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Dick Savitt

(1927 - 2023)

Richard Dick Savitt was a Jewish American former professional tennis player.

Savitt was born in Bayonne, New Jersey on March 4, 1927. He taught himself tennis at the age of 14, but never took a tennis lesson. The self-taught Savitt played tennis well enough, however, to make the finals of the New Jersey Boys Championship and, for two years afterward, the National Boys Tennis Tournament before moving up to the junior ranks. He and his family moved to El Paso, Texas, in 1944, as his mother had a bad skin condition and needed warmer weather.

His first love was basketball, though, and when his family moved to Texas, he was an All-State forward and a co-captain of El Paso High School in 1944. He won the Texas University Interscholastic League boys singles championship in tennis in 1944–45. Nationally he was the 8th-ranked junior tennis player and the 17th-ranked amateur overall.

In 1945 Savitt entered the Navy, was stationed at the Naval Air Station in Memphis, Tennessee, and played on a service basketball team.

Beginning in 1946, Savitt attended Cornell University, where he majored in economics. Injuries ended his basketball career, and he focused on tennis. He became Cornell’s tennis team captain, and #1 singles and doubles player. In 1947, he was ranked # 26 in the U.S., and two years later, he was ranked # 17. In both 1949 and 1950, as a junior and a senior, he won the Eastern Intercollegiate Tournament, and he won the doubles title with Leonard Steiner from 1948 to 1950. In 1950, he also won the East Clay Court Tournament and the New York State Tournament. He was 57–2 in singles for his college career and graduated in June 1950.

In 1951, Savitt won the Wimbledon Singles Championship, the Australian Singles championship, the first Jewish player to do so, and reached the semifinals of the U.S. National Championships (now the U.S. Open) and the quarterfinals of the French Championships (now the French Open). He also won the 1952, 1958, and 1961 USLTA National Indoor Championships, becoming the first player to win that crown three times.

 Savitt was the first Jewish athlete to appear on the cover of Time Magazine (August 27, 1951). The significance of a Jewish tennis player succeeding was rooted in the fact that tennis was still at the time primarily a country club sport, and many country clubs often did not allow Jews in as members and did not allow them to use their courts. This, in turn, kept many Jewish tennis players from obtaining the training they needed to compete at the highest levels

Savitt was removed from the 1951 Davis Cup team despite winning his three matches and leading the U.S. to the finals against Australia. Allison Danzig, the senior American tennis writer, called him America’s best hope for victory. Nevertheless, Ted Schroeder, who had lost all three of his Davis Cup matches the year before and who was in semi-retirement, was chosen by non-playing captain Frank Shields to replace him. Five of the top ten players in the U.S. publicly accused Shields of “obvious prejudice” in his choosing the team. Without Savitt, the United States lost the 1951 Davis Cup to Australia.

The controversy spilled over into the next year. At the January 1952 U.S. Lawn Tennis Association annual meeting, members of the Association’s Eastern, New England, Southern, Florida, and Texas delegations, whose chief spokesman was Gardnar Mulloy, were in favor of Savitt being named the No. 1 tennis player in the U.S. However, Shields attacked Savitt in a “biting,” “unprecedented” speech, which observers said swung the vote against Savitt.

As it was reported by Time magazine, “the loudest talker was Frank Shields, non-playing captain of the losing U.S. Davis Cup team. Shields had ignored Savitt in the Davis Cup matches, had put his confidence in aging Ted Schroeder ... who turned out to be the goat of the series. Shields was intent on keeping Savitt ranked ... at No. 3. Cried Shields: ‘Never once in the past three months has Savitt looked like a champion.’”

Don McNeill, the 1940 U.S. champion, answered Shields’ outburst by pointing out that players are ranked on their tennis ability, that personal prejudice should have nothing to do with ranking, and that Shields’ remarks were “uncalled for.” That met with “resounding applause” from the delegates. Still, a never-before-required proxy vote was needed to decide the # 1 spot. Savitt was ranked the No. 2 player in the U.S. by the U.S. Lawn Tennis Association, behind Vic Seixas.

Savitt did not believe anti-Semitism played a role, but Arthur Ashe wrote in his memoir, ”In those days, to be Jewish in the top ranks of tennis was to encounter a certain amount of prejudice.”

Savitt ranked in the world’s top 10 four times between 1951 and 1957 (# 2 in 1951); and in the U.S. top 10 six times between 1950 and 1959. That was despite the fact that Savitt did not compete in 1953–55. In his prime, he was considered the greatest backcourt player. But following the Davis Cup snub, and winning the 1952 U.S. National Indoor Singles Championship, he abruptly retired from competitive tennis at age 25.

Savitt returned in 1956, and though limited tournament competition prevented him from receiving an official ranking, he was nonetheless considered the #1 player in the U.S.

In 1961, Savitt won both the Singles and Doubles (with Mike Franks) gold medals at the World Maccabiah Games in Israel.

After his playing career, Savitt supported the Israel Tennis Centers, and in 1998 served as its overseas director.

Savitt was elected to the International Tennis Hall of Fame in 1976 and is also a member of the International Jewish Sports Hall of Fame and the National Jewish Sports Hall of Fame.

Following his competitive tennis career, Savitt entered the oil business in Louisiana. He then worked for Lehman Brothers on Wall Street, and in 1985 joined Schroders.

Savitt died at the age of 95 on January 6, 2023.

Sources: International Jewish Sports Hall of Fame.
“Dick Savitt,” Wikipedia.
Legendary Jewish tennis champion Dick Savitt dies at 95, JTA, (January 11, 2023)