(JTA) — Dick Savitt, the Jewish tennis champion who won both the Australian Open and Wimbledon Championships in 1951, died Jan. 6 at 95 at his home in New York. He was the first Jewish athlete to win either tournament.
A native of Bayonne, New Jersey, Savitt never took a tennis lesson — his primary sport was basketball. But he taught himself to play tennis as a teenager, and would go on to play at Cornell University. After army service and college, his national profile skyrocketed.
Savitt won both the Wimbledon and Australian Open championships in 1951 when he was only 24. He was the second American man to win both competitions in the same year. The New York Times ranked him the No. 1 player in the world.
That same year, the 6-foot-3 righty also reached the semifinals of the U.S. National Championships and the quarterfinals of the French Championships, now called the U.S. Open and French Open, respectively.
But despite Savitt’s international success in 1951, he was removed from the U.S. team for that year’s Davis Cup tournament. Arthur Ashe, the trailblazing Black tennis champion and a mentee of Savitt, questioned the decision to remove the U.S. team’s top player from the tournament.
“In those days, to be Jewish in the top ranks of tennis was to encounter a certain amount of prejudice,” Ashe wrote in his memoir, “Days of Grace.” “When Dick Savitt won Wimbledon, his right to a place on the Davis Cup team was challenged in some circles because he was Jewish.”
Savitt, however, insisted that antisemitism did not play a part in the decision, according to the Jerusalem Post.
Davis Cup snub aside, Savitt remained at the top of the sport. He became the first Jewish athlete to appear on the cover of Time Magazine on Aug. 27, 1951.
Savitt’s ascension was significant during a time when tennis remained primarily an amateur, country club-based sport. Many American country clubs during the early- and mid-20th century had a track record of excluding Jews (and Blacks) from membership and from using their facilities.
In 1952, Savitt retired from tennis at only 25 years old. He would return part-time to competitive tennis a few years later, and in 1961 won gold medals in men’s singles and doubles at the Maccabiah Games in Israel.
After his playing career, Savitt supported the Israel Tennis Centers, and in 1998 served as its overseas director.
Savitt is a member of the International Jewish Sports Hall of Fame, the National Jewish Sports Hall of Fame and the International Tennis Hall of Fame.