Manuel Santana was born on May 10, 1938 in a family home in Madrid’s Lopez de Hoyos street. Years later, he would become one of the greatest figures in Spanish tennis, a pioneer who paved the way for success in his sport. On Saturday December 11, 2021, he passed away at the age of 83.
Few could have imagined that a boy of such humble origins, living in a house where up to 12 families shared a bathroom, would become a household name not only in Spanish tennis, but around the world. His career paved the way for his compatriots.
At only 10 years old, ‘Manolin’, as his relatives called him, was already completely passionate about tennis and was working as a ball collector to earn some money to help out around the house. He often remembered that he won six pesetas at the Club de Tenis Velazquez, of which, according to Santana himself, “four were for my mother and I kept two for me”.
Then, 10 years after these youthful adventures, which he will combine with a tennis training, he is crowned Spanish champion in Zaragoza, rewarding the confidence placed in him by the brothers Aurora and Alvaro Romero-Giron, who were essential to his career, having covered all his sports and academic expenses.
The passing of time would make Santana a figurehead, an icon and an undisputed model for any Spanish player of the future. The Madrid player started competing far from his homeland and facing big players such as Australians Roy Emerson and Rod Laver. He beat them both at Roland Garros in 1961, where he won his first Grand Slam title.
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The feat came just days after his 23rd birthday, after a memorable race in Paris. In the first round he beat Adrian Bey, Hungarian player Istvan Gulyas succumbed to him in the second round, while William Alvarez and Michael Sangster could not do anything to prevent him from qualifying for the quarter-finals.
The victory in his clash with Emerson came after three sets, but his semi-final against Laver was even more spectacular, he would win it 3-6, 6-2, 4-6, 6-4, 6-0. His final against Italy’s Nicola Pietrangeli produced a thrilling 4-6, 6-1, 3-6, 6-0, 6-2 victory to earn him his first Musketeers Cup, but not the last.
After two years in which he failed to advance to the semi-finals, Santana was back in Paris in 1964 with a point to make; and it turned out to be a third chance as he made his comeback in the winner’s circle at Roland Garros. In the first round he beat Franz Hainka, the second round saw him beat Stepan Koudelka and in the third round he passed Jean-Noel Grinda in straight sets.
In the fourth round, he beat Bob Hewitt, while it was Ron Barnes who was at the mercy of his dominance in the quarterfinals. In the semifinals, he will meet his executioner in the same round of the previous year, but this time he will beat Pierre Darmon 8-6, 6-4, 3-6, 2-6, 6-4. In the league match, he faced Pietrangeli again, this time winning 6-3, 6-1, 4-6, 7-5. Two finals, two Grand Slam titles.
He was the first Spaniard to win on the clay courts at Roland Garros. Later, Andres Gimeno, Sergi Bruguera, Carlos Moya, Albert Costa, Juan Carlos Ferrero and Rafael Nadal will follow in his footsteps, but it was Santana who showed them the way. He would continue to do the same on a surface that seemed out of reach for the Spaniards at the time; Wimbledon grass.
In 1965, he traveled to America to play in the US Open (then US Championships). The tournament had previously only left him with two wins and two losses, but this year was different. After a close start against Don Fontana, he beat Marcelo Lara, Jim Osborne, Marty Riessen and Antonio Palafox in three sets. In the semifinals, he will face Arthur Ashe.
The legendary American won the first set, but Santana won the next three to win 2-6, 6-4, 6-2, 6-4. In the final, he beat Cliff Drysdale to win 6-2, 7-9, 7-5, 6-1 and claim the third major title of his career. It was the first time that a European had won in New York since Frenchman Henri Cochet in 1928.
His story would produce yet another great moment. In his eighth Wimbledon appearance, he started his campaign with a victory over Isao Watanabe, before beating Mike Belkin, Marty Riessen and Bobby Wilson to reach the quarter-finals without losing a set. His best performance in London had been a race to the semi-finals the year before, but this time he reached the same stage by beating Ken Fletcher 6-2, 3-6, 8-6, 4-6, 7- 5, before moving on to the final by sending Owen Davidson to pack, 6-2, 4-6, 9-7, 3-6, 7-5.
Acabo to recibir the terrible notice del fallecimiento of nuestro gran Manolo Santana. Como he dicho muchas veces en el pasado: mil gracias por lo que hiciste por nuestro paÃs y por marcar el camino de tantos. Siempre fuiste a referente, un amigo y una persona cercana a todos.
– Rafa Nadal (@RafaelNadal) December 11, 2021
Far from testing his physical condition, so many hours in the field only served to boost Santana’s confidence, allowing him to beat Dennis Ralston 6-4, 11-9, 6-4 and become the first champion. Spaniard from Wimbledon and the only one until Nadal joined him in 2008 (also in 2010).
This historic victory left us with a memorable image: Santana collecting the trophy with the Real Madrid shield on his jersey, thanks to the appearance of the Santiago Bernabeu in Sydney the previous year, where he was visiting with his wife, Maria, to see for himself the skill of the Madrid player everyone was talking about. There were other unforgettable anecdotes as well, such as his trip from Southfields tube station to the legendary club, packing his three rackets before making the final. Or the Â£ 10 check to sports retailer Lillywhites he received as a prize and a Rolex watch he still has today.
There was still plenty of room in his trophy cabinet for more glory. After winning the loot in Philadelphia, Tampa, Berlin, Bastad, KitzbÃ¼hel and New York, his last masterpiece will come to Barcelona at the legendary Trofeo Conde de Godo. In the same hall where he won in 1962, he produced further proof of his quality in 1970, beating Laver in the final.
My thoughts are with my good friend Manolo Santana, who has passed away. A clay court maestro, Manolo said the grass was for the cows, but still managed to win Wimbledon in 1966 and inspired generations of Spanish players with his famous topspin and fighting spirit. pic.twitter.com/6GzSbzDcPT
– Rod Laver (@rodlaver) December 11, 2021
In 1968, he competed in the Mexico City Olympics, the first time tennis was included as a demonstration sport. Santana helped her country’s medal harvest, winning a gold in singles and silver with Juan Gisbert in doubles. After a legendary career, Santana ended his playing days in 1980. But his connection to the sport has endured.
Santana would be captain of the Spanish Davis Cup team before taking the reins of the Mutua Madrid Open in 2002 to consolidate it as one of the most important tournaments on the calendar in the ATP Masters 1000 and WTA Mandatory categories (as of 2009 ). He has had 20 years of close involvement in the tournament, where he was first director (until 2019) and then honorary president.
These great achievements are a testament to the figure of Santana, who will live forever in Spanish tennis as a pioneer whose achievements marked a turning point in the sport.