Born: March 4, 1927
Town: Bayonne, New Jersey
Richard Savitt was born March 4, 1927 in Bayonne. Big and agile as a boy, with great coordination and anticipation, Dick gravitated toward basketball and in high school was one of the finest prep players in Hudson County. Dick’s “second sport” was tennis. He picked up the game on the city’s public courts and was completely self-taught.
At 14, Dick reached the finals of the New Jersey Under 16s. In 1942 and 1943 he competed in the National Under 16s. He wasn’t much of a tactician, but he had a strong serve and powerful groundstrokes from the baseline. Most important, he hated to lose. Often he simply outlasted opponents.
The Savitts moved to El Paso in 1944. Dick became captain of the school basketball team and was an All-State forward. He also won the state junior singles championship. His sports career went on hold in 1945, when Dick entered the Navy.
After leaving the service, Dick accepted a basketball scholarship from Cornell University. A knee injury kept him off the hardwood, but he continued to play tennis. In 1946 he won the NCAA singles championship. In those days of amateur tennis, college players were included in the official USTA rankings. While at Cornell, Dick rose to #17. He won several major college tournaments and had a 57–2 record in singles when he graduated in 1950. That summer, he entered the US Championships at Forest Hills and made it all the way to the semifinals.
Dick’s first full season on the men’s tour saw him win the Australian Championship in January and Wimbledon in July. He defeated Aussie Ken McGregor in each final. His most impressive victory came in the semis of the Australian, when he outlasted Frank Sedgman to win a five-set thriller. Sedgman was consider the world’s top player at the time. Dick was also the leader of America’s Davis Cup squad in 1951. He won 9 of his 10 matches as the US advanced to the finals against Australia.
Dick was the first Jewish player to win at Wimbledon. After his victory, there was a small tennis boom in England’s Jewish community. Dick’s background would have a less encouraging impact back home. Tennis fans figured he was their ace in the hole against Harry Hopman’s Australian Davis Cup squad. When US captain Francis Shields (Brooke’s grandfather) selected his players, however, he replaced Dick with 30-year-old Ted Schroeder, and America lost.
Early in 1952, when the USTA settled on its national rankings, Shields gave a speech condemning Savitt for being outspoken, non-compliant and—this was the key—not “looking” like a champion. Dick ended up as the #2 US player behind Vic Seixas. At that point in his career, Seixas had not won a Grand Slam singles title—and had been runner-up to Sedgman a few months earlier at Forest Hills.
Dick was understandably furious. He announced that he would play one last tournament—the US Indoors—and then quit tennis for good. As his farewell gift to the game, he beat Billy Talbert in the finals.
Dick went into the oil business and later worked in the financial industry in New York. He did actually return to tournament play at various times during the 1950s and enjoyed remarkable success despite being a self-described weekend player. At age 33, he won the National Indoor title for the third time in his career.
Dick became very involved in the development of tennis in Israel and participated in the Maccabiah Games. He was inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame in 1976, the Cornell Athletic Hall of Fame in 1976, and the International Jewish Sports Hall of Fame in 1979.