Dick Savitt, the tennis Hall of Famer who won the men’s singles championships at the 1951 Australian and Wimbledon Grand Slam tournaments but dropped out of full-time play a year later while at the height of his game, died on Friday at his home in Manhattan. He was 95.
His death was confirmed by his son, Bob.
Savitt became the second American to win both the Australian and Wimbledon men’s titles in a calendar year. Don Budge had accomplished the feat in 1938. Only Jimmy Connors (1974) and Pete Sampras (1994 and 1997) have matched them.
Savitt was ranked among the top 10 American players six times in the 1950s and among the world’s top 10 four times, even though after 1952 he confined his Grand Slam tournament play to the United States Nationals at Forest Hills, Queens. He bested leading American players in domestic tournaments while pursuing a business career.
He was inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame in 1976.
In 1951, Savitt defeated Ken McGregor, a native of Australia, in the Australian championships. “The Australian was a big shock to the tennis world,” Savitt told Nancy Gill McShea in an interview for the International Tennis Hall of Fame 60 years later. “It put me on the map.”
He reached the semifinals of the 1951 French championships but lost to Jaroslav Drobny, who went on to win the singles title. He needed only 61 minutes to defeat McGregor again in the Wimbledon final, becoming the first Jewish player to win the Wimbledon singles championship.
Savitt appeared on the cover of Time magazine’s Aug. 27, 1951, issue on the eve of the U.S. Nationals, the forerunner of the U.S. Open. “What he has got is a simple, overpowering attack; a smashing serve and deep, hard-hit ground strokes that keep his opponent scrambling in the backcourt, on the defensive,” Time wrote.
Savitt, who stood a sturdy 6-foot-3 and often wore down his opponents, reached the semifinals at Forest Hills. Hampered by a knee infection, he lost to his fellow American Vic Seixas.
Savitt was selected for the 1951 U.S. Davis Cup team, which was hoping to avenge its loss to Australia in the 1950 cup finals, formally known as the challenge round. Savitt, ranked as the squad’s No. 1 player, won singles matches in the early rounds. But Frank Shields, the nonplaying captain of the team, removed him from cup play afterward and replaced him with Ted Schroeder, who had been in semiretirement. Shields said he hadn’t been happy with Savitt’s overall play in the previous few months.
Savitt and many of his fellow American players were stunned that he was passed over, but Savitt chose not to comment on being cut. The United States lost to Australia, 3-2, in the challenge round.
The next year, Savitt reached the semifinals of the Australian championships. After losing there to McGregor, he said he was stepping away from the international tour.
But he won the U.S. National Indoor Championships in 1952, 1958 and 1961, becoming the first player to capture that title three times. In 1961, he captured singles and doubles gold medals at the Maccabiah Games, the Jewish Olympics, held in Israel. He later helped develop tennis centers there.
Richard Savitt was born on March 4, 1927, in Bayonne, N.J., the only child of Morris and Kate (Hoberman) Savitt. His father was a food broker who had a business that pursued marketing opportunities for producers.
He taught himself to play tennis in his early teens when he was a ball boy at the Berkeley Tennis Club in Orange, N.J., mostly by watching some of the game’s greatest players, including Jack Kramer, Bobby Riggs and Pancho Segura, competing there in New Jersey state tournaments.
“I had never seen tennis like that before,” Savitt said in his Hall of Fame interview. “I immediately got Don Budge’s book on tennis to learn how to hit strokes correctly.”
But Savitt’s first love was basketball. When his family moved to El Paso in the early 1940s, hoping that the warmer weather would ease his mother’s skin problems, he became an all-state high school basketball player. But he also continued to play tennis and was highly ranked nationally in the junior division.
Savitt entered Cornell University in 1946 on a basketball scholarship after serving during World War II in the Navy, which had assigned him to play on basketball teams to entertain service personnel. But injuries hampered him, so he turned to tennis once more and won Eastern collegiate singles and doubles titles. He graduated in 1950 with a degree in economics.
In addition to his son, from his marriage to Louise Liberman, which ended in divorce in 1963, Savitt is survived by three grandchildren. His second wife, Annelle Warwick Hayes, died in 2013. Savitt and his son, Bob, who had played on the tennis team at the College of Wooster in Ohio, won the U.S. Father and Son doubles title in 1981.
Savitt worked on rigs drilling for oil in Texas and Louisiana and then became a longtime investment banker in New York after leaving full-time tennis.
The amateur tennis world where he flourished offered trophies for victories, but no prize money.
“You either kept playing and taking under-the-table type payments or you ended up teaching at a club,” Savitt told The Star-Ledger of Newark in 2011. “I didn’t want to do that. I had to decide to keep playing a few more years or get out of the game and go to work in a normal position. That’s what I did.”
Maia Coleman contributed reporting, and Susan Beachy contributed research.