Tennis Prose



Best In Class: Dick Savitt Celebrates Diamond Anniversary

By Nancy Gill McShea
© Ed Goldman, International Tennis Hall of Fame

(January 1, 2011) Sixty years ago this month, Dick Savitt set out on a year-long odyssey and swept into tennis history, winning singles titles at Wimbledon and the Australian Championships and advancing to the semifinals of the French and U.S. National Championships.

It was 1951. Harry Truman was President. The United States was sparring with Russia in the Cold War and battling North Korea. Alan Freed was energizing the rock ‘n roll movement on the radio. Rosemary Clooney was belting out “Come On-a My House” on jukeboxes across the country and Johnnie Ray was soothing Dodger fans with his hit record “Cry” after the Giants beat the “Bums” 5-4 to win the National League pennant. Sharing top billing in the year’s headlines was Dick Savitt, a 24-year-old veteran of the U.S. Navy, a Cornell graduate and a self-taught tennis player from New Jersey who stunned the tennis world by winning two of the sport’s four Grand Slam tournaments and establishing himself as the world’s No. 1 amateur tennis player.

Dick is a modest guy who hides a warm, generous nature with a quick, dry sense of humor. I once sat with him at the US Open, wondered aloud if fans around us knew he had won Wimbledon and Australia, to which he replied, frowning, “That’s enough!” Ask Dick too many questions about himself or his tennis career, he’ll get edgy and deadpan like Jack Webb of the old Dragnet television show: “Just the facts, Ma’am, just stick to the facts.”
So we’ll stick to the facts. And the facts are considerable!

In January of 1951, Dick dismissed three native Aussie champions to win in Australia.  He defeated John Bromwich (1939 and 1946) in the quarterfinals, Frank Sedgman (1949 and 1950) in the semifinals and Ken McGregor (1952) in the finals. “The Australian was a big shock to the tennis world,” Savitt has said. “It put me on the map.”

In July at Wimbledon, Dick beat McGregor again for the title in one of the shortest finals ever played on Center Court at the All-England Lawn and Tennis Club. Excerpts from the July 7, 1951 issue of The New York Times captured the drama for fans back home: “Savitt beat the Australian Davis Cup player, 6-4, 6-4, 6-4, in 63 minutes before a standing–room crowd of 15,000. The…American culminated his first foreign tour and his initial Wimbledon appearance with the finest array of passing shots seen in this 65th staging of the game’s best-known tournament. Savitt showed tension in the first few games, but after that his booming service and forehand and the most devastating backhand he ever has shown proved too much for McGregor…

“The 6-foot-3 Savitt broke McGregor’s service — his best weapon — five times…He finished with sharp backhand cross-court shots which upset the Australian’s net game.

The end came with McGregor lying flat, his drawn face buried in the…grass. He had dived desperately but missed the title-winner, a sizzling forehand drive, by inches. The happy American tossed his racquet high in the air and let go a shout of triumph that echoed above the applause.”

Dick has said he felt more relieved than elated when he accepted the Wimbledon trophy from the Duchess of Kent. En route to the final, he had also eliminated Americans Art Larsen and Herb Flam, the singles winner and runner-up at the 1950 U.S. National Championships (now the US Open). The late Ham Richardson remembered that “Flam had Dick a set and 5-1 (in the second), but Dick came storming back in a furious rally to win that set 15-13 and win the match in four.”

“I had never beaten Herb and he really had my number,” Dick said. “He was killing me and starting to laugh because he was beating me so badly…At 5-1 down I won the next game and we crossed the net. I would normally never speak to anybody I was playing when I was crossing courts but I suggested to Herbie that he stop laughing at me or something might happen to him. Losing to him was one thing, but he was taking it a step further.”

Two of Dick’s friends, the late Don Budge and Richardson, agreed that Dick came close to winning three of the four majors that year when he played “one of the great classic matches” in the semifinals of the French. Savitt lost in five sets to the champion, Jaroslav Drobny, after leading two sets to love with leads in the next three sets. “My grandmother probably could have won that match,” Dick said recently. “It was the toughest loss I ever had at that level.”

At the U.S. Championships in Forest Hills in late summer, Dick fell in the semis for the second straight year. He had lost to champ Larsen in 1950 and in his return to the final four he surrendered 6-3 in the fifth to Vic Seixas. “Dick got a boil on the back of his knee which didn’t help,” Budge later recalled.

He played the U.S. Championships 11 times, the first time in 1946 when he lost, 6-2, 6-2, 6-0, to Bill Talbert in the third round on Center Court at Forest Hills. His friend Dan Rivkind once reminded him that he watched that drubbing, to which Savitt replied, “There aren’t too many of you left (who stayed that day).  I looked around after the first set and the whole stadium was emptying out. My family and friends left, too.”

Dick taught himself to play tennis at age 13 when he was a ball boy at the Berkeley Club in Orange, N.J. Russell Kingman was then the president of both the USLTA and Berkeley, and he brought in Jack Kramer, Frank Kovacs, Bobby Riggs and Pancho Segura to play the New Jersey State tournament there. “I had never seen tennis like that before,” Dick said. “I immediately got Don Budge’s book on tennis to learn how to hit strokes correctly.”

He went to Cornell on a basketball scholarship, wound up as a four-year starter at No.1 singles and doubles on the tennis team, posted a career singles record of 57-2, won the Eastern Intercollegiate singles title in 1949 and ’50, and paired with Leonard Steiner to win the doubles title in 1948, ’49 and ’50. He has combined tennis and business ever since he won the 1952 U.S. National Indoors and quit playing the circuit full-time to work in the oil business in Texas. In 1961 he won the Maccabiah Games in Israel and went into the securities business with Lehman Brothers. In 1973, he became involved with an organization called Israel Tennis Centers, which developed thirteen centers spread all over Israel. “The concept was to use tennis as a vehicle to improve the quality of life for children and to develop world-class players,” Dick has said. In 1985 he joined Schroder’s, a large London and U.S. securities firm. He is currently with Salomon Smith Barney in New York.

Dick won other elite tennis titles during the years he ranked among America’s top ten, including doubles at the Italian, singles and doubles at the Canadian and three singles crowns at the USLTA National Indoors. He was inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame in 1973 and still plays tennis three or four days a week with Gaurav Misra (once India’s best player) at the Dick Savitt Tennis Center at Columbia University. He also plays occasionally with his son, Bob, with whom he won the 1981 USTA Father-Son Doubles Championship at Longwood.

Bob Savitt, once a ranked Eastern junior himself, says of his Dad, “In addition to being the best father who taught me everything, he’s the best in class in many areas. I would rank him No. 1 in the best eater category, both in volume and quality (health)…He’s one of the few guys who played at the highest level, studied the game, adapted to changing techniques, became a great teacher and sets the record for watching the most tennis matches at the US Open.”

Does Dick Savitt believe it take brains to become a tennis champion?

“No!” he said. “It takes four things: athletic ability, desire, good technique and experience.”

Those are the facts; just stick to the facts when you talk to that particular tennis champion.

Nancy Gill McShea worked as a copy editor at a major New York advertising agency, spent 15 years teaching English and running the library in two Long Island high schools and coached varsity tennis. She has spent the past 27 years reporting in magazines and newspapers about tennis players and the game’s leaders in the United States Tennis Association, Eastern Section.

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  • Scoop Malinowski · January 3, 2011 at 1:53 pm

    Excellent read. Love to read about the ex champions. Very interesting that Dick Savitt used a threat of intimidation to turn around that match where the opponent was beating him so bad and was laughing at him at the same time! Who said tennis is a sport for softees?! Well done, I always liked Nancy McShea’s style. May have to take a ride over to Columbia and do a Biofile classic with Dick Savitt.

  • Nancy McShea · January 4, 2011 at 7:01 pm

    Very good idea, Scoop. I’d like to see him play, too.

  • Don Brewington · December 5, 2011 at 3:47 pm

    Saw Savitt as a 15 yr old in 1955 in Tulsa Tennis club,
    he had booming groundstrokes and he was playing part time.
    He played doubles w John Been formerly of Shawnee and University of Houston.
    Savitt just did not miss shots and had great intellect.
    He beat Tut Bartzen in finals and he and John Been won doubles.
    Back then players were paid under table to play and tournament sponsors paid it to get top players, Savitt was working as a stock broker in New York at time.
    Had the best backhand in game.
    That month after seeing Savitt, I played Rod Laver in National 18 & under in Kalamazoo,
    I was 15 , Laver 17, had Laver 12 match Pts before losing
    3-6,8-6,6-3,only set Laver lost in tournament.
    The watching of Savitt play inspired me.

  • Scoop Malinowski · December 6, 2011 at 10:05 pm

    Incredible stories Don thanks for sharing. 12 MPs? You can’t be serious, please tell more about that match.

  • Don Brewington · December 30, 2011 at 5:36 am

    The events that led to Rod Laver match…
    In summer of 1956 for first time I had a sponsor to
    play the national tournaments.
    So I had never played outside the Missouri Valley area and had never
    Played in big event, in Mo Valley were
    Rod Susman, Butch Buchholz and Chuck McKinley and played McKinley to three sets and my doubles partner and I went three sets w
    McKinley & Buchholz in finals.
    The two lead up tourneys were in Champaign
    Illinois, Louisville Kentucky and then the Nationals @
    Kalamazoo, Mich, had never played on clay before then,
    I was 15 playing in 18 & under event.
    First rd opponent was Rod Laver playing in the US for
    first time and was dubbed the savior of Aussie tennis,
    Laver was 17, I was 15, won first set 6-3,laver won second set 8-6 and that set was the one where I had 12 match points and then Laver won third 6-3, as it turns out it was only set he lost in 1956 Nationals.
    I had never had a lesson in my life.
    All around athlete and feared no one.
    HS All-American FB player and held rushing record for 15 yrs and never even played until was senior in HS, All State Basketball player and 2 time state finalist in Oklahoma.
    Went to OSU on FB scholarship and lettered
    Three yrs as a receiver.
    Everyone tried to get me to play tennis and not other
    sports, my mom was poor and could not afford to play anymore.
    Butch Buchholz and are still friends now.
    Played in National 55 & over in 1998 and upset the 1994
    World Champion in second round and was only
    Playing part time, lost in Quarters.
    Guess it is a good story. There was not any money
    In tennis at that time either and I was from
    Shawnee Oklahoma a town of 20,000.
    Buchholz and Mckinley came from Associations
    that helped players, I had no help.
    Thanks for asking, Don Brewington
    214-538-7688- iPhone



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