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Manolo Santana: Pioneer Who Became A Spanish Legend

  • Posted: Dec 12, 2021

Manuel Santana was born on 10 May 1938 into a family home on the Madrid street Lopez de Hoyos. Years later he would become one of the biggest figures in Spanish tennis, a pioneer who paved the road to success in his sport. On Saturday 11 December 2021, he passed away at the age of 83.

Few could have imagined that a boy from such humble beginnings, living in a house where as many as 12 families shared one bathroom, would become a household name, not only in Spanish tennis, but around the world. His career forged the way for his compatriots to follow.

At just 10 years old, ‘Manolin’, as he was known by those close to him, was already completely besotted with tennis and worked as a ball boy to earn some extra money to help out at home. He often remembered how he would earn six pesetas at the Club de Tenis Velazquez, of which, according to Santana himself, ‘Four were for my mother and I kept two for myself’.

Then, 10 years after these youthful adventures, which he would combine with tennis training, he was crowned champion of Spain in Zaragoza, repaying the trust placed in him by siblings Aurora and Alvaro Romero-Giron, who were vital to his career, having covered all his sports and academic expenses.

The passing of time would establish Santana as a figurehead, an icon and an undisputed role model for any Spanish player of the future. The Madrid native began to compete far from his land of birth and to take on great players such as Australians Roy Emerson and Rod Laver. He would defeat them both at Roland Garros in 1961, where he would claim his first Grand Slam title.

The feat came just a few days after his 23rd birthday, after a memorable run in Paris. In the first round he saw off Adrian Bey, Hungarian player Istvan Gulyas would succumb to him in the second round, while William Alvarez and Michael Sangster were unable to do anything to prevent his march to the quarter-finals.

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 the Italian 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 his last.

Following two years in which he failed to advance from the semi-finals, Santana was back in Paris in 1964 with a point to make; and it proved to be third time lucky as he made a return to the winners’ circle at Roland Garros. In the first round he defeated Franz Hainka, the second round saw him beat Stepan Koudelka and in the third round he cruised past Jean-Noel Grinda in straight sets.

In the fourth round he saw off Bob Hewitt, while it was Ron Barnes who was on the receiving end of his dominance in the quarter-finals. In the semi-finals, he would meet his executioner in the same round from the previous year, this time though he would beat Pierre Darmon 8-6, 6-4, 3-6, 2-6, 6-4. In the championship match he clashed with Pietrangeli once 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 of Roland Garros. Later, Andres Gimeno, Sergi Bruguera, Carlos Moya, Albert Costa, Juan Carlos Ferrero and Rafael Nadal would follow in his footsteps, but it was Santana who showed them the way. He would go on to do the same on a surface that seemed out of reach for the Spaniards at the time; the grass of Wimbledon.

In 1965, he travelled to America to play in the US Open (then the US Championships). The tournament had previously left him with just two wins and two defeats, 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 semi-finals, he would square off against Arthur Ashe.

The legendary American took the first set, but Santana took the next three to win 2-6, 6-4, 6-2, 6-4. In the final he outplayed 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 a European had won in New York since Frenchman Henri Cochet did so in 1928.

His story would still produce one more grand moment. In his eighth appearance at Wimbledon, he started his campaign with victory over Isao Watanabe, before defeating Mike Belkin, Marty Riessen and Bobby Wilson to reach the quarter-finals without dropping a set. His best performance in London was a run 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 advancing to the final by sending Owen Davidson packing, 6-2, 4-6, 9-7, 3-6, 7-5.

Far from testing his fitness, so many hours on court only served to bolster Santana’s confidence, enabling him to beat Dennis Ralston 6-4, 11-9, 6-4 and become the first Spanish champion of Wimbledon and the only one until Nadal joined him in 2008 (also in 2010).

That historic win left us with a memorable image: Santana collecting the trophy with the Real Madrid shield on his shirt, thanks to Santiago Bernabeu’s appearance in Sydney the previous year, where he was visiting with his wife, Maria, to see for himself the skill of the player from Madrid whom everyone was talking about. There were also other unforgettable anecdotes, such as his trip from Southfields underground station to the legendary club, carrying his three racquets before playing in the final. Or the £10 cheque for Lillywhites sports retailer that he received as a prize and a Rolex watch that he still has today.

There was still plenty of room in his trophy cabinet for more glory. After taking the spoils in Philadelphia, Tampa, Berlin, Bastad, Kitzbühel and New York, his final masterpiece would come in Barcelona at the legendary Trofeo Conde de Godo. In the same venue where he had won in 1962, he produced yet more evidence of his quality in 1970, beating Laver in the final.

In 1968 he competed in the Olympic Games in Mexico, the first time tennis was included as a demonstration sport. Santana contributed to his country’s medal haul, picking up a gold medal in the singles and silver with Juan Gisbert in the doubles. After a legendary career, Santana brought his playing days to an end in 1980. But his ties with the sport lived on.

Santana would captain 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 from 2009). He enjoyed 20 years of close involvement at the tournament, where he was first director (until 2019) and later Honorary President.

These great achievements are testament to the figure of Santana, who will live on eternally in Spanish tennis as a pioneer whose achievements marked a turning point in the sport.

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Hurkacz, Gaston In Best ATP Tour Comebacks Of 2021

  • Posted: Dec 12, 2021

The brilliant aspect of the tennis scoring system means you always have to win the last point to claim victory. Until you do that, your opponent is always in with a chance, even if they are heavily trailing.

With the margins in the sport so small, the tempo of matches can quickly change, especially in front of a raucous crowd, who can drag a player back into a clash when all seems lost.

The past week, has looked at the best ATP Tour rivalries of the season. Now, continuing our review of the 2021 season, we will reflect on the most memorable ATP Tour match comebacks of 2021, before turning attention to the best Grand Slam comebacks of 2021 from Wednesday.

5) Miami Open presented by Itau, QF, Hubert Hurkacz d. Stefanos Tsitsipas 2-6, 6-3, 6-4
Earlier this season, Hubert Hurkacz captured his first ATP Masters 1000 title at the Miami Open presented by Itau, soaring past Jannik Sinner in the final.

However, just three days earlier, the Pole looked down and out as he trailed Stefanos Tsitsipas 2-6, 0-2, 15/40 in the quarter-finals, struggling to find consistency from the baseline against the Greek, who had won seven of his past eight matches.

Hurkacz entered the clash trailing Tsitsipas 1-6 in their ATP Head2Head series and seemed on the verge of yet another defeat against the World No. 4. However, the 24-year-old crucially fended off two break points to hold at 0-2 in the second set as he served with more power and closed the net effectively to halt Tsitsipas’ momentum.

The Pole then began to return with greater aggression, forcing Tsitsipas back and into errors, winning six of seven games to level the match. With renewed confidence and belief, Hurkacz continued to go on the attack in the decider and broke at 2-2 after firing multiple passing shots past Tsitsipas. Hurkacz then sealed his two-hour, 20-minute victory with an ace.

“I was trying to keep fighting and that’s what I did,” Hurkacz said. “[I am] super pumped and happy that I was able to turn this match around.”

4) Rolex Paris Masters, Round of 16, Hugo Gaston d. Carlos Alcaraz 6-4, 7-6
Hugo Gaston and Paris is a match made in heaven. The Frenchman enjoyed a sensational run to the fourth round at Roland Garros in 2020 as a wild card and entered his third-round match against Carlos Alcaraz at the 2021 Rolex Paris Masters high on confidence, after coming through qualifying and defeating Spaniard Pablo Carreno Busta.

The 21-year-old made an impressive start in front of a raucous Paris crowd, clinching the first set 6-4. However, Alcaraz, who has defeated Top 10 stars Stefanos Tsitsipas and Matteo Berrettini this year, quickly shook off his setback and began to impose his aggressive game on Gaston.

Alcaraz raced 5-0 ahead and looked set to force a decider. But Gaston produced a jaw-dropping comeback to advance in straight sets, winning 20 of the last 21 points of the match to stun the Spaniard, who the following week would win the Intesa Sanpaolo Next Gen ATP Finals. The lefty used his flamboyant game to disrupt Alcaraz, deploying his trademark drop shots and slow balling the Spaniard to force errors to reach his first ATP Masters 1000 quarter-final.

“I was drifting off at that point [0-5], and he started to have a letdown, as well,” Gaston said. “He made a lot of mistakes, because I managed to have fast balls, slow balls, to have high balls. He started to lose his groove, and I stayed focused. This is why I managed to turn the match in my favour.”

3) Rolex Paris Masters, First Round, Dominik Koepfer d. Andy Murray 6-4, 5-7, 7-6(9)
Dominik Kopefer was handed a lifeline in Paris when he received a lucky loser spot, having fallen in the final round of qualifying, and the 27-year-old certainly made the most of it. In an epic clash, Koepfer continued to live on the edge as he saved not one, but seven match points against Andy Murray, before eventually overcoming the former World No. 1 in three hours and one minute. 

The German had looked in control of the match at 6-4, 5-3, but was broken to love when serving for the match and from there the clash was a rollercoaster. Murray clinched the second set 7-5 and then had two match points on Koepfer’s serve at 5-4 in the decider. But the German played consistently to fend off the Scot, with the pair moving to a third-set tie-break.

In an epic tie-break, Murray had five further chances to close out the match and he threw everything at Koepfer, hammering his groundstrokes and throwing in lobs and drop shots. However, the 27-year-old refused to cave, producing his best tennis under pressure to find the answers and eventually advance, converting his first match point.

“It was unbelievable. I thought I had it in my hands in the second set serving for it at 5-4. He just made a lot of balls, I didn’t make a lot of balls. That was the difference, and it was just a great fight in the third set,” Koepfer said. “I just tried to stay in the moment and tried to play every point.”

Coming Tuesday: The top two ATP Tour comebacks of 2021
Coming Wednesday: The best Grand Slam comebacks of 2021 – Part 1

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