The following is the chapter on Richard “Dick” Savitt, the 1951 Wimbledon champion, from the book “The Greatest Jewish Tennis Players of All Time” by Sandy Harwitt. Savitt is regarded as the greatest Jewish male tennis player of all time. He was also featured in this June 23, 2022 article in the New York Times here: https://www.nytimes.com/2022/06/23/nyregion/savitt-wimbledon-tennis.html Harwitt’s book can be bought or downloaded here:
It’s likely that not everyone at the Morgan Stanley offices in Manhattan is aware their distinguished 86-year-old colleague Richard “Dick” Savitt had a previous career that brought him fame, if not fortune.
Indeed, when Savitt, a self-taught tennis player, was in his 20s, he was a world-class tennis champion. How famous was he? Let’s put it this way — following his capturing of the 1951 Australian men’s singles title, he achieved the greatest goal in tennis by reigning victorious at Wimbledon that same year. At home, Time magazine feted Savitt as they would any superstar by honoring him with the cover of the magazine. It was Savitt’s first time gracing the grass courts at the All England Club and he remains the last man to capture the coveted Wimbledon trophy on his first attempt.
Savitt’s success at those two majors also wrote a new page of Jewish history — he became the first person of the Jewish faith to score a singles trophy at any major. Since Savitt, only one other player who considers themselves purely Jewish has won a singles title at one of the four major — American Brian Teacher, who followed in Savitt’s footsteps in winning the 1980 Australian Open title. There are, however, two other former No. 1 players in possession of multiple titles at the majors who can trace their family lineage to include a Jewish heritage: Boris Becker, whose mother is from a Jewish background, and Pete Sampras, whose paternal grandmother was Jewish. But speaking of full Jewish credit for a man winninga singles title at a major, it’s all about Savitt and Teacher.
Life for Savitt began in Bayonne, New Jersey, and through his high school years he lived life as a native of the Garden State, moving on to Maplewood in the first year of his life, and eventually to South Orange when he was 13. A lover of all sports, tennis wasn’t even initially on the radar for Savitt, who pursued basketball and baseball with a passion. Once in South Orange, Savitt incorporated a bit of self-taught tennis into his sports routine and that’s when someone took notice of the kid on court at the public park. That someone was a member of the family who owned the drugstore in town, who also happened to be a member of the Berkeley Tennis Club in Orange, New Jersey. Savitt accepted an invitation from the gentleman to visit Berkeley and was quickly taken with the place. Berkeley was a great breeding ground for junior players and ex-collegiate stars, and the club president, Russell Kingman, happened to also be the current president of the United States Lawn Tennis Association.
“So between all the players and ex-college players and the juniors that were around (Berkeley) it was a whole other world for me — I’d never seen or been involved in a tennis situation like that,” Savitt remembers. “In June, they held the New Jersey State Championships, and because Kingman was involved, Jack Kramer, Ted Schroeder, Pancho Segura, Bobby Riggs, all the great players of that time came to the New Jersey State and I got hooked. I was a ball boy and that’s how I got into tennis.”
Although he attended his first year of high school in South Orange, the Savitt family would soon move out of state.
“My parents moved to El Paso, Texas,” Savitt said. “My mother had a bad skin condition and needed the warmer weather. My senior year in high school I was second all-team in basketball.”
Asked whether the adjustment to Texas was tough for a Jewish kid from New Jersey, no less a teen who grew up a stone’s throw away from New York City, Savitt quickly dispelled the suggestion. Savitt and
El Paso went together as well as a horse and carriage: “Texas is great for high school sports — all sports — football, high school basketball. The weather was great and I could play tennis all year round and I would’ve never been able to play that much in New Jersey, obviously on account of the weather.”
While at El Paso High School, Dick would play forward on the basketball team and was named to the Texas Second Team All-State basketball team. In tennis, he became the Texas State junior tennis champ. He was then ranked No. 4 in the nation in the under-18s. Graduating high school in 1945, he joined the U.S. Navy and was stationed at the Naval Air Station in Memphis, Tennessee. World War II was coming to a close so during the winter of 1945-46 that he served in the Navy, he played on one of the top-ranked armed forces basketball teams. “A few months after I joined the Navy, the war ended,” Savitt said. “I was still in the Navy for a year and a half but didn’t go into battle. But if they hadn’t dropped the bomb (on Hiroshima) I probably would’ve.”
From the Navy in Memphis, Dick moved on in 1946 to college at Cornell, a school located “high above Cayuga’s waters” in Ithaca, New York, as his alma mater’s official song praises their upstate locale. A knee injury put an end to Savitt’s collegiate basketball career, but he continued playing tennis, and won the Eastern Intercollegiate Tennis Tournament held in Syracuse, New York from 1947 through 1950.
Graduating from Cornell in 1950, Dick dedicated himself to tennis. That year, he won a number of tournaments, was considered the No. 6 ranked player in the country, and would reach the U.S. National semifinals at the West Side Tennis Club in Forest Hills. It was not, however, the first time he would play at the then grandest tennis stadium in the United States — he first gave it a go in 1947. In the first round that year, Savitt played against the renowned Bill Talbert, a 1944 and ’46 U.S. National finalist. Savitt clearly remembers that first time playing at Forest Hills: “The place was packed to see Billy Talbert. The match was very quick and I think by the time I lost, even my parents had left the stadium. I guess I got off the court pretty quick because by the time Billy got to the clubhouse I was showered and dressed to leave. You’ve never seen anyone get dressed so fast. Playing in front of 14,000 was difficult.”
It was in 1951 that Savitt utilized his tough-as-nails game — he overpowered opponents with potent groundstrokes and wicked serves — to indelibly link his name to the greats of the game. He would head down to Australia in January where he became the first non-Australian to win the Down Under major since American Don Budge in 1938.
“You need luck in life,” Savitt said. “I had a friend who was No. 1 in Chile and I was invited to play in South America. I was in Chile and I got a wire while there from the USLTA asking if I wanted to go to Australia. It was meant to be Art Larsen and Herbie Flam, but Flam couldn’t go because he was taking some courses at UCLA. So they asked me and I canceled the rest of the trip to South America and flew back and went to Australia with Larsen.
“I was playing full-time in Australia I really improved,” Savitt added. “I was getting a lot of practice since there were so many courts. I beat ( John) Bromwich, Frank Sedgman and Ken McGregor three days in a row so that was huge, especially beating Frank Sedgman in the semifinals since he was the best player in the world. It was a great win for me.”
If Australia counts as a great win, Wimbledon remains the ultimate triumph in the sport. And Savitt was only months away from realizing that dream. At Wimbledon, he defeated Herb Flam, his Davis Cup teammate — and a fellow Jewish player — in the semifinals.
And again, he would be staring across the net from McGregor in the final of a major — and like the last time in Australia, Dick was victorious, although this time in straight sets instead of four. The New York Times would declare Savitt the best amateur in the world — until the late ’60s tennis was predominantly an amateur affair and the few barnstorming pros were not invited to play at the four majors or other prestigious events.
“It’s probably the tournament to win — the major to win,” said Savitt. “If you have to win just one, then Wimbledon is the one to win. It’s got all the atmosphere. The other three majors are great tournaments, but I guess Wimbledon will always have a little bit of an edge.”
Wimbledon in 1951 was the high of all highs for Savitt, but things were about to change.
He was considered the odds-on favorite at Forest Hills, but a leg infection would eventually take its toll and he lost to Vic Seixas in the semifinals.
In the year that would be his best, the Davis Cup would prove to deliver Savitt’s biggest disappointment, and not because he was responsible for an American defeat. Dick was chosen to play during the early Davis Cup ties in 1951, compiling a 3-0 singles record in playing against Canada and Japan — those would turn out to be Dick’s only career Davis Cup appearances. That’s because when it came to the semifinals against Sweden and then the final against Australia, Dick didn’t receive the nod. This seemed surprising since Savitt was universally considered the best player in the world at the time. Frank Shields — the grandfather to actress Brooke Shields — was the U.S. Davis Cup captain, and Jack Kramer was the coach — and they elected to play the semi-retired Ted Schroeder instead of Savitt. Schroeder was a close friend and former doubles partner of Kramer’s, and as they often say, it’s who you know. Schroeder would lose his matches, and the Australians would win the 1951 Davis Cup title. To this day, it’s easy to tell that not being named to the
1951 U.S. Davis Cup final team still smarts as if it was yesterday with Savitt: “Oh, you had to bring that up, didn’t you?” Savitt asked, even though he knew it was going to be a topic of conversation. “I assumed I was going to play against the Australian team, but then came the announcement. The answer is, ‘Yes, that was a low blow.’”
The rumor mill churned with many theories why Savitt was passed over for Schroeder. The assumption by many, especially Jewish tennis fans, was that Savitt being denied a place on the final squad was the doing of anti-Semitism, even though both Savitt and Flam took part in earlier rounds that year. Although many still are of the opinion that anti-Semitism sparked this Davis Cup incident, Savitt has
never subscribed to that theory. He said, however, he never received a reason for why he was not selected. “There was no
connection to anti-Semitism, I don’t think,” Savitt emphasized.
“All the Jewish people weren’t happy to know that, but I really don’t think that was it.” Savitt leaves it to “just that it was a bad time for me.” And if anyone thinks that Savitt is just glossing over anti-Semitic overtones to this controversy, think again. He is a very open, direct and honest individual and if he thought for one minute that his being Jewish had anything to do with the Davis Cup snub, he’d say it loud and clear.
As it would turn out, Dick’s day of playing tennis fulltime were coming to a close. He would only play for one more season — the acclaim of being a tennis champion came without any ability to earn a living, which today’s superstars enjoy. So in October 1952, Savitt announced his retirement with immediate plans of going out and getting a real job. “Tennis in those days was different,” Savitt said, noting his tennis never delivered an honest paycheck. “I didn’t retire because of the Davis Cup. I retired because I only had two choices: to play as an amateur and receive money under the table as an appearance fee or teach tennis at a country club. I didn’t want to do that. So I left to go into business.”
Savitt initially went into the oil business in Texas and Louisiana, but after nine years would switch gears and go into securities on Wall Street: “Yeah, I’ve been here since 1961 until now,” said Savitt, from his office. “These days I don’t go in too early and I don’t stay too late.”
As he was in tennis, Savitt would be a success in the business world, too — and that included financial gain as well. But he didn’t totally abandon playing tennis. He would continue to play at a competitive level, occasionally joining the draw of top tournaments in the Tri-State area. And even today, he still takes to the court for fun and exercise. “I get dressed three or four times a week, but what I play is not really tennis anymore,” Savitt admitted. Although he went to Cornell University, it was another Ivy League school — Columbia University in Manhattan — where he has frequently played and helped with their team since 1972,
which resulted in Columbia naming their tennis facility after him. One of his favorite trophies earned in his later years came when he teamed with his son, Robert, to win the 1981 USTA National Father-Son Indoor Championship.
Another tennis highlight of his life came in 1961 when he was changing the course of his career from oil to the stock market. Savitt made his first trip to Israel that year to play in the Maccabiah Games, winning the singles and doubles titles. It would be the beginning of a lifelong commitment to the Jewish homeland: “I’m very Israeli oriented,” said Savitt, who made about 30 trips to Israel starting in the early 1970s, often going twice a year. Although he no longer travels on such long-haul voyages, he remains heavily dedicated to the Israel Tennis Centers efforts: “We now have 14 tennis centers and have had some great results as far as tournament players, Davis Cup players, Fed Cup players, and juniors,” he said, proudly. “The major interest of the Israel Tennis Centers today is to keep all kinds of kids, not just Jewish kids, off the street. And we’ve succeeded in making Israel a tennis nation.”
Savitt, who was elected to the Jewish Sports Hall of Fame in 1979, said he never experienced any anti-Semitism when playing tennis, although he was well aware that places like the West Side Tennis Club in Forest Hills didn’t accept Jewish members: “I did play at clubs where I couldn’t join, but I never thought about joining any of them and so I never had any problems.” These days, of course, Savitt would be more than welcome to join the West Side Tennis Club, which now has members of all shapes, sizes, religions and races. Savitt was enshrined into the International Tennis Hall of Fame in Newport, Rhode Island, in 1976.
THE GREATEST JEWISH TENNIS PLAYERS OF ALL TIME BOOK
“The Greatest Jewish Tennis Players Of All Time” is a guide to the best and most influential Jewish tennis players in the history of the sport and includes features and biographies of the greatest players, stories of both break-out success and anti-Semitism. Beginning with the Italian Baron Umberto de Morpurgo in the 1920s, the book features stories such as the best German player who was prevented from playing by the Nazis, the player who competed on both the men’s and women’s tour, the only fully Jewish player to rank No. 1 in the world, and the player who was denied entry into a country to play a Women’s Tennis Association tournament—in the 21st century. This history also discusses the ways in which Jewish individuals have been instrumental behind the scenes, playing key roles in the growth of tennis into one of the world’s most popular sports. Among the 37 players featured are Dick Savitt, Brian Teacher, Ilana Kloss, Aaron Krickstein, Brad Gilbert, Julie Heldman, Amos Mansdorf, Anna Smashnova, Justin Gimelstob, Angela Buxton and Brian Gottfried. The book retails for $19.95 and is available where books are sold, including here on Amazon.com: http://www.amazon.com/dp/193755936X/ref=cm_sw_r_pi_dp_vl8rub1RK7P00
“Tennis does have its ‘Game, Set and Matzo’ element and I am thrilled to present them in ‘The Greatest Jewish Tennis Players of All Time,’” said Harwitt. “Each player’s personal saga will touch all tennis fans, Jewish or not, because their stories are instrumental to the history of the game. The experience writing this book was an exciting and rewarding adventure in discovering many fascinating stories.”
Harold Solomon, who is also profiled in the book, contributed the foreword to the book. “You don’t need to be Jewish to appreciate the story of any of these Jewish tennis players,” wrote Solomon. “You just have to be someone who has a curious side and likes to learn about people and how they ended up being who they are and doing what they did.”
Gottfried, the 1977 French Open singles finalist, said of Harwitt, “Who better to write a story about the lives of Jewish tennis players than someone who has ‘been there and done that.’ Sandy has been a fixture on the ATP and WTA Tour for many decades as a very knowledgeable and respected tennis journalist. My family and I have enjoyed getting to know her over the years and being included in her book has been an honor and a privilege.”
Peter Bodo of Tennis.com said, “Sandy Harwitt is a deeply experienced and well-traveled writer, which brings to this book a special stamp of authority. It isn’t just a good book about Jewish tennis players – it’s a good tennis book, period.”
U.S. Davis Cup captain and former world No. 1 Jim Courier said, “Sandy has lived and breathed the sport for years. Her detail and insight into these players personal and professional lives is both remarkable and inspiring.”
Tennis writer and historian Joel Drucker said, “Dozens of Jewish men and women have made a distinctive mark on tennis. Longstanding tennis writer Sandra Harwitt has dug deep to bring these compelling stories to life – fascinating backstories and remarkable journeys both inside and outside the lines.”
Television commentator and former player Mary Carillo said, “Sandy Harwitt is the ideal writer to bring you the lives of the people in this book. She is a true tennis “lifer” and her love and knowledge of the game has produced one remarkable story after another, about tennis players you knew, or wish you knew.”
Harwitt, a freelance sportswriter who specializes in tennis, has covered more than 70 Grand Slam tournaments for media outlets such as the Associated Press, ESPN.com, ESPNW.com, the Miami Herald, the New York Times, and Tennis magazine. She is a member of the International Tennis Writers’ Association and the Association for Women in Sports Media. She lives in Boca Raton, Florida.
Founded in 1987, New Chapter Press (www.NewChapterMedia.com) is also the publisher of “The Greatest Tennis Matches of All-Time” by Steve Flink, “The Education of a Tennis Player” by Rod Laver with Bud Collins, “Macci Magic: Extracting Greatness From Yourself And Others” by Rick Macci with Jim Martz, Juan Martin del Potro: The Gentle Giant” by Sebastian Torok, “I Always Wanted To Be Somebody” by Althea Gibson, “The Days of Roger Federer” by Randy Walker, “Andy Murray, Wimbledon Champion: The Full Extraordinary Story” by Mark Hodgkinson, “The Secrets of Spanish Tennis” by Chris Lewit, “The Bud Collins History of Tennis” by Bud Collins, “The Wimbledon Final That Never Was” by Sidney Wood, “Acing Depression: A Tennis Champion’s Toughest Match” by Cliff Richey and Hilaire Richey Kallendorf, “Titanic: The Tennis Story” by Lindsay Gibbs, “Jan Kodes: A Journey To Glory From Behind The Iron Curtain” by Jan Kodes with Peter Kolar, “Tennis Made Easy” by Kelly Gunterman, “On This Day In Tennis History” by Randy Walker, “A Player’s Guide To USTA League Tennis” by Tony Serksnis, “Court Confidential: Inside The World Of Tennis” by Neil Harman, “A Backhanded Gift” by Marshall Jon Fisher, “Boycott: Stolen Dreams of the 1980 Moscow Olympic Games” by Tom Caraccioli and Jerry Caraccioli (www.Boycott1980.com), “Internet Dating 101: It’s Complicated, But It Doesn’t Have To Be” by Laura Schreffler, “How To Sell Your Screenplay” by Carl Sautter, “Bone Appetit: Gourmet Cooking For Your Dog” by Suzan Anson, “The Rules of Neighborhood Poker According to Hoyle” by Stewart Wolpin among others.