Tuesday, March 13, 2012

“Manolito” Enters Tennis Hall of Fame

By Mert Ertunga

It was announced late February that Manuel Orantes, the Spanish left-handed player of the '70s and early '80s will be inducted to International Tennis Hall of Fame. He is not the biggest name to be inducted in the class of 2012; another inductee, the Brazilian Gustavo Kuerten, won three titles at the French Open compared to Orantes' single Slam title in the 1975 U.S. Open, and "Guga" has reached the summit of World Rankings in 2000, whereas Orantes' best ranking was a short stint at No. 2 in 1973.

Nor is he the most famous Spanish tennis player to be inducted in the Hall of Fame; Arantxa Sanchez-Vicario and Manuel Santana are much more likely to be the focus of conversations in tennis club lounges than Orantes.

In fact, his nickname "Manolito" is a reference to the legendary tennis star Manuel Santana being nicknamed "Manolo" because Orantes' success came about a decade after Santana, and thus was nicknamed "Manolito," signifying "little Manolo," in order not to be confused with Manuel Santana, the tennis star of the '60s who won four Slam titles and said one of the most notorious phrases in the history of tennis in 1966: "The grass is just for cows." Orantes' first name was also sometimes modified to "Manuelito" by the media in the '70s and '80s for the same effect.

The modest and "in the background" tennis career of this man born in Granada, Spain in 1949, accompanied by the fact that he is a humble man who has never been involved in a controversy, and was one of the friendliest personalities on the tour according to his peers, shows that it's no mystery after all why he was overlooked for so long.

However, for those who follow tennis closely, his induction was long overdue.

First of all, his title at the U.S. Open 1975 was not just any ordinary title. His run to the title included one of the greatest comebacks in the history of Slams and confirmed the evaporation of Jimmy Connors' image of invincibility. But true to everything else about Orantes, those accomplishments are little known to the main stream fans of tennis. So let me tell a little more about them, if I may.

In the semifinals, Orantes faced Guillermo Vilas, the 23-year old Argentine who was seeded No. 2 behind Jimmy Connors. Vilas was leading two sets to one, and 5-0 in the fourth set, before Orantes made his historical comeback, winning seven games in a row, saving five match points, and extending the match to a fifth set. Orantes triumphed 6-4 in the fifth set and qualified for the finals well after midnight. The match lasted close to four hours and he was due to play the invincible Jimmy Connors in less than 18 hours. Yet it's almost impossible to find extended highlights of one of the greatest matches played at the U.S Open and I am beginning to doubt if the full match even exists somewhere in the archives on any organization.

Jimmy Connors entered 1975 as the king of tennis. This is why Arthur Ashe's 1975 victory over Connors in the finals of Wimbledon was meaningful; it put a dent on his image of invincibility and raised eyebrows of many who came to the realization that Connors could indeed be beaten. However, as Douglas Perry of The Oregonian astutely pointed out in his article of February 24, it was the victory of Orantes over Connors at the U.S. Open the same year that confirmed that "what happened at Wimbledon was no aberration."

The U.S. Open was Connors' backyard, but Orantes outplayed and outsmarted Connors so undeniably that even the then big-mouthed Connors had to admit that Orantes "played unbelievable" and that he did not believe "that it would be possible for him to hit passing shots and play like he did all the way through" and added "but unfortunately for me, he did."

While every year we are reminded by some tennis publication or some TV show how Arthur Ashe dismantled Jimmy Connors in the 1975 Wimbledon finals in four sets, we never hear a word about how Orantes crushed Connors in straight sets two months later at the U.S. Open with as much strategy, wit, and variation, if not more unexpectedly than the way Ashe did it at Wimbledon.

Apart from these accomplishments, there are many stories such as personal anecdotes of tennis legends, media personalities, or simply tennis fans involving Orantes, and none of them are bad! I have yet to hear a story from any tennis personality that does not involve a praise of Orantes, or an anecdote referring to his pleasant personality.

One of those stories involves the 1976 Masters Tournament's final match opposing Orantes to Wojtek Fibak. Fibak is leading the match two sets to one and 4-1 in the fourth set. During the changeover, right behind Orantes, the TV stations interviews Kirk Douglas and his wife. When the interviewer asks Douglas about his prediction for the rest of the match Douglas answers that "at this stage, you have to say that Fibak is the probable winner" right before Douglas' wife Anne interrupted and claimed "you can't count Orantes out — he is a great fighter!"

Intentionally or unintentionally, depending on the source, the interview ended up being shown live on the newly-installed giant screens on each side of the stadium; therefore everyone including Fibak and Orantes heard the comments clearly through the booming loudspeakers. Both players admitted later that the comments did have an impact on them; Fibak admitted that he began thinking about how widely this match was broadcast including in his native Poland, and that he lost his concentration. Orantes admitted that Anne's comments gave him a little extra motivation to come back, visible from the fist that he showed and the smile on his face right after Anne's comments were heard.

Another story is less known and takes place in the very late stages of Manolito's career, in the quarter-finals of Monte-Carlo Open in 1983. On a sunny afternoon, 34-year-old Orantes comes back from a set and a break down, saving two match points, in a quarterfinal encounter against Yannick Noah to win, 2-6, 7-5, 6-3. After the match, a totally dejected Yannick Noah would stay on the court slumped in his chair for several minutes with his head between his hands and journalists hovering a few yards around him this way and that way to get a good photo shot of Noah's depression.

Orantes noticed that Noah was in an undesired position. Looking obviously disgusted with the lack of consideration on the photographers' part, he made his way to Noah, moving few of the photographers back, tapped Noah on the shoulders and offered to walk with him off the court. That was Orantes' last big win. He lost in the next round and never reached the quarterfinals of another tournament. His last win on the tour came seven months later, and he played his last match on the tour in the summer of 1984. Noah, on the other hand, would go on to have the most successful months of his career during those same months, including his French Open title two months later.

On a side story, little after leaving the court following his victory over Noah, the modest man from Spain had to turn down a younger fan who asked him for a wristband, but not neglecting to take the time to hold the young man by the shoulders and smile to him while explaining: "I'm terribly sorry, amigo, I only have two," showing obvious discomfort at having to say no the enthusiastic junior player.

I hope this article sums up why Manuel Orantes will be welcomed in the Hall of Fame even though his main claim to fame is the one Slam title in 1975. Being inducted to the Hall of Fame should mean more than just stats, numbers, and titles, and Manolito being inducted proves that it does indeed mean just that. Nice guys do sometimes win, indeed. Felicitaciones, Manolito!

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