Richard “Dick” Savitt, a great supporter of Israeli tennis, and the only Jew to win two of the sport’s most coveted prizes when he captured the Australian Open and Wimbledon crowns in 1951, died in New York on Friday, aged 95.
Savitt, widely regarded as the best Jewish male player ever to grace a tennis court, was a frequent visitor to Israel and mentored many of the country’s best exponents of the sport to whom he devoted his time and expertise as they attempted to follow in his footsteps.
Born in Bayonne, New Jersey on March 4, 1927, Savitt became enchanted by tennis after serving as a ball-boy in South Orange.
In her book, The Greatest Jewish Tennis Players of All Time, author Sandra Harwitt writes:
“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.... Berkeley [Tennis Club in Orange, New Jersey] was a great breeding ground for junior players and ex-collegiate stars.”
Savitt later honed his tennis skills in El Paso, Texas to where the family moved when he was 13 years old.
Gaining the greatest pinnacles of tennis as a self-taught player is unheard of these days and well-nigh impossible, but Savitt, who was a naturally-talented ball player and also excelled at baseball and basketball, managed to achieve this and was the equal of, or better than, many of the top players of the early post-War era.
After graduating from high school in 1945, Savitt joined the US Navy but served only briefly as the war soon came to a close. He then went on to study at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York.
After his Grand Slam successes in 1951, in which he beat Australian Ken McGregor in both finals, Savitt was overlooked in favor of others to play for the US as they challenged Australia for the Davis Cup.
However, when pressed by Harwitt in her interview with him for her book, Savitt said he was adamant that antisemitic bias did not play a part in the decision to drop him from the team, despite the fact that he had played successfully in previous rounds.
After his landmark wins, Time Magazine honored Savitt for his achievements by putting him on one of its covers that year.
With tennis being mainly an amateur sport when Savitt was at his peak, he made the decision to opt for a proper day job and announced his retirement just a year after he had achieved his greatest successes. At the time, he was regarded as the world’s top amateur men’s player.
“TENNIS IN THOSE DAYS was different,” Savitt told Harwitt, noting that he was never able to make a living from the sport. “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 to teach tennis at a country club. I didn’t want to do that. So I left to go into business.”
Savitt worked in the oil industry in Texas and Louisiana for nine years before moving into securities on Wall Street, where he registered more success throughout his life.
In 1961, Savitt came to Israel on the first of many trips to participate in the Maccabiah Games and won both the singles and doubles gold medals.
He was inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame in 1976 and the Jewish Sports Hall of Fame when it was founded in 1979.
He was a fervent supporter of and adviser to the Israel Tennis Centers and helped the top players who graduated through its coaching programs. He then followed the players’ exploits and helped them advance their careers over many years.
Even when well past his playing days, the tall and strongly-built Savitt was an imposing figure on the court, whether imparting his knowledge to players, or to coaches. He usually spoke only a few quiet words but it was always enough to get the message across.