“We will miss you Manolo” – Spanish great Santana passes away

 - Alex Sharp

A master and a gentleman on and off the court, we say goodbye to Manuel Santana.

Manolo Santana Roland-Garros 2019 ©Corinne Dubreuil / FFT

Always cool, calm, and collected, the tennis world will miss the distinctive cheek to cheek smile of Manuel ‘Manolo’ Santana.

The Spanish sporting legend passed away aged 83 on Saturday.

It’s credit to his character, impact and success that upon hearing the news, Felipe VI, the King of Spain, issued this apt statement on social media.

“There are people who become legends and make a country great. Manolo Santana was and will always be one of them.”

Having trained his astonishing hand-eye co-ordination from learning the sport as a ball boy at the Madrid Country Club, Santana was a trailblazer for Spanish tennis.

The four-time major singles champion topped the world rankings, won a total of 72 titles and holds a series of records in the colours of his national flag.

Known widely as the father of Spanish tennis, ‘Manolo’ lifted the Coupe des Mousquetaire at Roland-Garros in 1961 and 1964, before being crowned champion at the US Open (1965) and Wimbledon (1966). 

Manolo Santana Roland-Garros 1964FFT

20-time Grand Slam champion Rafael Nadal led the tributes to his iconic compatriot. 

“As I have said many times in the past: thank you so much for what you did for our country and for marking the path of so many. You were always a reference, a friend and a person close to everyone,” Tweeted Nadal.

“We will miss you Manolo; you will always be unique and special. Greetings to your family and a lot of strength at this time. We will never forget you!”

Fellow Spaniard Garbiñe Muguruza also emphasised the character of such a popular figure.

“Thank you for your kindness, closeness and for showing us the way. You were always our reference, for everyone in Spanish tennis, a pioneer,” Muguruza posted.

“So attentive and so close, in good times and bad. I will miss you. All my love for your family and loved ones.”

Although Santana won the Spanish junior championships in 1955 and 1956, he didn’t travel alone internationally until 1959. Within two years he was champion at Roland-Garros.

His clay game was full of craft, built on a solid foundation from his eagle-eyed anticipation. He possessed a rumbling heavy topspin forehand and kept opponents guessing with exquisite disguise on the dropshot. 

Throw in some ferocious fighting spirit and ‘Manolo’ was a match for anyone.

In Paris in 1961, his semi-final against Rod Laver was an instant classic, Santana roaring back to capture the last 11 games 3-6, 6-2, 4-6, 6-4, 6-0. 

Over to the final and ‘Manolo’ outmanoeuvred two-time champion Nicola Pietrangeli from another set deficit 4-6, 6-1, 3-6, 6-0, 6-2. He later revealed in wept in the locker room for an hour afterwards – the first Spanish player ever to win a Grand Slam singles title. 

Alongside Roy Emerson, ‘Manolo’ added the Roland-Garros men’s doubles title, before reclaiming the singles crown the following season, taking down Pietrangeli again in four sets. 

The Spaniard famously remarked “grass is for cows,” but his speed and timing enabled him to adapt. On the lawns of the US National Championships (now US Open) and Wimbledon, Santana took home the silverware too.

A household name in Spain, Santana became a national treasure and deservedly so. Following his Davis Cup debut at 19-years-old, he still hold’s Spain’s record for the most ties (46), most singles triumphs (69) and doubles victories (23). He took Spain to the 1965 and 1967 Davis Cup final, only for Australia to deny them glory on both occasions. 

Over at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City, a singles gold medal and doubles silver medal were collected, as Santana sparkled once again representing his country’s flag.