How to win a grand slam, by a kosher hero
It is almost 57 years to the day that Dick Savitt won Wimbledon. In doing so he remains the only Jewish player to have won the men’s singles title.
Since then, Israeli Andy Ram has won the mixed doubles while Jesse Levine won the junior doubles crown in 2005. But Savitt is in a league of his own and, considered by experts to be the greatest baseline player of his generation, he reached the heights without having a single tennis lesson in his 12-year career.
Born in Bayonne, New Jersey, he won Wimbledon five months after lifting the Australian Open in 1951, aged 24, and went on to win a double gold at the 1961 Maccabiah Games.
He retired a year after his Wimbledon success following an internal political row in the American Davis Cup team which drained his enthusiasm.
He said: “I decided to stop playing as I either had to keep receiving under-the-table payments or start coaching at a club. I had no interest in either so I figured I had to start over and went into business. I don’t regret retiring when I did but if the money was what it is today I probably wouldn’t have stopped playing at such an early age. I’ve been very fortunate financially and can have no complaints.”
Having attended every day of the first week of Wimbledon, Savitt does not believe that the winner of the ladies event should receive the equal prize money as their male counterparts. “It’s a different game,” he said. “They play it very well but women also play professional basketball and golf in the USA and they don’t get paid the same.
“Women can’t compete with men in tennis, men play over five sets and their levels are much higher. People basically come to see the men play.”
Tennis was not his first sport as he excelled in basketball from a young age. In fact, he only took up the racquet sport as a 13-year-old, 11 years after his double bonanza.
A knee problem curtailed his basketball ambitions and he admits “getting injured was probably the best thing that ever happened to me, as I decided to concentrate on tennis”.
Not wanting to give away any tricks of the trade, he said: “To be a champion you need luck. I practised and played as much as I could but my education didn’t suffer as I graduated from college.
“I was very fortunate to win two majors and got to travel. It was a different world then as you became friendly with the other players and socialised with them. I’m proud of being Jewish but never experienced any antisemitism as a player.”
During his prime, Savitt recalls how three out of four of the grand slams were played on grass, his favourite surface. Wimbledon remains his favourite competition; he describes it as tennis’ world championship.
In 1958, Savitt moved to New York for business reasons and began a career in the securities business in 1963. Two years earlier came his double salvo in the singles and doubles at the 1961 Maccabiah, his first visit to Israel.
“The Games were a very exciting experience,” he said. “As a result, I fell in love with Israel and wanted to give something back to the game.” Invited by centre founders Dr William Lippy and Dr Ian Froman, he played a key role in helping set up 14 tennis centres where the likes of Shahar Peer, Andy Ram and Jonathan Erlich began.
He helped the organisation raise $140 million from firms in America, England and South Africa and remains active in the Israel Tennis Centers Organisation. He said: “We put Israel on the tennis map which was great.”
He was enshrined in the International Tennis Hall of Fame in 1976, and is also a member of the International Jewish Hall of Fame and New York Jewish Sports Hall of Fame. He says the biggest thrill of his career was winning the national father and son Championship with his son Bobby in 1981.
Now 81, and with three grandchildren, he attended every day of the first week of Wimbledon this year and is “amazed by the depth and level of tennis today.
“Tennis is so big all over the world,” he said. “It has moved on from my day, the racquets have changed and are made of different materials. They also have a bigger head which makes it easier to hit the ball.”