It was almost as if all Spain, not just Manuel Santana, had been the defending champion of Wimbledon, so that when Monday, on center court, Santana was upset by Charlie Pasarell of the U.S., Spain, too, had lost. No athlete in the world is so revered by his countrymen, and no defeat will alter that feeling. He is, in fact, the nation's leading hero by any measure, and by the personal decree of Generalissimo Franco, he is known as Ilustrísimo.
Santana did not reach this position of esteem until two summers ago when, at the age of 27, he anchored the Spanish Davis Cup team that whipped the U.S. in Barcelona. The outcome was hardly a surprise to anyone but the Spanish people, who, with little appreciation or knowledge of the game, had naturally assumed that Spain had as much chance of beating the U.S. in tennis as in nuclear warfare. When Manuel, or Manolo, as he is known, and his teammates charged out and wrapped up the competition 3-0, the whole country went berserk. Franco, watching on television from his yacht in the Mediterranean, had the silver medal of sport struck for the whole team, except Santana. Manolo was awarded the gold medal of sport, an honor so rarely accorded that in recent years only one other Spaniard—a soccer player named Alfredo di Estesano—has earned it.
After he beat the U.S., Santana kept on winning. He took the U.S. nationals the next month, midway in a streak from May to December in which he did not lose a single match. Spain's new-found interest in tennis grew to a passion, and even though Santana and his Davis Cup teammates were beaten in Australia in the Challenge Round, Manolo revived the joy last July by winning at Wimbledon. This time when he returned to Madrid, he was larger than life. Summoned to Franco's palace, Santana played an exhibition on the Generalissimo's own private court against his doubles partner, Lis Arilla. Afterward, with the elite of Spanish society and government in attendance and with the light, gay music of the land playing in the background, General Franco called up his honored guest and pinned upon his chest one of the highest medals that Spain can bestow upon a citizen—the Isabel la Católica. Then, beaming, Franco embraced Manuel Santana, the first champion of his Spain.
It had been many years since Santana's father, Braulio, came to live in Madrid. He moved there from Valladolid, a city in northwest Spain near the Portuguese boundary. Manolo suspects his forebears had long lived in Valladolid, but he is not sure, and his father died when he was 16 so he knows no more of his heritage. Manolo himself was the second of four boys, born in Madrid on May 10, 1938. A few hundred miles away in Paris, Don Budge was getting ready to win his second championship in the Grand Slam. In Madrid, though, the city was seething, in the grip of the civil war, and a year after Manolito was born food rationing was forced upon the torn, besieged population.
July 2, 1967
Chamartín, where the Santanas lived, was then almost on the outskirts of the city. Madrid has since grown north, swallowing Chamartín in its sprawl away from the Manzanares River, and none of the Santanas live there now. Today, when he is not traveling the tennis circuit, Manolo winters in Madrid but moves each summer to La Coru√±a, a resort where his wife, Maria—the daughter of one of the most prominent lawyers in Spain—comes from. They have two children, Manolito, who is 4, and Beatrice, 2. It is a proper, comfortable existence they enjoy, complete with a nannie who lives with them and takes care of the children. Manolo, after all, commands the highest expense fees (with Roy Emerson) in the game. When Maria travels with him in the pursuit of more titles, Manolo's widowed mother, Mercedes, moves in to help the nannie with the kids. But there is less and less need for that, for Santana is employed by Philip Morris, and is now home for months at a time, working in the Madrid office.
In Madrid, Santana's mere presence in public leads to immediate mobbing and hugging. He walks down the street, and the children, some of them dragging rackets that they use to hit balls against walls (for there are no tennis courts), scramble to get nearest to him. A policeman at an intersection abandons his job of sorting out the darting Spanish traffic and, while motor chaos ensues, hustles over for an autograph. Manolo smiles brightly, his teeth gleaming, and writes his name.
It is this way everywhere. Because his Davis Cup matches were brought into Spain by Eurovision from all over the Continent, Santana is nearly as much TV personality as athlete. Certainly no other athlete in Spain gets anywhere near the reception that he does. Occasionally a soccer player has achieved a certain distinction when his club has done exceptionally well, but, as Santana himself points out, "There are 11 on a team." Bullfighters are popular, but the Spanish do not view bullfighters as athletes. "We consider them the same way you do your Harlem Globetrotters," Santana says. The bullfighters bring money to Spain and pleasure to the fans, but they do not bring international glory.
Santana's victories have occasioned such publicity for Spain that it has occurred to some government officials that they should capitalize on it. Now, for the first time, serious consideration is being given to integrating athletics into the regular school day. And there is even hope that someday soon there will be public courts so that the boys who carry rackets through the streets, just as Manolo did, searching for a clear wall to hit against, will have real nets to hit over and a real game to play.
Santana carved his first racket out of wood when he was 12, a skinny truant drifting toward an illiterate life. He had quietly abandoned school when he was 10 after he had discovered one day that he could pick up tips as a ball boy at the Club Tenis de Velasquez. "For the first time," he remembers, smiling a bit devilishly, "here I was sitting in school with a few pesetas in my pocket. 'Why am I here?' I thought. I was not very good in school anyway. So soon I was going to the club every day and not at all to school. Then I would bring some of the money home."
For little Manolito it was an existence not unlike Peter Pan's. The Club Tenis was right in the heart of Madrid (it has since been replaced by an in-town airlines terminal), and Manolito, like any businessman, would casually take a streetcar in from Chamartín every morning. Later, if he tired of chasing balls or if business was slow, he would go to a movie or drift off to some other amusement. When he was 13, a club member gave young Santana an old racket, and later that year he won a ball boys' tournament at the club. Young Santana had experienced his first touch of recognition.
Home in Chamartín was not quite so delightful an existence, but it was not a harsh one, either. The living quarters were close, but there were still three bedrooms. And if the Santanas' diet was repetitive and dull, it was sufficient. Then, when Manolo was 16, Braulio Santana, an electrician for the streetcar company in Madrid, died. "And that was when my whole life changed completely," Santana says. When he talks about this, his voice deepens with emotion.
To comprehend what happened to Santana next, it is necessary, really, to understand his manner. He is always positively joyous, so full of goodwill, so perpetually smiling, that there is no one in tennis who is not genuinely fond of him. Smiling, hugging, laughing, he invests a whole gathering with good spirits. His jutting teeth deny him good looks, but his face—somewhat reminiscent of Fernandel's—is so expressive, his mood so infectiously charming, that the teeth are quickly forgotten.
It is not hard to imagine, then, how appealing the little waif scrambling after balls at the Club Tenis must have been to the members. Shortly after his father died, one family at the club approached him and asked him to come live with them. "It was unbelievable, just like a book," Santana says. "I look back now and I really cannot believe that this happened to me. It was the family of Romero Girón. Se√±or Girón was dead and they were not very wealthy people. They lived comfortably—one house, one car. And when they asked me to come into their house, the last thing they wanted was to take me away from my own family. They made me go home every day for lunch with my mother and brothers and they also sent money home to my mother. And listen, the important thing: they did not take me because they thought I would be a great tennis player. Who could tell then anyway? They took me because there are just some people in the world who want to do good. That is the family of Romero Girón."
The opportunity demanded such drastic adjustments, however, that Manolo nearly rejected it. "You must remember," he says, "I had been a free boy for five years. It was a very difficult change, very difficult. Not only was I no longer a free boy, but in one week, just like that, I went from a ball boy to a member of the club. Can you understand that? Isn't that just like a book? In one week, my friends, the other ball boys, are ball boys for me."
The Giróns undertook to remake young Santana. Most involved in the project were Senora Gloria Girón, the family matriarch and widow of Romero (Santana always first refers to his benefactors as an entity, however, "La familia de Romero Girón"), and two of her children—Alvaro, who was to be Manolo's best man, and Aurora, who was to be named godmother of his first child. He fell into a disciplined new routine. He would arise and go to the gymnasium to lift weights, return to the Giróns for breakfast and then go to the club for tennis lessons for the balance of the morning. He would next board the streetcar for Chamartín and the other life, eat lunch with his mother and brothers and then return to the Girón house for a full afternoon of studies with a tutor. It was not easy, having been five years away from school, but eventually he earned what would amount to a high school diploma in the U.S. The Giróns also began to expose him to religion again (he is today very devout), and they were just as solicitous in his social development; they would not let him travel alone until they considered him both mature and socially adroit.
Santana first visited America in 1959. He was wide-eyed and spoke little English. Frank Froehling, the American amateur, remembers meeting Santana. His first impression was how really bad a player Manolo was. By coincidence, that night Froehling and two others ended up having dinner with the young Spaniard. The check came and Santana pounced on it. "You've got to remember," Froehling says, "that he was a nobody then, making minimum expenses. The check ran to $25, and he wouldn't let us pay a cent. I remember still. All he said was: 'These are my friends. I will pay for them.' "
Indeed, the two qualities that those close to Santana invariably ascribe to him are pride and loyalty. Santana has honored friends with wonderful favors. Within hours after landing in Boston from Barcelona, he flew to Lynchburg, Va. when Arthur Ashe said he was desperate for someone to play in an exhibition match. Once he refused to accept any expense money when, well into a tournament, Maria lost a baby and he was called home. And when a California promoter reneged on him and then upped his price drastically to get Santana back, Manolo would not even go to the phone to talk to the man. Neither, as some suggest to him, will he deny his true upbringing. "They tell me," he says sadly, shaking his head, "that I should say I was always with the family of Romero Girón, but no. I am proud of my whole life and my own family. I am luckier than most. I have two families, so why should I try to lose one?"
Realistically, there are no new goals left for Santana. He certainly may win one of the major tournaments again, but the odds are such that even he hardly expects to be able to give Spain the Davis Cup. None of his teammates have any chance of winning away from the bubble-gum Iberian clay courts. So for Spain to gain victory on grass (as it did against England in the European Zone semifinals last month) Santana must win both his singles and then team with Arilla, a clever doubles partner on any surface, to take the odd point. It is something like asking a man to win four World Series games—and to do it several times a year. There is a good chance, now that the U.S. has been eliminated by Ecuador, that Spain can make it to the Challenge Round against Australia once more, as it did in 1965. But there is almost no hope that it can win the Davis Cup.
Considering that his tennis development was on clay, Santana's individual accomplishment of winning the two major grass tournaments—Wimbledon and Forest Hills—which no other Continental European had managed since the 1920s, is perhaps an even more impressive feat than carrying little Spain to Australia. His grass game suddenly matured about three years ago, when he gained confidence in it. In fact, his game on the turf does not differ all that much from his clay maneuvers. He does serve harder on grass and tries to gain the net more quickly, but his serve is so relatively weak, even in the matter of placement, that it would be impossible for him to win in the traditional slam-bang manner.
Instead, he must depend on much the same strategy and nuances that work for him on slower surfaces. Anticipation, quickness, guile are as much a part of his repertoire as are his marvelous strokes. He is always switching his style to catch an opponent off guard and take control of the match from the harder hitter. He varies spins, cuts and slices, and, above all, he gets the ball back. It may be said that Santana's game is, in fact, based on the contrary premise that the server is on the defensive, trying to hold the serve, as the football defense tries to hold that line. "I'm more scared myself," Santana says, "when I see that a player is returning serve well, rather than just serving well."
Santana's chances of successfully defending his Wimbledon title were always questionable, for a ligament operation on his right ankle this past winter left him a bit tentative in his movements. He was also a bit unlucky, drawing a strong grass-court player like Pasarell in the first round. With Santana out of the tournament, Emerson becomes the heavy favorite. Emerson, who has the first two legs of the Grand Slam—Australian and French—is in top form.
Santana is not himself interested in the Grand Slam or other cumulative honors that demand a full year's rigorous campaigning. It seems, in fact, that his passion for the game diminishes each year. It is significant that when he underwent his ligament operation and there was the possibility it would not succeed, Santana was less concerned for his tennis future than for his doctor, whom he knew would suffer if the career of Ilustrísimo was concluded in the operating room. "I cannot ask for much more, can I?" Santana says. "I am No. 1, some people say; No. 2, others. It really doesn't matter. I am not a champion in the way they have been—like Perry and Budge and Sedgman and Laver. I'll never be a real bloody champion, so I can't expect much more."
Instead, his greater concern for the future is with Philip Morris, where he is determined to prove he is not just a used tennis celebrity.
"This is a wonderful thing," Santana says of his businessman's role, "and I will never lose this opportunity by playing tennis, week after week, all year.
"Of course, it is nice to know," Santana goes on, "that I can always be a teaching pro if I have to. I will always have that to fall back on, because God gave me the talent and it is mine. But after all my life in tennis, I want to prove to myself that I can do something else besides tennis. The life I would prefer is to finish in my office, and on the way home to Maria and my children, I would stop and play tennis with my friends, and then say thank you to God for the opportunity to play tennis and see the world for all these years."