Manolo Santana, 80 years of tennis

Antonio Arenas Mutua News

10 May 1938; the day the world welcomed a boy who grew up in a family home on a Madrid street called López de Hoyos, in a house in which no fewer than twelve families shared one bathroom. Nobody could have imagined that a boy from such humble beginnings would become the legend that is Manolo Santana; an icon of Spanish tennis, a figurehead, symbol and mirror for future generations of the sport in his country.

At just 10 years of age ‘Manolín’ was already showing his face at tennis clubs, working as a ball boy to earn some extra money to help out at home. At the Club de Tenis Velázquez he was earning six pesetas, of which, according to Santana himself, “four were for my mother and I kept two for myself”. Crucially, his talent with a racquet did not go unnoticed by siblings Aurora and Álvaro Romero-Girón, two very important people in his life, who would pay for his studies and his early career in order to allow him to be the player he promised to become.

As the years passed he matured into a champion and forged a career of the likes previously unseen in Spanish tennis. At the age of 20 he fulfilled the expectations of those who believed in his game by winning the Spanish Championship in Zaragoza. It was the first of the many trophies that would adorn his cabinet. But national victories paved the way for trips far from his country to compete with the elite global players of the day, such as Australians Rod Laver and Roy Emerson. “We had no coaches or agents. We took the matches seriously, but afterwards we would go out together and have some beers”, the players remember.

His potential now seemed boundless and in 1961, just a few days after his 23rd birthday, he won his first Musketeer’s Trophy in Paris. That year he beat Australian player Laver 3-6, 6-2, 4-6, 6-4, 6-0 in the semi-finals and the Italian Nicola Pietrangeli 4-6, 6-1, 3-6, 6-0, 6-2 in another intense five-setter. He had earned himself a place among the tennis elite by beating the best on the biggest stages.

But his success was by no means fleeting. Not only was he the first Spaniard to win on the French clay, three years later he would repeat the feat with another victory at Roland Garros to claim his second Grand Slam. In 1964 he produced another epic campaign for the title, with the balance tipping in his favour in the semi-final against local favourite Pierre Darmon, 8-6, 6-4, 3-6, 2-6, 6-4, and beating the same player as in the previous year, Pietrangeli, in the final 6-3, 6-1, 4-6, 7-5.

Santana refused to adhere to the stereotypes associated with his compatriots, not just by playing on surfaces other than clay, but also by going head to head with international specialist players on the world tour. After demonstrating his talent on the brick dust, he set out to do the same on fast courts and in 1965 shifted his focus from his beloved Paris and made a deliberate effort to polish his game on grass, the surface played on in Australia, USA and London, where the other three Grand Slams took place.

A long, almost 24-hour, trip to New York led him to the grass courts of Forest Hill that saw the Madrid native produce a dream performance to take the title. Previously, in the Davis Cup he had formed part of the huge victory over the USA in a year in which Spain was battling for the Salad Bowl for the first time (they eventually lost to Australia in the final). In the semi-finals he saw off US player Arthur Ashe, who today lends his name to the US Open’s centre court, 2-6, 6-4, 6-2, 6-4 and then the South African Cliff Drysdale 6-2, 7-9, 7-5, 6-1 in a rain-interrupted final. In that match he used no fewer than ten pairs of socks to avoid slipping on the grass before receiving the trophy from the hands of Robert Kennedy.

It was the first time a European had won in New York since Frenchman Henri Cochet did so in 1928. By that point, Santana had already won the admiration of his compatriots, both at home and abroad. And in the Big Apple a group of Spaniards lifted him on their shoulders and celebrated to the sound of guitars and tambourines. The front pages were now his, but it was not enough. There was one more goal to pursue that nobody in Spain had ever obtained: victory in London, the golden cup of Wimbledon. “If I’ve done it here, I can also do it there”, he proclaimed before making his way to the city on the Thames.

So from the USA to England, where the cathedral of tennis also witnessed a Manolo Santana victory. At the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club his legend grew, justifying the work he had put in over the previous years to show that he could produce the goods when not playing on clay. And in 1966 he received his just rewards. After two five-set thrillers against Ken Fletcher in the quarter-finals and Owen Davidson in the semis, he was ready for the final. US player Dennis Ralston was the only thing standing between him and his dream. A 6-4, 11-9, 6-4 victory gave the Spaniard the fourth Grand Slam of his career.

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

Yet, there was still a chapter still to be written in his remarkable sporting story. 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 a silver with Juan Gisbert in the doubles. After a legendary career, ‘Supermanuel’ brought his playing days to an end in 1980. But his ties with the sport lived on.

He would captain the Davis Cup team before taking the reins of the Mutua Madrid Open to consolidate it as one of the most important tournaments on the calendar, in the ATP Masters 1000 and WTA Mandatory categories. This year, the tournament intends to repay him for so many seasons of hard work, commitment and dedication and as from 2018 he will always be Honorary President. “The Mutua Madrid Open is and always will be my home. It took us a lot of hard work to make this tournament happen and I will always be working to help it grow”. This is the story of Manolo Santana, the story of 80 years of tennis.