Manuel Santana, Spanish tennis trailblazer, dies at 83

MADRID (AP) — Manuel “Manolo” Santana, who reached No. 1 in the tennis rankings and was the first Spaniard to win a Grand Slam singles title, has died. He was 83.

The Madrid Open announced the death of its honorary president on Saturday. No cause of death was given.

Santana won four major singles championships: The French Championships in 1961 and 1964, the U.S. Championships in 1965 and Wimbledon in 1966, the same year he reached the No. 1 ranking. He added the 1963 French doubles with Roy Emerson.

Santana was inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame in 1984.

“It’s difficult for a genius to be rewarded in tennis and Manolo was one of those few who could,” Gene Scott said at the hall induction ceremony where he spoke on Santana’s behalf. “He literally invented one of the strokes that we now see in profusion — the backhand topspin lob.”

Rafael Nadal joined in the flood of condolences on social media, writing in Spanish that “we will all miss you Manolo.”

“You will always be one of a kind and special,” Nadal wrote. “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.”

Garbiñe Muguruza posted a photo of her with an elderly Santana with the message thanking him for his “goodness, warmth, and for showing us the way forward.

“You were always our reference point, for everyone in Spanish tennis, a pioneer,” the two-time Grand Slam winner said. “So close and so attentive, in the good and bad times. We will miss you. All my love for your family and loved ones.”

Spain’s king and prime minister echoed the sentiments of Nadal, calling Santana a “legend.”

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

Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez said, “He won Roland Garros, the U.S. 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.”

Billie Jean King fondly recalled winning her first Wimbledon title alongside Santana’s triumph there in 1966.

“We danced the 1st dance at the Ball,” King tweeted.

Unlike his Davis Cup teammate Andres Gimeno, Santana turned down offers to turn professional and became one of the biggest names on the “shamateur” tour of the 1960s.

Santana beat the top three players to win the 1961 French title. No. 3 Roy Emerson was downed in the quarterfinals and No. 2 Rod Laver in a five-set semifinal, where Santana won the last 11 games. In the final against defending two-time champion and No. 1 Nicola Pietrangeli, Santana was down on sets 2-1, but won the last two 6-0, 6-2. He wept for an hour afterwards.

He defeated Pietrangeli again in the 1964 final for his second French crown and turned his focus to grass.

Santana had to beat only two seeds to win the 1965 U.S. title at Forest Hills, the final in four sets over Cliff Drysdale. Santana became the first European man to win the U.S. title since 1928.

He skipped the French championships in 1966 to focus on Wimbledon. Santana had nervy wins over Ken Fletcher and Owen Davidson to meet his first seed in the final, where he beat Dennis Ralston in straight sets and became the first men’s champion from Spain.

He said Wimbledon was the biggest of his four Grand Slam singles triumphs.

“This is the one all the players want to win,” he’s quoted as saying on the International Tennis Hall of Fame site. “I am very happy I did it once.”

He didn’t win the Davis Cup across three decades, but led Spain to its first two finals in 1965 and 1967, both lost to host Australia.

A measure of his devotion was in 1968, against the United States in Cleveland. The U.S. had won the tie but Santana and Arthur Ashe turned the dead fifth rubber into a classic. Santana won sets of 13-11 and 15-13 but lost in five.

After making his Davis Cup debut at 19, he still holds Spain’s records for most ties (46), and most wins in singles (69) and doubles (23).

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