Manuel Santana, tennis champion and Spanish national hero, dies at 83

Manuel Santana, who popularized the sport of tennis in Spain and became a national hero as the first person from his country to win Grand Slam tournament championships, including the 1966 Wimbledon men’s singles title, died Dec. 11 in Marbella, Spain. He was 83.

The death was announced by the Madrid Masters tournament, where he was honorary president. The cause was not disclosed.

Mr. Santana was also known in Spain as Manolo. He learned tennis at the Madrid tennis club when he was a child. In his teens, he began playing in tournaments and quickly became a top player in Europe. He was particularly good on clay courts in Spain.

He won his first major title in 1961 at the French Championships played on clay at Roland Garros stadium in Paris. The tournament has been renamed the French Open. )

After defeating the two-time defending champion, Italy’s Nicola Pietrangeli, in five sets, he collapsed in tears of joy. Mr. Santana prevailed over Pietrangeli again at Roland Garros in 1964, winning a four-set match.

It was an era in which the major tournaments were restricted to amateur players only. (Professionals were permitted at the major tournaments beginning in 1968.) Rackets were made of wood, and tennis was defined more by finesse and inventive shot-making than sheer power.

Mr. Santana, who was 5-foot-8 and about 150 pounds, did not have a dominating serve, but he was quick on his feet and could make any shot from any spot on the court. With the tactical precision and military strategy of a military campaign, he approached the game.

He led Spain’s Davis Cup teams to prominence in the 1960s, once knocking the U.S. team out of the international team competition and twice finishing second in the finals. In 1965, even as Spain lost the team title to Australia, Mr. Santana reclaimed a measure of national respect by beating his friend and rival Roy Emerson in a four-set singles match that culminated in an epic 15-13 final set. Spanish supporters rushed to the Sydney court and lifted Mr. Santana on their shoulders.

As strong as he was on clay surfaces and in team play, Mr. Santana knew that the true test of tennis came on the faster grass courts, which were then the surfaces used at both the U.S. Championships (now the U.S. Open) in Forest Hills, Queens, and at Wimbledon in England.

He skipped the French Championships in 1965 and 1966 to prepare for both tournaments. At Forest Hills in 1965, Mr. Santana defeated Arthur Ashe of the United States in four sets in the semifinals, then met the strapping South African Cliff Drysdale in the finals.

He handily defeated Drysdale, 6-2, 7-9, 7-5, 6-1, leading New York Times tennis writer Allison Danzig to call Mr. Santana “the complete tennis player” and one of the “cleverest tacticians in the game.”

“Prior to his performances at Forest Hills … he was just a name — a guy who had somehow managed to trip up American Davis Cup hopes,” Christian Science Monitor sportswriter Alan Grayson noted. He is a man who lures his opponents into a web of subtlety he weaves around them.” A man who can lure his opponents into a web of subtlety he weaves around them.”

In 1966, Mr. Santana arrived in England five weeks before the Wimbledon tournament to polish the skills he would need in the world’s most renowned tennis competition.

“I came here for the first time in 1958 and I did very badly my first three years,” Mr. Santana told the Sunday Times of London in 2006. “Many players would not have come back, but I knew this was something special, so I worked hard and began to play better.”

He won two five-set matches to advance to the finals against American Dennis Ralston. They were an interesting contrast of styles, with Santana, a short and dark-haired man, facing Ralston, a 6-foot-2 Californian.

But it was no contest, as Mr. Santana dispatched Ralston in straight sets, 6-4, 11-9, 6-4, playing impeccably with almost no mistakes. Santana was crowned the Wimbledon champion. He was the No. 1 tennis player worldwide and an icon in Spain.

“When I returned to Spain, it was remarkable,” he recalled in 2007. “General Franco”, the long-serving dictator of the military, “wanted me to see him, and the people were celebrating, it was broadcast on national television. Spain had come awake to tennis.”

Manuel Martinez Santana was born May 10, 1938, in Madrid. His mother was a homemaker and his father an electrician.

He left school at 10 to work at a tennis club, where he became devoted to the sport. He was 16 when his father died. He then became the temporary ward of a family at the club who provided tennis lessons and academic tutoring.

Mr. Santana attempted to defend his Wimbledon title in 1967, but he was slowed by an ankle injury and did not reach the finals. In 1968, he won the men’s singles championship at the Summer Olympics in Mexico City, where tennis was a demonstration sport. This sport is now an official part of the Olympic Games.

As many of his fellow players were turning professional in the late 1960s, Mr. Santana resisted the urge at first.

“I feel if I turn pro, tennis will be gone forever in Spain,” he said in 1968. “In Spain I don’t know if I’m a hero or not, but money is not everything for me.”

Before eventually joining the professional ranks, he worked in marketing for the Philip Morris tobacco company. Mr. Santana retired from competition in 1980, with four Grand Slam singles titles and a men’s double championship (with Emerson) at the 1963 French Championships.

Mr. Santana has been married four times and was divorced once more. Four children were born to his first marriage, and another from his second. However, it was not possible to confirm the complete survivors list.

After his playing career, he became a coach and was captain of Spain’s Davis Cup teams in the 1980s and 1990s. He was an informal mentor to younger players, including Rafael Nadal, who in 2006 and again in 2008 became the second Spanish man to win the Wimbledon title. (Spanish women Conchita Martinez and Garbine Muguruza won the women’s championship in 1994 and 2017, respectively. )

Mr. Santana was elected to the International Tennis Hall of Fame in 1984, owned a tennis club in Marbella, was the director of the Madrid Open and attended the Wimbledon championships every year.

“So I am still very much involved in the game,” he said in 2006, on the 50th anniversary of his Wimbledon victory. “People still say, ‘Santana is tennis and tennis is Santana.’ I think my success in those days is one of the big reasons we have so many good players in Spain since then.”

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