Madrid – Manolo Santana, who became the first Spaniard to win Wimbledon and inspired his country’s rise as a tennis power, died Saturday at the age of 83.
“Thank you a thousand times for what you have done for our country and for having opened the way for so many people. You have always been a point of reference, a friend and a person very close to everyone,” tweeted Rafael Nadal, the only other Spanish man to win Wimbledon. “We will miss you.”
Santana won four Grand Slam singles titles.
He took the French Open in 1961 and 1964, the U.S. Open at Forest Hills in 1965 and Wimbledon in 1966.
“I was an intruder among the Anglo-Saxons,” Santana recalled in an interview with the daily El Mundo in 2016, 50 years after his Wimbledon title.
He won that final wearing the shirt of the team he supported in his native Madrid.
“His love for the club inspired him to win Wimbledon in 1966 in the Real Madrid shirt, making him the first Spanish tennis player to win this Grand Slam,” the club wrote on its website.
He also won the gold medal in singles and the silver in doubles in Mexico City in 1968, where tennis was a demonstration event at that year’s Olympics.
Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez lamented the loss of a “legend.”
“My condolences to Manolo Santana’s family, his loved ones and the tennis world,” he tweeted.
Spanish media reported that he had been suffering from Parkinson’s disease and lived in Marbella, on the Mediterranean coast.
Santana was born in 1938, the son of a father imprisoned for his political beliefs during the early years of the Franco dictatorship (1939-1975).
He took up tennis by chance after bringing a meal to his brother who worked at a tennis club in Madrid.
“I saw men in pants playing tennis. I was immediately charmed. I started as a ball boy and then I started playing. In the end, I am an example of humility in an elitist world,” Santana told online newspaper El Espanol.
He became one of the world’s best clay-court players and sparked Spanish interest in tennis when he was part of a team that beat the United States in a Davis Cup match in Barcelona in 1965.
This success, despite a later defeat in the final against Australia, convinced Santana it was possible to beat the “Anglo-Saxons.”
He decided to devote himself to their favorite surface, even though he had declared, in a phrase since repeated by many clay-court specialists, that “grass is for cows.”
His victory on grass at the 1965 U.S. Open validated his choice.
He achieved the holy grail on July 1, 1966, when he beat American Dennis Ralston, 6-4, 11-9, 6-4, in the Wimbledon final.
“In my career, there was a before and after” that victory, he said.
He attained the world number No. 1 ranking that later year.
He retired in 1970 but briefly returned to play in the 1973 Davis Cup.
He had two spells as captain of the Spanish Davis Cup team and ran the Madrid Masters tournament from its inception in 2002 until 2018.
“He was a pioneer and it’s always harder for people who do things for the first time, even if those who follow can do as well or even better,” said Nadal in 2018.
“It took someone to lead the way and show that it was possible.”
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