Before Isner/Mahut's 70-68, There Was Pancho Gonzales & Charlie Pasarell
One Wimbledon encounter 50 years ago forced officials to consider a definitive end: the introduction of a tie-break
Editor's Note: This story was originally published on 1 July 2019.
As The Championships this year implements tie-breaks at 12-12 in the deciding set, a decision based largely upon Kevin Anderson and John Isner’s 2018 semi-final, which ended 26-24 in the fifth set, eight years on from Isner’s 70-68 record-shattering fifth-set win over Nicolas Mahut on Court No. 18 in the 2010 first round, this year also marks the 50th anniversary of one encounter that originally triggered the need for a definite finish.
A 1969 first-round match between Richard Pancho Gonzalez and Charlie Pasarell, which commandeered Centre Court for 112 games, and five hours and 13 minutes, at the All England Club, provided the impetus for the introduction of the tie-break. At first, nine points in 1971 (the first scoring change at Wimbledon in 94 years); then 12 points when a match reached 8-8 in games in 1972; and, finally, in 1979, a 12-point tie-break at six-games all in any set, barring the fifth set.
With only a sinew of body fat, his hands clasped onto his knees, Gonzales, both gaunt and greying, looked every bit his 41 years, as he scowled and mumbled in the fading light on the second day of The Championships of 1969. Captain Mike Gibson, the 50-year-old Wimbledon Referee since 1963, watched on anxiously at first that Tuesday night, when Pasarell, 16 years Gonzales’ junior and a former protégé from UCLA, led his idol and mentor 24-22, having saved 11 set points in the third first-round match of the day on Centre Court. As darkness drew in, Gonzales’ mood grew darker; he wanted to retire to the locker room for the night, but Gibson was having none of it. Pasarell, who has spent the past 50 years attempting to forget the match, told ATPTour.com on the eve of the 2019 championships, “He was tired, and asked for the referee to the court. He said it was too dark and that he should suspend play, but Captain Gibson said: ‘play on’. Pancho didn’t take the answer ‘no’ too easily, so he got into an argument and slammed his racquet on the ground. He was yelling, the crowd got into it a little and started booing. I stayed out of it as he kept saying he couldn’t see the ball.”
Gonzales, the 1948-49 US Nationals champion, soon lost the second set too, 6-1 in 18 minutes, and play was finally suspended after two hours and 20 minutes. “Gonzales slammed down his racquets, throwing some into the net, and stormed off the court,” recalls Pasarell. “He was so angry. I went to the net and gathered up his stuff, asking one of the ball boys to help me return them to the locker room.
“My strategy had been to try and keep Pancho out there for as long as possible. He really liked to crowd the net, get in tight, very quickly, so I had started chipping the ball low, so he needed to bend down low, and then I threw up a lob. Just like his serve, he also had a great overhead, but I figured by repeating my tactic it would tire him out. I wasn’t counting on winning the first set, so it was a bonus to win it, let alone the first two sets.”
Shortly before 2 p.m. the next day, blessed with sunshine, Gonzales was reborn, having harnessed his anger. He needed eight set points to win the 30-game third set, 16-14, ending with Pasarell spraying a backhand wide. The old lion, who many historians consider to this day to be the sport’s greatest fighter, also took the fourth set 6-3, on a double fault from Pasarell, whose normally reliable serve faltered. “I knew I had to move him around, because I thought he’d be stiff,” says Pasarell. “But he won the third and fourth sets and I now decided to go for a few shots.”
Pasarell, aged 25, had a history of long matches, having partnered Ron Holmberg to a 26-24, 19-17, 30-28 — 144-game — quarter-final victory over Britons Mark Cox and Bobby Wilson in six hours and 20 minutes at the US National Indoor Championships in Salisbury, Maryland, on 16 February 1968. In finishing at 11 p.m., the match delayed the start of the night session at the Civic Center. Barely 15 hours later, Pasarell returned to the court in a 16-14, 4-6, 8-6, 4-6, 6-3 loss to Clark Graebner in the singles semi-finals.
On 26 June 1969, the second day of their duel, Pasarell knew too that the self-taught Gonzales, with his smooth, athletic and rhymical game would not fold easily. “Every week, I played Pancho and afterwards, at the Los Angeles Tennis Club or Beverley Hills Tennis Club, we’d sit down and have a lemonade or ice tea,” says Pasarell, remembering his student days when Gonzales coached at UCLA. “I would ask him a lot of questions and quickly realised what a ferocious - and mean - competitor he was. Once, he asked me to hit with him at 1 p.m., but I had to miss part of anthropology lecture to be there. I arrived 15 minutes later. He said, ‘Do you have any balls?’
“I forgot tennis balls, so I went into the pro shop to get two tins. We started a match and he was up a set and 5-2. I was struggling. He stopped the match and said he’d give me a 15-minute lesson on my backhand volley. I needed to stiffen up my arm and be a lot more aggressive. He then said, ‘Let’s finish the match’. Somehow I held onto my serve it’s 5-3, I broke his serve for 4-5 and then held onto my serve for 5-5. Now he was really getting angry at himself. He was muttering to himself about losing concentration. I end up winning the set, he went ballistic and took all six balls and hit them over the fence, never to be found again. He got his racquets, left the court and got into his GT Mustang car and he sped off. I was left motionless on the court. That was typically Pancho. He didn’t call me for a few days, but did so and said, ‘LA Tennis Club, 1pm’.
Gonzales attempted to preserve his energy in the fifth set, but Pasarell still created opportunities to close out the match.
“I had seven match points, twice 0/40 on his serve,” remembers Pasarell, who competed with one racquet in the decider, having already broken strings in his two favourite frames. “One shot that I remember, it was amazing. He always got his first serve in, but this time on match point he hit a second serve. I thought I’d go for it and struck a backhand return to his backhand side, he dived for it full stretch and fell on the court. The ball hit his racquet, which flew out of his hand. The ball had an unbelievable amount of backspin and came over the net, but the ball bounced back into the net. I was there, but my racquet got tangled up in the net, so I couldn’t get the ball over the net.
“On the other match point, I hit a great lob over his head, he ran back, got to the ball and returned it. I followed my lob to the net and forehand volleyed it away, but I got a late call from the baseline. I wish we could have had Hawk Eye [the visual ball-tracking system] those days, as I’d certainly have challenged. I played those points great, but I was unlucky not to win them.”
Gonzales, now leaning on his racquet between points, saw Pasarell hit a lob long on his seventh match point at 8-7, and at 9-9 the younger American handed the initiative to Gonzales, who won the last 11 points of the match to complete a 22-24, 1-6, 16-14, 6-3, 11-9 victory. It was 19 games more than Wimbledon’s previous longest singles match on 25 June 1953, which saw Jaroslav Drobny beat Budge Patty 8-6, 16-18, 3-6, 8-6, 12-10 over four hours and 15 minutes.
As Gonzales left the court, Pasarell was devastated. “It took me a long time to get over that loss,” Pasarell told ATPTour.com, 50 years on. “I walked off the court and I was distraught. I could not believe I lost that match, I walked up to the locker room, went into a corner and started sobbing. I then felt a big Wimbledon towel draped over my head. It was Pancho, he put an arm around my shoulders and said, ‘Kid, I got lucky.’”
Pasarell maintained his friendship with Gonzales, which dated back to his days as a student at UCLA, by inviting his idol and former coach every year to the BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells, until Gonzales passed away aged 67 in July 1995. Today, 50 years on from their historic clash of 25-26 June 1969, with the advent of the 12-12 tie-break in deciding sets at Wimbledon in 2019, the legacy of the 'original' longest match and Gonzales’ will-to-win over Pasarell endures.