The Great Pancho Gonzalez

The great Pancho Gonzalez was both featured and honored at this year’s US Open.  Fierce.  Graceful.  Combative.  And until Sampras came along, arguably the best serve in the history of the game.

Pancho stories.

I watched Pancho play Raz Reed in a small clay court tournament in Lake Worth Florida, 1973(or4).  I had lost in the first round to Eddie Dibbs, 3 and 2, he ran me literally from corner to corner.  But in this particular match, probably the semi finals, Pancho argued with the umpire, play was halted, Pancho left the court, and in the wink of an eye Raz disappeared.  The tournament director was surely going to plead with Raz and Pancho to continue, but absent an agreement from Pancho, the match was awarded to Mr. Reed.  Pretty good win.
Gorgo-Front

For many years I practiced and traveled with Tom Muench, a particularly gifted competitor.  Not so much an excellent ball striker, but a canny strategist who seemed to win matches with inexplicable shots.  He would play the occasional set/lesson with Pancho in Las Vegas.  The terms were $100 per set/lesson.  But the instruction occurred as Pancho allowed Tom to come close to winning, but at the critical juncture Pancho would run a pattern that Tom could not handle.  Perhaps a backhand up the line approach, or a forehand crosscourt pass.  The point of the lesson was to show Tom a particular if not glaring weakness, and to present it to Tom at a turning point in the set.  Some years later I had similar experiences playing Whitney Reed (former US # 1 in 1963) where I would hit what I thought was a perfect shot at just the right moment, only to look up to see Whitney standing there.  (Prescience – knowledge of things before they happen, foreknowledge, foresight).

In 1987 Don Kerr and I developed and patented an electromechanical teaching aide that measured angular momentum.  The gizmo “whistled” when the force of the swing exceeded a preset threshold.  Good servers would make it whistle at the top of the swing.  Poor servers either could not achieve a whistle or timed it at a point well below and after the top of the swing.  I began a Masters Degree in Sports Psychology at the University of West Florida, and used the Whistler for my Masters thesis.

During the coursework in biomechanics I chose Pancho as a template for the serve, for both descriptive and comparative purposes.  I used film and video footage as well as a number of books about and by Pancho.  And for the next few years I looked at his serve inside and out.  Even presented it at a USTA teacher’s conference in New York – “Teaching the Serve:  The Pancho Gonzalez Model.”

Pancho was fluid, grounded, loose, whippy, and with a forearm roll at the top of the swing.  A lot like Federer and Sampras, but not at all like many of the women this week at the US Open.

I hope you enjoyed the footage.  Apologies for the quality.  Pancho was one of a kind.

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Leave A Reply (39 comments So Far)


  1. Fred
    1 month ago

    Hi Jim,
    I am an advocate of swinging out to the right for right handers – try pronating your forearm and your wrist to the left – then to the right. There is considerable resistance and limited travel to the left (for a righty) on both the forearm and wrist. The follow through to the right seems prettly much is a product of body rotation.

    As you said, no jumping and worn out shoes from toe dragging on the serve in wood racquet days. My motion today, less the toe dragging, is pretty much the same – a large right shoulder drop on the backswing (I’m right handed,) a very relaxed, fluid loop with my racquet up to the “ready to hit position,” and a cartwheeling, accelarating loose swing that goes out to the right with the forearm and wrist pronating and snapping to the right, and finishing out to the right with the right shoulder cartweeling up, forward and finishing down.

    With the same toss, I focus on hitting the back of the ball at 10, 11, 12, 1 or 2 oclock (sort of like spot bowling,) and can place it near either line or into the body with a high percentage at a radar confirmed 100-120mph still at nearly 70 years old. Seems today that players are jumping and rotating in the modern style, but they get very little more velocity that the technique I learned.


  2. Harry
    9 months ago

    Hi Jim,
    Great work and great video, Both Pancho and Sampras are my favorite players of all time and Roger is a tad below. it would be a good idea to have Pancho and Sampras serving side by side. The obvious distinction of both of their serves is the high pronation action above their head which you explained beautifully in your videos. I believe the pronation is a subconscious move where both Pancho and Sampras are more consumed with the placement spin, and disguise than trying to pronate. Therefore, I think their beautiful pronation is actually the By-Product of arm and grip extreme looseness, position of the ball at the moment of impact, coupled with the most important action, which is the axis and the speed of the shoulders travel on. Both Sampras and Pancho Launch their right shoulder vertically and violently more than any other servers (except for Roddick) causing the racquet head to snap and pronate on top with tremendous velocity. I see many players try the pronation however if their shoulders move more on a horizontal axis causing the racquet to swing around and on the outside of the ball. Or they don’t have the violent cartwheel action that Pancho and Sampras has, so they end up slapping at the ball or forcing the pronation too early causing the ball to fly lower with slower speed and below the top of the net. Most people wants to copy the obvious, however the cause is arm/wrist looseness coupled with unbelievably fast cartwheel action, and the effect is the pronation on top. If you look closely at Pancho and Sampras at the moment of impact, you can see their shoulders are almost stacked vertically. No other server has that look or at least to that extent even Roger F. (what goes up must come down, if you go up faster with the right shoulder and pause on top, then for certain you are going to pronate with much greater velocity).


    • Jim McLennan
      9 months ago

      Harry – the key phrase you used is to launch the right shoulder vertically – but many times that is easier said than done – both for me in my serve as well as a teacher – but yes this is about something the coaches call “cartwhelling”
      thanks for your note
      Jim


  3. Andy Gray
    2 years ago

    But look at the way he brings his right leg round rather then jump into it. Sorry, but looks very a dated serve to me.


    • Jim McLennan
      2 years ago

      Andy – this was and is the best most fluid consistent and deadly serve ever in the tennis game – plus in his era one of the feet always had to be on the ground – not all the changes to the modern game have been for the best
      Jim


  4. Robert A
    3 years ago

    Wow, I am astonished at how loose his arm and hand appear and how much whip he accomplishes. The ‘forearm roll’ is a virtually complete range of motion, and happens so quickly at the apex of the whip.
    Thanks for putting this video together!


  5. Mark Ullman
    3 years ago

    Hi Jim -
    A number of years ago I spoke with you in New York. We agreed to an exchange – I would send you some film I shot of Pancho Gonzales serving, and you would send me some of Tom Stow’s written material. I have always appreciated having that rare material. It was a pleasure to notice the film of Gonzales serving on the website, it being the film I took so long ago. I still look at it occasionally.
    I have always enjoyed your articles and insights. I have thought we think a lot alike. Once I was playing in a tournament in the Detroit area, and in a bookstore found an interesting book titled Quantum Golf. It had some interesting concepts in it which I applied to tennis. Some time later I noticed you made reference to it in an article regarding flow and tennis. I thought how amazing that someone had also seen that book!
    Keep up the good work. I hope we may meet again.

    Mark Ullman


    • Jim McLennan
      3 years ago

      Mark – thanks, and by chance I am working on an article about Quantum Golf for the July issue of the ETI Network – I was introduced to it by an old doubles partner friend mentor Bill Strei – and the super fluid swing makes so much darn sense
      best
      Jim


  6. Gerard
    5 years ago

    Ref.: Pancho serve.
    All the coaches and books emphasize on finishing the swing on the left hand side if you’re right handed. I did not agee with that because, most of the time, I was finishing with the head of the racquet on the right side. When I was doing that I noticed that I had more (top and right) spin on the ball. It’s a differnet story for the left spin where you absolutely have to finish with the racquet on the left side. I looked at Pancho video over and over again, just to be sure, and , if you notice, he is finishing his serve with the head of his racquet quite low and on his right side. What is your opinion about that. Thanks,
    Gérard


    • Jim
      5 years ago

      Gerard – good question, tricky answer. Pancho was unique in many ways, including his follow through – I have seen a few others do this. Generally the follow through is a way to decelerate the racquet gradually without injuring the arm. Pancho had such a whip at the top there was truly very little need for much follow through. As to shoulder mechanics and injury I cannot really speculate about which is better or worse.
      best
      Jim


  7. Jean Storme
    5 years ago

    Hi Jim,
    I remember having been line judge in Ostend (Belgium) in the summer 1950 (?) – I was 15 – as the pros started making demo tours around the world. I had the privilige of seeing Pancho Ganzales, Pancho Segura (with his devastating twohanded forehand), Tony Trabert, Frank Sedgman and Rex Hartwig (an Australian double specialist). I remember having read then in the news that at Pancho Gonzales had the fastest serve ever, measured 172 kmh. He was very impressing and I will always remember him


    • Jim
      5 years ago

      Jean – so many of these stories / and memories, are truly special. For me it was seeing Lew Load play in Northern California in 1965, though somehow I didnt really know how special it was at that point in time. I am intrigued that Pancho used his legs far less than the modern version of the serve, and in that era players had to keep one foot on the ground at all times. That said I still am not sure if the excessive knee bend and jumping in this era is an improvement on the serve, or just the current method.
      best
      Jim


  8. Martin I. Hassner
    5 years ago

    Been away from tennis for a few weeks…life intruding (as it likes to do) Unlearning far more difficult than learning. I’ve got to concentrate on the e for effortless and let the pronation flow rather than snapping the bullwhip so hard on every practice serve…Games are ‘safer’ than practice.

    What is obvious is that compared to Sampras and Fed, Pancho was almost motionless…lower toss,much less corkscrew shoulder-hip turn, far less knee bend and no split-second pause before firing. What was there clearly was the whole-body move into the ball and that deep pronation..

    Pleased to be a part of your appreciative national ‘tennis class’.

    Regards,
    Martin


    • Jim
      5 years ago

      Martin – the Gonzalez serve was and is a thing of beauty – and I agree about the height of the toss and the appearance of a quiet body.
      Stay tuned
      best
      Jim


  9. Dick James
    5 years ago

    Re Randy Becker’s question about what determines a great serve; I think Sampras’s 14 majors with serve and volley style, is a good measure. Federer’s 15 majors have not been dominated by the serve like Sampras’s.

    Also, we would love to see your reponses to other folks comments.

    Dick


    • Jim
      5 years ago

      Dick – to this point the Sampras serve appears slightly better than Fed’s, especially or unfortunately as regards the recent US Open. But both serves are grounded, feet dont move during the toss, fluid rhythm, and lots of action at the top of the swing. Futher both jump but unlike so many other jumpers, they are both ascending at impact whereas nearly all others are on the descent at impact
      best
      Jim


  10. Tennis Pro
    5 years ago

    Thanks for sharing a little bit of the past Jim! Nice to see Pancho in action once again.However I have a question regarding his footwork after the serve! ( He appears to come in on his right foot after the serve as opposed to most of the players of today who fall on there left??)I guess I would ask the same question as above in wondering the actual speed involved in his serve?? What are your thoughts on this issue?? Thanks for all you do! Keep up all the great work and effort you put in to sharing tennis with everyone…


    • Jim
      5 years ago

      Tennis Pro – I dont have numbers on his ball speed. But I do know some years ago Sampras McEnroe Courier and another did an exhibition in New York and used wood racquets – and they were able to achieve nearly the same speed on serve. Interestingly, their returns of serve suffered more with the woodies. As regards his right leg coming through. The guy at our club with the biggest serve, PMac, uses his right leg the same way. I always thought it was a “problem” til I relooked at Pancho. Sometimes the coaches have to be more accepting of individual techniques.
      best
      Jim


  11. Valentine D'Silva
    5 years ago

    I also agree with u that Pancho packed lot of punch in his serve at a time when Rocket technology has not invaded the Racquet technology. Therefore considering the fact that he served so well with those heavey and powerless wooden racquets, I think he is still the best server compared to todays players who use more powerful rackets,


    • Jim
      5 years ago

      Valentine – one other aspect when comparing servers is the use of the feet. There had been a rule (I think it was changed in the late 60′s or early 70′s) that one foot must always be in contact with the ground. Modern servers jump, Pancho stayed grounded, but my scientist friend John White suggested that jumping adds an additional degree of freedom – translated it introduces one more thing to go wrong
      best
      JIm


  12. Kottresh
    5 years ago

    Thank You for the video Jim!

    Not sure if you want to rank Federer along with Sampras. Fed’s serve let him down big time in the recent us open 2009.

    Do you know at what speeds Pancho served? I recently saw some classic old matches on tennis channel – very little power & pace! The game has changed since the arrival of Sampras, Agassi etc and of course new racquet technology


  13. ginny lewis
    5 years ago

    I enjoyed watching how easy he makes the serve look. There is absolutely no tension or break of motion in the entire serve. I’m going to keep a visual picture in my head of this next time I go to serve, thanks!


    • Jim
      5 years ago

      Ginny – absolutely – keep a visual picture – there is so much to this thing about seeing something as opposed to having a coach tell you what to do
      best
      Jim


  14. Ray Konchalski
    5 years ago

    Jim McLennan,
    Thanks for sharing the information. I am looking for footage that shows the serve just before impact and showing the racquet path out to the right.
    I’ve looked for whistle a few times over the years, never found one, is yours available?
    Regards,
    Ray Konchalski


    • Jim
      5 years ago

      Ray – thanks for the note, we never went into production on the Whistler, but I have a college friend who has suggested another look at the device. We let the patent expire, but I learned so darn much in the process, wasnt it Bob Dylan who sang, “no success like failure and failure is no success at all”
      As to photos of the racquet before impact, we have many stills at varying points in the serve within the BTS product
      best
      JIm


  15. Dave Gongora
    5 years ago

    A wonderful display of fluidity in motion. Thanks for sharing Pancho serve with us..Dave. Now to go out and practice it…


  16. tennisfan
    5 years ago

    Enjoyed the article. Just wish the video would have worked, and I wish I could help my daughter with her serve. She’s on the girl’s varsity tennis team, and just like the women player’s at the U.S. Open, she double faults too much. Is there anything she can do. She’s a senior and is extremely busy with her academics, unlike a lot of seniors. Plus she’s trying to do a million college applications. If you have any advice, I’d appreciate it a million percent.


  17. Michelle K. Barr
    5 years ago

    Thank you for this glimpse back into history at PANCHO. I was still in elementary in the early 70s. I lived in a small town & spent a good chunk of my free time hitting on a backboard (or the garage wall if I couldn’t bike to the courts). I subscribed to ‘Tennis’, ‘World Tennis’, & ‘Tennis USA’ (no internet)! I admired Pancho, Rosewall, Laver, etc….all the greats from that era. I have helped coach junior high tennis, & I have a son playing high school tennis. It continues to amaze me how little the serve is emphasized, by coaches & players. It is the obviously the key shot in tennis. It is also a stroke that can be practiced solo. THANK YOU for your perspective…it is always interesting, informative, & entertaining!


    • Jim
      5 years ago

      Michelle – thanks for the note and the encouragement. Somehow, it may be that the serve is truly so darn hard to understand much less teach, that most coaches work on groundstrokes – for certainly at most tournaments the ground games of all the players generally exceed their serve abilities.
      best
      Jim


  18. Micke Way
    5 years ago

    Where can I find a detailed analysis on video of Pancho’s serve?


    • Jim
      5 years ago

      Micke – stay tuned, I will revisit Pancho on more occasions. Years ago I presented “Teaching the Serve – The Pancho Gonzalez Model” to a teachers conference in New York. Key elements were rhythm, balance, fluidity, and truly a pronounced forearm roll at the top of the swing. That template is also used with the Building the Serve coursework
      best
      Jim


  19. Bryan Harrison
    5 years ago

    Great article and footage.

    Is the “whistler” something you can still find on the market? Any leads where it can be found?


    • Jim
      5 years ago

      Bryan – we didnt make it to full production on the Whistler – so there are none out there – though there may be others with accelerometers – I do have a college friend who has discussed taking another run at the device. Stay tuned. Also consider experimenting with a bull whip to replicate the service action. Might help you with the whip like rhythm, but be CAREFUL –
      best
      Jim


  20. Man
    5 years ago

    Thank you very much for your video


    • Jim
      5 years ago

      Man – thanks for the note – Pancho was one of a kind
      Jim


  21. Aditya Elkunchwar
    5 years ago

    I dont think “aces” should ever be a criteria to measure great servers. If you are facing a poor opponent, you will come off with more aces….


    • Jim
      5 years ago

      Aditya – to my mind the measure of great servers includes their accuracy, their disguise, and their fluidity. Too often servers muscle the ball, and though the speeds may be high, too often in those instances injuries soon follow
      best
      Jim


  22. Randy Becker
    5 years ago

    Where does Federer fit? More important question for the serve doctor, Jim McLennan, what is the true measuring stick of a the greatest serve ever: hold % ?, aces ?, ease of motion ?, never being injured ?, ability to perform under stress and pressure ?…..
    Look forward to your expert response.


    • Jim
      5 years ago

      Randy – as ever, thanks for the note and your interest in ETI. Your question is a good one – I will only guess at an answer. The obvious stats are percentage of first serves, percentage of service games held, as well as points won on first and second serve. But as regards the delivery (and I think when the delivery is excellent the stats follow) of the greatest servers (and this must include Gonzalez, Sampras and Federer) the secrets are balance, rhythm, and effortlessness. To often in the modern game players muscle the serve and do not approach this skill with a different physical and mental mindset than the one they use when hammering groundies.
      best
      Jim