9 July 2006

The only Spanish Wimbledon champion tells Brough Scott that there will soon be another

When Rafa Nadal got back to the locker room after the semi-final his tears of happiness were shared by a man who had been there before. On the opening day of July in 1966 Manuel Santana became the first and so far the only Spaniard to win the Championship at Wimbledon. On July 30 England won the World Cup. Spanish tennis is a lot closer than English football to ending its “40 years of hurt”.

“Rafa was so, so happy,” said Santana, himself still brimming over on Friday evening. “He has worked so hard, and the way he has improved over the two weeks has been unbelievable. His concentration has been fantastic. He said he wanted to win this. He has never said ‘Grass is for cows’.”

That most famous of clay courters’ disparagements of the Wimbledon surface was always attributed to Santana, as he battled to transfer his conjurer’s touch to the lightning-fast lawns of SW19. “Yes, I hardly won a match on my first four visits,” he remembers – with a degree of excess modesty, as two of the defeats were by someone called Rod Laver. “It took me a long time to adapt, and in 1966 I had to play five sets in both the quarter- and semi-finals. Rafa has been much quicker.”

But let no self-deprecation lessen quite how great a figure Santana was in his time, aged 28 when he lifted the Wimbledon crown. He won the French Open at Roland Garros in 1961 and 1964, and in 1965 he won the US Open on grass at Forest Hills and led Spain to a historic victory over the US in the Davis Cup.

Indeed, when Santana and his doubles partner Luis Arilla finally clinched the trophy 11-9 in the fifth set against Dennis Ralston and Clark Graebner, they were carried around the Real Club de Tennis like bullfighters, and General Franco gave Santana the honour of ‘Illustrissimo’.

These accolades do not hang heavily on the now 68-year-old shoulders. The lissom frame may be bulkier but the smile that so dazzled remains, and it flashes often when he speaks of what his young countryman has achieved already. “For me,” he said on Friday, “today was a very important test for Rafa. He showed how well he has adapted to grass, and his concentration on the big points was fantastic. He was the younger player but he seemed the more mature.

“It is the way he has adjusted his game that has really impressed me,” adds Santana. “The way he gets around the court and then also comes to the net reminds me of Agassi when he won the tournament. I think that on Sunday we are going to see a wonderful match, and my first thoughts are that either Roger will win in three sets or Rafa will grind him out in five.”

Suddenly you feel the competitiveness beneath the charm. “I have always said that Rafa would win Wimbledon one day,” says Santana. “I thought it would be next year or the year after, but now Rafa is in the final and he knows how to beat Roger. Of course Roger is amazing, and when he comes here with the title for the last three years and with 27 consecutive wins on the grass he knows that no one can beat him. But now he will have Nadal in front of him. The key to Rafa is to serve the way he did today, and to drive the balls deep to keep Roger away from the net. Of course it will be very difficult, but not impossible.”

As the optimism seeps through, so too does a pretty uncoded message to Andy Murray. “Rafa is a fantastic fellow and his attitude on court and with the press is so good for the game,” says Santana. “The British can learn from him – you know the one I mean [Murray]. It is not just having the talent. You have to work on it in practice and in a game. He [Murray] must learn that in a match you have to fight like Rafa.”

That little bit of scolding over, the champion of 1966 returns to the dream of having his fellow countryman follow him. “The first time I saw him,” said Santana, “was when Carlos Moya rang me three years ago asking for a wild card for Rafa in the Madrid Masters, which I run. Rafa got beat in the first round but came up to me with a big smile and said, ‘Don’t worry, Manolo, I will come back next year and win it for you’. He’s that sort of a guy.”

On a day when football makes a vain attempt to purge itself of the memories of the diving and head-clutching antics, we should all take hope as the old tennis star blesses the new. When Santana beat Ralston, he offered his drink to his rival as a token of good will. With Nadal and Federer such a gesture would not be a surprise. That would be a great legacy of 1966.

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