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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