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Manuel Santana, with current Spanish tennis great Rafael Nadal, holds the wooden racquet he used to win the 1966 Wimbledon title.

Manuel Santana, Spanish Tennis Great, Dies Aged 83

From humble beginnings to hero of Spanish tennis and national celebrity

Manuel Santana, one of Spain’s greatest sporting heroes, passed away aged 83 on Saturday in Marbella. The four-time major singles champion had been Tournament Director of the Mutua Madrid Open until 2019, when he became the ATP Masters 1000 tournament’s Honorary President.

Upon hearing the news, Felipe VI, the King of Spain, posted on Twitter, “There are people who become legends and make a country great. Manolo Santana was and will always be one of them.”

Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez said, “He won Roland Garros, the US Open and Wimbledon, a total of 72 tournaments and an Olympic gold to make him a tennis legend and one of the best athletes our country has seen.”

Rafael Nadal, a 20-time major champion and five-time winner of the Mutua Madrid Open, paid tribute on Twitter, writing, “You will always be one of a kind and special. As I have said many times in the past: a thousand thanks for what you did for our country and for opening the way for others. You were always my role model, a friend and someone who was close to all of us.”

At the height of his fame, when Santana could barely leave his house, he took Spain to the World Group final in the 1965 and 1967 Davis Cup campaigns (l. to Australia both times). He was able to mix in the elite of Spanish society and government.


Manuel Santana plays against Nicola Pietrangeli en route to his first Roland Garros title on 28 May 1961. Photo: AFP/Getty Images

Santana’s father, Braulio, an electrician, moved from Valladolid in northwest Spain, to Chamatin, on the outskirts of Madrid, but died when his son was 16. ‘Manolo’, as he was known throughout the tennis world, was born in the middle of the civil war and was one of four sons. The family shared a single bathroom with an entire building.

He quietly abandoned his local school aged 10, when he realised that he could pick up tips as a ball boy at Club Tenis de Velasquez, bringing in welcome money for his mother, Mercedes, and two years later he carved his first tennis racquet out of wood. Santana, who travelled into the city centre by street car, won the club’s ball boys’ tournament aged 13 and became a club member.

Shortly after his father’s passing in 1954, Santana came under the guidance of the Romero Giron family, who changed the outlook of his life. Giron’s widow, Gloria, and two of her children, Alvaro and Aurora, provided the young Santana with a structured daily routine. There was weightlifting at the gym before breakfast with the Giron family, followed by tennis lessons, a daily trip for lunch with his mother and siblings, then back for afternoon study with a tutor. It was hard, having missed school for almost five years, but Santana eventually earned a high school diploma in the United States.

Santana, who won the Spanish junior championships in 1955 and 1956, was not permitted to travel alone internationally until 1959, when the Giron family felt he was both mature and socially adept. He completed his military service in 1960 and, the following year, with improved English, he beat two-time champion Nicola Pietrangeli, who’d later become Santana’s great friend, 4-6, 6-1, 3-6, 6-0, 6-2 in the 1961 Roland Garros final. Santana, who extended rallies to make Pietrangeli fight for every point, wept for one hour afterwards.

Santana, who enjoyed his early success on clay, possessed terrific hand-eye coordination, a potent forehand and could disguise his drop shot. He reclaimed the Roland Garros crown in 1964, when he beat Pietrangeli again, 6-3, 6-1, 4-6, 7-5, in the final.

Having once said that “Grass is for cows”, a statement echoed by dozens of players in the future, Santana’s confidence and game matured on the surface, centred largely on his speed, anticipation and willingness to switch-up his style. He played at the US Nationals [now named US Open] on seven occasions, losing twice in the 1960 and 1964 first round, but Santana became the first European to lift the trophy since Fred Perry in 1936. He beat Cliff Drysdale, who would go onto become the first ATP President, 6-2, 7-9, 7-5, 6-1 in the 1965 final.

Santana’s greatest singles triumph came on 1 July 1966, when he captured the Wimbledon trophy over Dennis Ralston 6-4, 11-9, 6-4 and kissed the hand of Princes Marina of Kent upon receiving the famous trophy, which went against royal protocol. He was the first European to win the Wimbledon title since France’s Yvon Petra in 1946. Later in 1966, Santana, adjudged to be the amateur World No. 1, underwent a right ankle operation, which left him tentative in his movement.

Santana played doubles sparingly, but won the 1963 Roland Garros doubles title with Roy Emerson. At the 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico City, Santana won a singles gold medal and a silver medal in doubles (with Juan Gisbert), where tennis was a demonstration/exhibition sport.

In playing retirement, Santana was captain of Spain’s Davis Cup team between 1980 and 1985, then again from 1995 to 1999. Inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame in 1984, he managed the Manolo Santana Racquets Club in Marbella and also the Sport Center Manolo Santana in Madrid. The main court at the Caja Magica, venue of the Mutua Madrid Open, is named in his honour.

He received numerous awards, including the Gold Medal for Sporting Merit (1965), the Great Cross of Isabel la Católica (1966), the Gold Medal of the Villa de Madrid (1970), the Medal for Sporting Merit of the Madrid City Council (1996), the Great Cross for Sporting Merit (2000), the Great Cross of the Dos de Mayo of the Community of Madrid (2008) and the 2010 Francisco Fernández Ochoa Award from the National Sports Awards.

Married four times, Santana fathered five children: Manuel, Beatriz, Borja, Barbara and Alba. He lived with his last wife, Claudia, in Marbella, and in recent years had suffered from Parkinson’s disease.

Manuel Martinez Santana, tennis player and tournament director, born 10 May 1938, died 11 December 2021

The Tennis World Pays Tribute