x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Gonzales patience paid dividends

Over the days of June 24-25 in 1969, Pancho Gonzales provided Wimbledon's Centre Court audience with a glimpse of what they had been missing.

There was a time when the best players in the world were excluded from Wimbledon. The four grand slam championships observed a strict "amateur only" policy. Such was the hypocrisy within the game that when the Australian Roy Emerson turned up in Paris for the French Championships each year, organisers would offer him US$1,000 (Dh3,670) to complete some form of bogus challenge.

In 1968 it was agreed to confine "shamateurism" to the dustbin of sporting history and embrace the members of the "outlawed" professional game; it was an invitation that came 20 years too late for Pancho Gonzales who was aged 40 when the French Open became the first Grand Slam event to welcome back those such as Rod Laver, Ken Rosewall and Lew Hoad. Even so, Gonzales, old wrinkly that he was, reached the semi-finals - beating Emerson along the way - before bowing to Laver.

Over the days of June 24-25 the following summer, Gonzales provided the Centre Court audience with a glimpse of what they had been missing during his years on the professional circuit when he contested what was arguably the longest match in Wimbledon history. With the opening day's play all but washed out, tournament referee Mike Gibson was determined to cram in as many matches as possible on the Tuesday and by the time Gonzales and his protege Charlie Pasarell - 16 years his junior at 25 - left the locker-room for their first round match at 6.30pm, it was into an already gloomy Centre Court they stepped.

The tennis was of the brightest aspect, however, pitting the athleticism of Pasarell against the guile of the old master. From 4-5 in the first set, Gonzales held serve 18 times - saving 11 set points along the way - before his ageing limbs won the argument over his indomitable spirit and he was finally broken allowing Pasarell to take the set 24-22 (tie-breaks are also a fairly recent phenomenon).

By now 9pm, all London was shrouded in darkness but as Gonzales began packing away his rackets in preparation for a well-earned soak in the bathtub came the order from Gibson: Play on. How can I play when I can't see?" growled Gonzales to umpire Harold Duncombe, perched on high in overcoat and hat. Offering imprecations to the lowering heavens, an angry Gonzales made no effort in the second set that Pasarell won 6-1 in 15 ugly minutes before being granted the right to stop work for the day.

With Pasarell requiring only one set for victory - when play resumed at 2pm the following afternoon - no-one could have envisaged that the curtains were about to open on the real drama. Game after scintillating game went with serve until Pasarell, serving at 14-15, cracked under the tension by delivering successive double-faults. Having been offered an unexpected lifeline, Gonzales ripped through the fourth set 6-3, but quite unbelievably - with the 41-year-old wilting - the best was yet to come; the climactic fifth set would be the stuff of legend.

At 4-5 0-40, Gonzales produced inspired tennis to save three match points although it was only after seven deuces that he held serve to level at 5-5. The next crisis was around the next corner; at 5-6 0-40, Pasarell held another three match points only for "Houdini" Gonzales to escape with an explosive smash, an exquisitely angled volley and a lightning ace. After five hours 12 minutes and 112 games, it was Gonzales who emerged victorious, the Centre Court scoreboard reading 22-24, 1-6, 16-14, 6-3, 11-9; Pancho Rides Again! trumpeted The Times of Fleet Street.

rphilip@thenational.ae