Manuel Santana, Influential Spanish Tennis Champion, Dies at 83

Santana started at the Velázquez tennis club in Madrid as a ball boy, skipping school to collect tips from tennis players and earn money to support his mother. Tennis drew him, he told the newspaper La Rioja of Logroño, because of the distance between competitors. “For somebody who always hated violence,” he said, “a sport in which a net prevented physical contact felt like it was made for me.”

At the club, he regularly prepared the clay court for two siblings from a wealthy family, Álvaro and Aurora Romero Girón. The two took an interest in Manuel, and encouraged him to combine tennis with a commitment to school, while also providing financial support for Santana’s mother.

When he was 13, he won the ball boys tournament at the Velázquez club and was officially admitted as a member. His game developed, and Santana, relying on an effective topspin, powerful forehand and craftily disguised drop shots, won the Spanish junior championships in 1955.

“His game was pretty unique and even though he was one of the best clay courters ever, he could play on anything,” said Stan Smith, the American former top player and president of the International Tennis Hall of Fame, which inducted Santana in 1984. “He was an ultimate big occasion competitor, but I don’t know anyone who didn’t like and respect him,” he added, in a statement on the hall’s website.

After retiring as a tennis player, Santana went on to be captain of Spain’s Davis Cup team from 1980 to 1985 and 1995 to 1999. He managed two tennis clubs — in Madrid as well as Marbella — and until 2019 was the tournament director of the Mutua Madrid Open, whose center court was named after him.

A fixture on the Spanish social scene, Santana was married four times and had five children. He is survived by his wife, Claudia Rodríguez; three children, Beatriz, Manolo and Borja, by his first wife, María Fernanda González-Dopeso; a daughter, Bárbara, with Bárbara Oltra; and another daughter, Alba, whose mother, Mila Ximénez, was a well-known Spanish journalist who died this year. His 1990 marriage to Otti Glanzelius, a former Swedish model, ended in divorce in 2009.

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