Publish date:

Tears and a title for Manuel

Manuel Santana wins in France and becomes the first Spaniard ever to take a Big Four championship

A champion in tears is a comparative rarity at the British tennis championships, but then the sturdy, close-cropped grass at Wimbledon encourages an equally sturdy, tight-lipped attitude toward the game of tennis. The clay courts at Paris' Roland Garros Stadium where the French championships are played, on the other hand, tend to elicit a more delicate form of tennis, one closer to the emotional Latin temperament. For the past two years, the holder of the French championship has been Italy's Nicola Pietrangeli, long acknowledged as the world's best clay-court player and certainly one of the greatest weepers in the game of tennis (SI, Dec. 26, 1960). Last week Pietrangeli lost his French title to another Latin—an emotional Spaniard who wept unashamed for a full hour after winning.

Manuel Santana, the first of his countrymen ever to win one of the big four titles, possesses a nervous temperament so delicately adjusted that two or three times a year, to the bewilderment of his doctors, he breaks out in a rash that defies all treatment. His face swells so severely that he cannot even touch it, his skin peels off and he cannot eat. Manuel was born 23 years ago in the back streets of Madrid, where his father (like the father of Alex Olmedo) worked as a groundskeeper at a tennis club. A lively, likable youngster, he himself started to play tennis at the club at 12. When Manuel's father died a few years later one of the club's wealthier members, Romero Gyron, adopted the boy as his own.

During the next four years he acquired a formal education and a taste for music that included everything from Beethoven to Frank Sinatra. A permanent part of his luggage as a traveling tennis player today is a record player and a stack of discs, which he buys in large batches wherever he goes.

Santana made his first real mark in international tennis only two years ago, though whispers of his prowess preceded him. In 1959, in company with another young Spaniard named Andres Gimeno (now threatening to succeed Gonzales as the world's top professional), he took a complacent British Davis Cup team by surprise and threw them out of European Zone competition in the semifinal round.

As a touring "tennis bum," Manuel Santana made a mockery of that uncomplimentary term. He was a dedicated athlete who went to bed early (and alone) every night. He was a dutiful son, brother and ward who wrote reams of letters to his mother, his brothers and his guardian. And first and foremost he was the most devoted and faithful fiancé who ever trod the courts. Each day when he is away Manuel writes one or more letters to his beloved Maria Fernanda, a student in La Corunna, and in return gets at least two from her. Her life-size portrait travels with him everywhere. Around his neck he wears a gold chain and crucifix, which she gave him, and if by chance he falls in with other feminine company he talks about nothing but Maria. "If you ever," he once told a friend, "see me making up to another girl, hit me."

Slim and slight, Santana walks with the relaxed shuffle characteristic of many great athletes. "On court he sees the ball a yard faster than most others," says a top British tennis critic. The best weapon in his armament is a forehand drive with which he can put any variety of spin on the ball or produce a devastating drop shot. His weakest point is his backhand. He is a brilliant tactician with the prescience of a crystal gazer during play.

Even before the play began in the finals of the French championship, Santana was reasonably confident of the future. "My plan," he admitted later, "was to keep the rallies long and make Nicky fight for all his points—that eventually makes him nervous."

For two sets the pair of them felt each other out like fencers. Honors were practically even. In the third set Pietrangeli pierced to lead 5-0 but then gave three games away before he clinched it. After a 10-minute interval Pietrangeli lost the fourth set 6-0, and Santana could hardly believe what was happening.

"When I reached 5-2 and 40-love in the fifth," he said, "I still did not feel sure of winning. As I hit my last shot, all the strings in my favorite racket snapped. For a moment I wondered what I would do. Then Nicky's passing shot went out, and I had won. It was all too much." The score: 4-6, 6-1, 3-6, 6-0, 6-2.

Santana may eventually turn professional if offers are forthcoming, but it will be largely for the sake of his mother and brothers. After his historic victory, however, his thoughts were not only for the people closest to him but for Spain. "If Andres Gimeno had not turned professional," he remarked, his eyes still wet from weeping, "my country could win the Davis Cup."