Spanish tennis great Manuel Santana dies aged 83

by Deborah Cater
Manuel Santana who died aged 83

Manuel Santana passed away aged 83 on Saturday in Marbella. The four-time major singles champion had been Tournament Director of the Mutua Madrid Open until 2019. He became the ATP Masters 1000 tournament’s Honorary President.

King Felipe VI posted on Twitter, “There are people who become legends and make a country great. Manolo Santana was and will always be one of them.”

Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez said, “He won Roland Garros, the US Open and Wimbledon, a total of 72 tournaments and an Olympic gold to make him a tennis legend and one of the best athletes our country has seen.”

Santana – from humble origins

Santana during a Davis Cup game

Manuel Santana took Spain to the World Group final in the 1965 and 1967 Davis Cup campaigns, losing to Australia both times. He moved among the elite of Spanish society.

However, Santana’s origins were humble. Born during the Civil War, Manolo was one of four sons. His father died when he was 16. The family lived in an apartment in Chamatin, Madrid with a shared bathroom between the whole building.

He left school aged 10, when he realised he could pick up tips as a ball boy at Club Tenis de Velasquez. He brought home money welcomed by his mother, Mercedes. Two years later he carved his first tennis racquet out of wood. Santana won the club’s ball boys’ tournament aged 13 and became a club member.

Shortly after his father’s passing in 1954, Santana came under the guidance of the Romero Giron family. Giron’s widow, Gloria, and two of her children, Alvaro and Aurora, provided the young Santana with a structured daily routine. There was weightlifting at the gym before breakfast with the Giron family, followed by tennis lessons, a daily trip for lunch with his mother and siblings, then back for afternoon study with a tutor.

Winning ways of Manuel Santana

Santana, won the Spanish junior championships in 1955 and 1956. However, he was not allowed to travel alone internationally until 1959, when the Giron family felt he was both mature and socially adept.

He completed his military service in 1960 and the following year he beat two-time champion Nicola Pietrangeli 4-6, 6-1, 3-6, 6-0, 6-2 in the 1961 Roland Garros final. He reclaimed the Roland Garros crown in 1964, when he beat Pietrangeli again, 6-3, 6-1, 4-6, 7-5, in the final.

Having once said that “Grass is for cows”, Manuel Santana became the first European to lift the US trophy since Fred Perry. He beat Cliff Drysdale, 6-2, 7-9, 7-5, 6-1 in the 1965 final. Santana followed that up with a Wimbledon triumph in 1966, beating Dennis Ralston 6-4, 11-9, 6-4. He kissed the hand of Princes Marina of Kent upon receiving the famous trophy, which went against royal protocol.

Santana played doubles sparingly, but won the 1963 Roland Garros doubles title with Roy Emerson. At the 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico City, Santana won a singles gold medal and a silver medal in doubles.

Post playing years

Manuel Santana was captain of Spain’s Davis Cup team between 1980 and 1985, then again from 1995 to 1999. Inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame in 1984, he managed the Manolo Santana Racquets Club in Marbella and also the Sport Center Manolo Santana in Madrid. The main court at the Caja Magica, venue of the Mutua Madrid Open, is named in his honour.

Rafael Nadal paid tribute on Twitter, saying, “You will always be one of a kind and special. As I have said many times in the past: a thousand thanks for what you did for our country and for opening the way for others. You were always my role model, a friend and someone who was close to all of us.”

Rod Laver on passing of Santana

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