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Manolo Santana was the first among Spain's sporting pioneers


At the beginning of the 1960s, Spanish sport was limited to what I once heard described as the ‘classic trilogy’: football, boxing and cycling. It was a rough, fierce sporting climate in which we expected footballers to be tough tacklers, boxers to fight on the front foot and cyclists to take on endless, potholed roads without a thought for their well-being. Any other sport was either seen as a pastime of the rich - such as motorsport - or an activity that belonged in the school yard. They were something we knew little or nothing about. Only footballers, boxers and cyclists could compete with bullfighters as the subject of barroom conversation.

That all changed with the arrival of Manolo Santana, a charismatic lad with a striking set of teeth who had started out as a ball boy. Even after he’d won Roland Garros twice, we still didn’t know he existed. However, it was then that the bosses at TVE, the Spanish state broadcaster, announced it would be showing a clash between Spain and the US at the Club Tenis Barcelona. We wouldn’t have taken any notice of it at all, had the Americans not pitched up with their own food and drink because they didn’t trust us unsanitary Spaniards. That caused uproar, leading us all to seek out a screen to hurl insults at. Over those three days, we discovered tennis, we discovered Santana, and our eyes were opened to another world.

Santana's emergence led Spain to embrace other sports, too

Tennis became a major TV product in Spain, as we watched Santana expertly work the angles, playing with a degree of grace that he would also show after winning, leaping over the net to shake his opponent’s hand. Santana’s personality and clever, attractive brand of tennis were the perfect combination when it came to introducing us to this fascinating game. In turn, we were also persuaded to embrace other sports and sporting heroes: basketball and Emiliano Rodríguez, motorsport and Ángel Nieto, handball and José Perramón, golf and Seve Ballesteros… One by one, they broke the domination of the classic trilogy, becoming fixtures on our front pages and in people’s everyday chinwags. Santana was the first.