Strange But True: Tough Match

In 1948, when Richard “Pancho” Gonzales first won the U.S. Singles Championship in tennis, Charles Passarell was a boy of four. In June 1969, Gonzales and Passarell faced each other at Wimbledon, the most important tournament in the game. At the age of 25, Passarell was a rising tennis player. Gonzales was “over the hill” at 41. But age seemed to make no difference as the older man and the younger man played one of the most thrilling matches in tennis history.

It was late in the afternoon when they began to play. Passarell had the lead, but he couldn’t seem to put over the final shot that would take the set. (The tie-breaker had not yet been invented, so players had to keep going until one of them went ahead by two games.) Eleven times he had the veteran at set point, but Gonzales wouldn’t give up. Finally, youth won out. Passarell unloaded a shot that Gonzales couldn’t return, and he won the set, 24-22. That tied the record for the longest set ever played at Wimbledon.

Gonzales wanted the match called because it was getting dark, but the referee insisted that they keep playing. The second set was easier for Passarell. He won it, 6-1. Now it really was too dark and play was halted. The two men had been on the court for 2 hours 20 minutes.

Nobody expected old Pancho to make much of a showing the next day. The first set had taken too much out of him. Passarell had to win only one set to win the match. Gonzales needed three sets in a row.

But now it was Gonzales taking the lead, Gonzales at set point, except that he couldn’t get the winning shots. Seven times he was at set point before he finally won, 16-14.

On went Pancho into the fourth set, and he had the easier time of it. But he was playing it smart, conserving his energy. When he couldn’t get to the ball easily, he didn’t even try for it, letting it go by. He moved only when he had to. And he won, 6-3, to tie the match.

Passarell took the lead in he deciding set. He had Gonzales down, 5-4; then 6-5; but the aging tennis star kept fighting back. With the score deadlocked at 9-9, Passarell finally broke. He double-faulted, then hit a return over the baseline. Gonzales was ahead. Masterfully, he won the next point and the set and the match, 11-9.

It was the longest match ever at Wimbledon, taking five hours and twelve minutes. The match also broke the Wimbledon record for number of games with 112. Although no one counted, it was estimated that each man served more than 350 times in this one match and the ball crossed the net more than 2,500 times.

Between June 1949 and June 1951, New York Yankee southpaw Eddie Lopat defeated the Cleveland Indians eleven times in a row. When Lopat faced the Indians on June 4, 1951, one Cleveland fan decided to break the streak. As Lopat took the mound, the fan jumped out of the stands and dropped a black cat at the pitcher’s feet. The jinx worked. Lopat was pounded for five runs in the first inning, and the Indians went on to win, 8-2.

From The Giant Book of Strange But True Sports Stories by Howard Liss. Illustrations by Joe Mathieu.

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