Each week, BRSN sits down for a Q & A session with...
Cornell’s Wimbledon Winner
Dick Savitt is one of Cornell University’s most illustrious athletes. He, along with Ken Dryden, is likely the only male Cornellians to reach the pinnacles of their sport. However, while Dryden is one of the most well-known athletes in Big Red history, you may have never heard of Savitt, or maybe you’ve heard the falsehoods that perpetuate his life and career.
If you look up Dick Savitt, you’ll find contradictory and untrue statements. Most of it stems from an old publication called Wearers of the C about Cornell sports. Getting in touch with Mr. Savitt was necessary to confirm everything below. At first, Savitt was fairly guarded, but always willing to talk. He is a no-nonsense kind of guy, and our conversations were fairly unemotional.
One thing is clear from talking to Dick Savitt: he doesn’t live in the past. Savitt is a success both on and off the court, and he’s focused on the present and his work. What he did in tennis was historic and hall of fame worthy, yet he he never claims to have loved the sport.
Savitt doesn’t fit the mold of current tennis champions. Born in Bayonne, New Jersey, he became interested in the sport by visiting The Berkeley Tennis Club in New Jersey as a boy. The club’s president was the head of the US Tennis Association, who ran a local tournament that attracted big name players like Jack Kramer, Bobby Riggs, and Frank Kovacs. Soon, Savitt was engulfed by the sport.
Never haven taken a formal lesson, Savitt learned tennis by watching others and reading a book by the great tennis champion Don Budge, one of his idols. He was better off playing as much as he could, picking things up as he went along — watching, copying, and learning from better players.
Savitt served in the Navy immediately after high school and finished his term in September of 1946 as the war ended. He ended up attending school at Cornell, thanks in part to Walter Pate, who was a former longtime US Davis Cup coach as well as a Cornell alumnus. Pate knew Savitt from his junior tennis days, and facilitated him coming to Ithaca.
During Savitt’s first two years on the hill, he played both basketball and tennis for the Big Red. However, Savitt’s basketball career was cut short due to knee problems and is ultimately a footnote on his legacy. Savitt was a highly decorated collegiate player on the tennis court, only losing a handful of times and serving as captain of the Cornell squad. Although Savitt was never an NCAA tennis champion (as sometimes reported), he twice made the semifinals. As a junior, Savitt held two match points against eventual champion Jack Tuero of Tulane, but the New Jersey native couldn’t handle the Texas heat and passed out late in the second set.
In June of 1950, having graduated, Savitt began playing tennis full-time. He was able to improve rapidly after his college days, which he owes to “playing all day, every day.” As a result of him reaching the semifinals of the prestigious Forest Hills tournament, Savitt was invited to go to Australia with the support of the Australian Tennis Association. He would repay the favor by beating the three best Aussie players in consecutive matches to win the Australian Open, triumphing over Ken McGregor in the finals 6–3, 2–6, 6–3, 6–1.
The 1951 season would prove to be his best. In the pre-open era tennis, Savitt became a juggernaut. On the back of his powerful ground strokes and serve, Savitt won the Australian Open and Wimbledon, the most prestigious tennis tournament in the world, in his first try nonetheless. Savitt’s victories are a heady accomplishment, as the history of tennis is littered with not quite great players who have won a singular major, but two in the same year is a sign of a great player – a Hall of Fame player, which Savitt is. He was even featured on the cover of Time Magazine in August of 1951 for his achievements.
When asked what winning Wimbledon was like, Savitt said it was a question he couldn’t truly answer. He called it a “great” and “very satisfying win,” while adding he still thinks of his losses at the other two majors that season.
However, Savitt’s 1951 season was not without some turmoil. He lost a match in the French Open despite his two set lead and would run into controversy. Savitt said “whenever you lose it’s difficult,” adding that he still thinks about those tough defeats.
Although Savitt ran roughshod over the best tennis players Australia has to offer in the Aussie Open, he was not chosen to play in the Davis Cup against Australia. The American team would lose to the Aussies in the finals, with Savitt’s replacement being unable to win either of his matches. The USA coach, Frank Shields, chose Ted Schroeder instead — a player who was “over the hill” according to American peer and champion Tony Trabert.
So why was the best player in the world left off the American Davis Cup team? Some claim it’s anti-semitism towards the Jewish Savitt. He downplays the incident, saying rather bluntly that he should’ve played, but his coach didn’t play him. Simple as that.
Savitt failed to continue his full-time tennis status anyways, as he stopped in October of 1952. In the 50s, playing tournaments like Wimbledon meant maintaining your amateur status, while the “professionals” played a different pro circuit. That meant any payment was under the table and not particularly lucrative. It’s not like the current ecosystem of tennis players. To keep a career in tennis meant working in a tennis club, something that was of no interest to the enterprising Savitt, an economics major at Cornell.
Although the sport of tennis is much different today, which Savitt freely admits, he avoids direct comparisons. The courts are slower, better athletes are playing, and it’s a truly global game where the top 50 players in the world feature North and South American, European, Asian, African, and Australian born players. Currently, over 130 countries play in the international competition of the Davis Cup. The depth of players is incomparable, but Savitt does say that the top players from the past are similar to the top now because the cream would always rise to the top.
In the end of 1952, Savitt got into the oil business, and, in 1961, he entered the securities world. Savitt lives in New York, and still works in securities. He tries to play tennis three times a week, and he frequently visits Columbia’s nearby tennis center in the winter. The facility is also named after him because of his support of the program, despite attending rival Cornell. He considers this a great honor.
Savitt still supports his alma mater. When asked of his relation to Cornell, he says, “I support the team,” and praised the current coach, Silviu Tanasoiu, calling him an “excellent coach.” He talks to Sliviu regularly, and plays with the coaches and players occasionally.