Fifty years ago at Wimbledon, as was the day one custom, the holder of the men’s singles title, Manuel Santana walked on to Centre Court to commence his defense. Santana, his versatile touch game typically more successful on clay, had been the surprise champion a year earlier. Often at Wimbledon, this opening day match was considered more ceremonial than competitive.
Wimbledon in those days seeded but eight players. Many a dangerous floater lurked through the draw. For Santana, that took the form of American Charlie Pasarell. A year out of UCLA, Pasarell had won the NCAA singles championship in 1966, an event that in those days was often a solid stepping stone towards a fine career.
But of course, this was Wimbledon. Who knew what Pasarell would bring to this moment? As the famed New Yorker journalist John McPhee would write about Pasarell and the match versus Santana, “He is very strong, and the dimensions of his game consist of power and more power. He is technically moody, given to flashes of brilliance, and when he is playing well and is fired up he is a beautiful tennis player and almost unbeatable. But his game can fall apart quickly . . . If he could give Santana any game at all, it would be a contest between power and style.”
Santana went ahead 5-3 in the first set. Pasarell rallied to take it 10-8, then the second 6-3. Power was winning out. Even after Santana won the third, Pasarell hung just tough enough to squeak out the fourth, 8-6. It was the first time in Wimbledon history that the defending men’s champion had lost in the first round.
Pasarell thought it was now his destiny to win Wimbledon. But his run would be ended in the round of 16 by a crafty left-handed Brazilian, Thomaz Koch. By the end of the year, though, Pasarell would be ranked number one in the United States.