SI Vault
Frank Deford
July 03, 1967
As far as his countrymen are concerned, Manuel Santana is tennis itself, a one-man Davis Cup team whose victories have thrilled the nation
Decrease font Decrease font
Enlarge font Enlarge font
July 03, 1967

The Reign In Spain Of King Manolo

As far as his countrymen are concerned, Manuel Santana is tennis itself, a one-man Davis Cup team whose victories have thrilled the nation

View CoverRead All Articles View This Issue

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 Ilustr�simo.

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 Cat�lica. 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.

Chamart�n, where the Santanas lived, was then almost on the outskirts of the city. Madrid has since grown north, swallowing Chamart�n 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 Chamart�n 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.

Continue Story
1 2 3
Related Topics
Braulio Santana 1 0 0
Manuel Santana 16 0 0
Tennis 2333 0 74
Madrid 45 0 0
Spain 258 0 4