions."

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