Remembering Dick Savitt
USTA Eastern mourns the loss of tennis legend and two-time Grand Slam champion Dick Savitt, who passed away January 6, 2023 at his home in New York City. He was 95.
Savitt, who hailed from Bayonne, N.J., actually taught himself how to play the game, modeling his swings and serves after other fellow Eastern juniors in the area. He'd go on to compete for Cornell University, where he played #1 singles and doubles and served as the team's captain. In 1950—fresh out of college—he won the Eastern Clay Court Championships and reached the semifinals of the U.S. National Championships (now the US Open), where he fell to eventual champion Arthur Larsen.
He wouldn't have to wait long to lift a major trophy, however. As noted in his Eastern Tennis Hall of Fame biography, the U.S. Navy veteran "stunned the tennis world when he swept the Australian and Wimbledon singles titles" in 1951, becoming the first American to win both events in the same season since Don Budge achieved the feat in 1938. To capture the former, the then-23-year-old defeated the two-time defending champion and No. 1 seed Frank Sedgman in five sets in the semis and the 1950 runner-up Ken McGregor in the final. Several months later, in July, Savitt would need just 63 minutes to beat McGregor again—this time on the grass at the All England Club. In doing so, Savitt became the first Jewish player to win both tournaments and attained a career-high world No. 2 ranking later that year.
Savitt eventually stopped playing tennis full-time in 1952 as he turned his focus to the oil business. While competing on an abridged schedule, he captured two of his three USTA National Indoor Championship titles, in 1958 and 1961, as well as two gold medals (in both singles and doubles) at the Maccabiah Games, also in 1961. For all his many achievements the sport, he was inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame in 1976 and the Eastern Tennis Hall of Fame in 1999. Below, we have re-published the original feature written by Nancy Gill McShea in honor of his induction.
Dick Savitt (Originally published in 1999)
By Nancy Gill McShea
Dick Savitt is a tennis champion and a modest man who covers up a warm, generous nature with a quick, dry sense of humor, his friends say. If you ask him 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 here. And the facts are considerable!
In 1951, Savitt was a 24-year-old veteran of the U.S. Navy, a Cornell graduate and a self-taught tennis player from South Orange, N.J., who stunned the tennis world when he swept the Australian and Wimbledon singles titles. By winning two of the sport’s four Grand Slam Championships, he established himself as the world’s No. 1 amateur tennis player (before the start of the professional Open Era in 1968), and became the first player to win both championships in one season since Don Budge accomplished that feat in 1938.
Budge and Ham Richardson said that their friend Dick Savitt came very 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 Drobney, after leading two sets to love with leads in the next three sets.
For the record, Savitt was the first of only two former Eastern juniors who have ever won the Australian singles title (Vitas Gerulaitis won it in 1977), and the second of only four Eastern players who have ever won in singles at Wimbledon (Sidney Wood, 1931; Althea Gibson, 1957 and ’58; and John McEnroe, 1981, ’83 and ’84).
To win the Australian, Savitt dismissed three native Aussie champions, defeating John Bromwich (’39 and ’46) in the quarterfinals, Frank Sedgman (’49 and ’50) in the semifinals and Ken McGregor (’52) in the finals. “The Australian was a big shock to the tennis world,” Savitt said. “It put me on the map.” (Incredibly, in December of 1951, he was excluded from the U.S. Davis Cup team that lost 3-2 to Australia in the final Challenge Round in which Sedgman and McGregor combined for Australia’s three victories. Earlier that year, Savitt had won three Davis Cup singles matches, against Japan and Canada. When asked for an explanation, he would say only that it’s a long story.)
At Wimbledon, Savitt again beat McGregor for the title in one of the shortest finals ever played on Center Court of 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.”
Savitt says now that he remembers feeling 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). Ham Richardson remembers that “Flam had him a set and 5-1 (in the second), but Dick came storming back to win that set 15-13 and won the match in four.”
In the late summer of 1951, at the U.S. Championships at Forest Hills, Savitt 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 lost 6-3 in the fifth to Vic Seixas. “Dick got a boil on the back of his knee which didn’t help,” Budge recalled.
Savitt played the U.S. Championship 11 times, the first time in 1946 when he lost, 6-2, 6-2, 6-0, to Bill Talbert in the third round. His friend Dan Rivkind reminded him recently, “You know, I remember when you played Talbert at Forest Hills on Center Court,” 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.”
He quit playing the circuit full-time in the fall of 1952 to work in the oil business in Texas and didn’t play at all in ’53, ’54, and ’55. Thereafter, he competed only during summer vacations, and the Australians continued to loom in his draw. When he returned to Forest Hills in 1956, he lost to the champion Ken Rosewall in five sets. In 1958, he beat a young Rod Laver.
Savitt had taught himself to play tennis at age 13 by imitating Eastern’s better players (Larry Krieger and Jeff Podesta among them) at the Berkeley Tennis Club in Orange. 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. Savitt was a ball boy. “I had never seen tennis like that before,” he said. “I immediately got Don Budge’s book on tennis to learn how to hit strokes correctly.”
Before he made a big splash on the world’s famous tennis courts, Savitt had entered Cornell in the fall of 1946 right after he lost to Talbert at Forest Hills. He was a four-year starter at No.1 singles and doubles there, 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. In 1961, he won the Maccabiah Games in Israel and went into the securities business with Lehman Brothers. In 1973, he got involved with an organization called Israel Tennis Centers, which now has thirteen centers spread all over Israel.
“The concept was to use tennis as a vehicle to improve the quality of life for children,” he said. Savitt was interested in the centers as a way to develop world-class players. Ever the businessman, in 1985 Savitt joined Schroder’s, a large London and U.S. securities firm.
Savitt won many other elite tournament titles during the years he was ranked among America’s top ten, including doubles at the Italian, singles and doubles trophies at the Canadian and three singles crowns at the USLTA National Indoors. Today, he enjoys set weekly games with Bill Colson, editor of Sports Illustrated; John Hursh; and his son, Bobby, with whom he won the 1981 USTA Father-Son Doubles Championship at Longwood.
Said Bobby Savitt, once a ranked Eastern junior himself, “He’s the greatest father; he taught me everything. He’s one of the few guys who played at the highest level, studied the game, adapted to changing techniques and became a great teacher.”
Does it take brains to become a tennis champion? “No!” Dick Savitt 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 Grand Slam champion.