Manuel Santana: The first and last Spanish sorcerer backs his apprentice

We remember the old boys of '66, but who won Wimbledon that year? A tennis legend talks to Ronald Atkin about a singular feat

Sunday 09 July 2006 00:00

England has its Boys of '66, and Spain has its niño of '66. While England were winning the World Cup that summer, Manuel Martinez Santana became the first, and so far the only, Spanish man to win Wimbledon. Forty years on, the smiling man known to lords and labourers alike as Manolo is back at the scene of that singular triumph, cheering the progress towards this afternoon's final of Rafael Nadal, the compatriot he feels has the best chance in those 40 years of emulating him.

"Rafa knows he can win here," said Santana, at ease on a deserted Centre Court a couple of hours before the start of play last week. "Whether he wins this year, next year, whenever, it can happen, because he knows he can play well on the grass. Ever since I won the tournament, not one of the Spanish who came here thought he could win, but Rafa has it set in his mind that he wants to win, and he will do it."

The mindset and the conviction, says Manolo, were what swung it for him, and not only at Wimbledon. He played in four Grand Slam finals and won the lot: the French Opens of 1961 and 1964, the US Championships in 1965 and then the 1966 Wimbledon.

Tanned and (of course) smiling, the 68-year-old Santana pointed at the All England Club's stately premises and said: "This was the biggest of the four, because, and I hope you will agree with me, this is the one all the players want to win. That is why I feel very sorry for great players such as Ken Rosewall, Ilie Nastase and Ivan Lendl who never won Wimbledon. I am very happy I did it once."

Wimbledon 1966 was the culmination of a decade in which Santana, and to a lesser extent Italy's Nicola Pietrangeli, had battled to preserve the name of Europe in a winning circle dominated by the power of Americans and Australians. Santana was the first European to win the US title since Henri Cochet in 1928, and the first Wimbledon winner from the old continent since that long and lean surprise packet, Yvon Petra of France, in 1946.

Born in Madrid in 1938, while Spain's bitter Civil War still raged, Manolo learned a game at which few opportunities existed to play in those days by becoming a ball boy at a Madrid club. He learned well, too, acquiring the phenomenal racket control which would make him a success on all surfaces. And he learned his trade with that smile never far away.

The clay of Roland Garros in 1961 was the scene of the breakthrough, when he defeated Pietrangeli in five sets to capture his first Grand Slam title. Three years later the same two men contested the French final again, and this time Manolo needed only four sets. In 1965 Santana not only won the US title on the grass of Forest Hills, defeating Cliff Drysdale in four sets, but also led Spain to the final of the Davis Cup. En route they defeated the United States in Barcelona, with Manolo being showered with cushions (a bullfight-style sign of approval in those days) as he was carried shoulder high off the main court of the elegant Real Club de Tenis by ecstatic fans.

Spain lost the final 4-1 to Australia on the grass of Sydney's White City Stadium, the lone point earned by Santana's win over Roy Emerson, 15-13 in the fourth set, one of only two Davis Cup losses ever suffered by the great Emmo. All of this was part of the deliberate build-up by Santana in pursuit of success at Wimbledon. "I worked so hard to win it," he reflected. "In 1962 I played Rod Laver here on Centre Court. I won the first set 6-3 and he beat me 15-13 in the second, and 6-4 6-4 in the third and fourth. He was the best player in the world and afterwards I said to myself, 'Well, one day I have a chance to win this'.

"After the 1965 Davis Cup I arrived in London for the 1966 Wimbledon full of confidence. I deliberately missed the French Open and came here five weeks beforehand because I knew it would be my year."

After early, easy victories, Santana ran up against the Australian Ken Fletcher in the quarter-finals. "I was nervous, because Ken had beaten John Newcombe before playing me and had me 5-4 on his own serve in the fifth set, serving for the match. I survived and won 7-5. Then in the semi-finals I played Owen Davidson, who had done me a favour and beaten Emerson. I led him 5-4 in the fifth set, had three match points and lost that game. Such a big opportunity; I almost cried. But I came back and also beat Davidson 7-5.

"Believe me, after those two very tough matches I thought, now I must win this tournament. I cannot lose in the final. And I didn't." Manolo's opponent was the American Dennis Ralston, and Santana won in straight sets: 6-4 11-9 6-4. His greatest memory was of recovering from a 4-1 deficit in that marathon second set well before the days of tie-breaks.

"I have seen Dennis a few times only since then," said Santana. "I am surprised that many of the guys like him never come here to Wimbledon any more. I know he is coaching somewhere in the States, but we are not in touch. I see much more of people like Nastase and Pietrangeli. I go sometimes to Newcombe's tennis ranch in Texas and I see a lot of Tony Roche, Emerson and Fred Stolle."

Like every winner of a Wimbledon singles title, the course of Santana's life was set. "Perhaps not quite so much like Boris Becker. He was 17 when he won here and I was 28, and had already won the French and US. But after 40 years I still get the same recognition as I did back in 1966. You British are very special towards the people who do well here, and that makes me very pleased," he smiled.

Santana was also honoured back in Spain. "They gave me a decoration like you have here in Britain. Here you call them sirs, like Sir Matthews, and what they have done for me in Spain was also very special. I received the title 'Excelentissimo', which I am entitled to put in front of my name. But I never did, and no one calls me that.

"The media coverage in Spain was not as big as it is now, there was only one TV channel in those days, but even so they covered the whole of my final and it was a great promotion for tennis and a very big thing for Spain. People still come up to me in the street back home because I have been involved in the game for so long."

Santana is Spain's Davis Cup record-holder, with 120 singles and doubles matches in 14 years, 92 wins and 28 losses. He was also the Davis Cup captain for eight years and a TV commentator, and for the past five years has been the director of the Masters Series men's tournament in Madrid.

"So I am still very much involved in the game. 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."

It was only recently, though, that Manolo lost one record he did not care to possess. In his opening match at the 1967 Wimbledon he lost in the first round to Charlie Pasarell in four sets, 10-8 6-3 2-6 8-6, falling to the American's huge serve on a damp surface. He was the only defending champion to lose in the first round until Lleyton Hewitt joined him in 2003 after losing his 2002 title to Ivo Karlovic in his opening match. "Manolo Orantes lost in the 1972 semi-finals here, but since him nobody from Spain has done so well until Nadal came along. There is no doubt in my mind that Rafa has the best chance to win Wimbledon since me. He is a leftie, he serves well and he is only 20, and he will improve a lot yet. His forehand is the best in the game, a beautiful one, and when he volleys in the middle of the court, bye-bye.

"I have had nothing to do with his coaching, but we have spoken a lot. He asked me about Wimbledon and my feelings about playing here. When he was a nobody I gave him a wild card into my Madrid tournament and he told me, 'Manolo, I will win this one day,' and he won it last year. He is such a fantastic player, he gives everything out there on court.

"He passed a very big test here in the second round [coming back from a two-set deficit to beat Robert Kendrick]. I know how nervous Rafa was in the first two sets, but now he knows he can come back anytime from something like that and win in five sets."

But will Nadal win today? "That is a difficult call, because Roger is the King of Wimbledon, but it will be a great final," said the man who came here back in '66 and won for Spain.

Life & Times

NAME: Manuel Martinez Santana.

BORN: 10 May 1938, Madrid.


HIGHLIGHTS: won French Open singles 1961, '64, doubles '63; US Open singles '65 - first European champion at Forest Hills for 37 years; Wimbledon singles '66 - after saying, "The grass is just for cows". Awarded Medal of Isabella by Franco '65, qualifying for title "Excelentissimo". World No 1 '66.

DAVIS CUP: runner-up '65, '67. Third highest number of Davis Cup matches, 120, '58-73; won record 13 singles matches '67.

CURRENT ROLE: manager of Manolo Santana Racquets Club, Marbella, Sport Center Manolo Santana, Madrid; director of Masters Series event, Madrid.

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