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Obituary – Manolo Santana, the first Spaniard to win Wimbledon

The man who brought tennis to Spain and became a national hero, died at the weekend to plunge the tennis world into mourning.

He was a pioneer and it's always harder for people who do things for the first time, even if those who follow can do as well or even better, It took someone to lead the way and show that it was possible. Rafa Nadal

Manuel Santana Martinez, always known simply as ‘Manolo’ Santana, passed away in Marbella allegedly of heart failure, on December 11th aged 83.

A four time-grand slam winner, the quietly spoken and well-liked player, ‘discovered’ tennis when he took a meal to his brother working at a tennis club in Madrid, describing the moment to El Español newspaper: “I saw men in pants playing tennis. I was immediately charmed.

“I started as a ball boy and then I started playing. In the end, I am an example of humility in an elitist world.”

He went on to become one of the world’s best clay court players, but it wasn’t until a Davis Cup clash with the USA in 1965, that Spain’s interest in the sport was stoked up, when, as a member of the national team, they beat the Americans 4-1 in the Inter-Zone Final played at the Real Club de Tenis Barcelona, in Barcelona. Santana’s contribution was a straight-forward 6-1 6-4 6-4 victory over Frank Froehling.

That success, despite a later defeat in the final against Australia, convinced Santana that it was possible to beat the ‘Anglo-Saxons’, having declared early in his career that “grass was for cows”, a phrase subsequently used by many a clay court specialist that followed him.

And he did beat the Anglo-Saxons for, a few weeks later, he went on to win the US Open on the grass courts of Forest Hills having already established himself as a grand slam champion by winning the French Open in 1961 and 1964.


Manolo Santana holds the Men's Singles trophy which he won in 1966

Evening Standard/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

And, by devoting himself to training for grass court tennis and missing the 1966 French Open, he achieved his ultimate goal on the 1st July 1966 when he beat Dennis Ralston of the US, 6-4 11-9 6-4 to win the holy grail of tennis, the first Spaniard to ever lift that golden trophy, and he did so while displaying his other love, Real Madrid football club’s badge, on his shirt.

“I was an intruder among the Anglo-Saxons,” Santana recalled in an interview with the daily El Mundo in 2016, 50 years after his Wimbledon title but also admitted in another interview that: “Wimbledon was the biggest of the four.

“I hope you will agree with me, this is the one all the players want to win. This is why I feel very sorry for the great players like Ken Rosewall, Ilie Nastase, and Ivan Lendl who never won Wimbledon. I am very happy I did it once.”

He also admitted it changed his life: “In my career, there was a before and after” that victory, he said as he was also acknowledged as world No1 (there were no official rankings in those amateur days) and went on to win a gold medal in singles and the silver in doubles at the 1968 Mexico Olympics where tennis was a demonstration event.

He retired in 1970 but briefly returned to play in the 1973 Davis Cup and had two spells as captain in 1980-1985 and 1995-1999 and ran the Madrid Masters tournament from its inception in 2002 until 2018.

Santana managed the Manolo Santana Racquets Club, a tennis club in Marbella, Spain and the Sport Center Manolo Santana, in Madrid, taking on roles that allowed him to pass on his experience to a new generation of Spanish players, amongst them Rafa Nadal, the only other Spaniard to have won Wimbledon.

“He was a pioneer and it’s always harder for people who do things for the first time, even if those who follow can do as well or even better,” Nadal said in 2018.

“It took someone to lead the way and show that it was possible.”

On the news of Santana’s death, Nadal was amongst the first to mourn his passing.

“Thank you a thousand times for what you have done for our country and for having opened the way for so many people. You have always been a point of reference, a friend and a person very close to everyone,” the 20ptime Grand Slam champion tweeted. “We will miss you.”

The football club he loved also lamented his passing.

“His love for the club inspired him to win Wimbledon in 1966 in the Real Madrid shirt, making him the first Spanish tennis player to win this Grand Slam,” the Club posted on their website.

Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez xpressed grief at the loss of a “legend”.

“My condolences to Manolo Santana’s family, his loved ones and the tennis world,” he tweeted.

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

On a personal level, Santana was born in Madrid on the 10th March, 1938 and was married four times and was suffering from Parkinson’s as reported by the Spanish media.

His father was imprisoned for his political beliefs during the early years of the Franco dictatorship (1939-1975).

Santana was inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame in 1984 and was he first Wimbledon champion who, in defence of the title, fell in the first round losing to the Puerto Rican, Charlie Pasarell. Lleyton Hewitt became only the second Wimbledon champion to fall in round one, when in 2003, he lost to the big serving Croat Ivo Karlovic having won the title the previous year.





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