50 Years, 50 Heroes: Dennis Ralston, 1974

by: Blair Henley | November 28, 2018

Share to Facebook Share to Twitter Email
Share to Facebook Share to Twitter Email

Dennis Ralston beat addiction and is helping others to avoid it. (AP)

For our sixth annual Heroes Issue, we’ve selected passages from the last 50 years of Tennis Magazine and TENNIS.com—starting in 1969 and ending in 2018—to highlight 50 worthy heroes. Each passage acknowledges the person as they were then; each subsequent story catches up with the person, or highlights their impact, as they are now. It is best summed up with a quote from the great Arthur Ashe, that was featured on the cover of the November/December issue of this magazine in 2015: “True heroism is remarkably sober, very undramatic. It is not the urge to surpass all others at whatever cost, but the urge to serve others at whatever cost.”

Hit the ball out in front of you. Too often, average players will take an extra step forward before they meet the ball. As a result, they’re hitting it when it’s already going by them, and they sacrifice a great deal of control and power when they do that. So get your racquet head out ahead of your body as you contact the ball, and you’ll be surprised how much your strokes will improve. - Dennis Ralston / February 1974

Dubbed Dennis the Menace during his playing days, Dennis Ralston’s résumé includes NCAA titles at USC, five major doubles crowns and Davis Cup wins for the United States as both a player and
captain. After retirement in 1977, he coached Chris Evert, Gabriela Sabatini and Yannick Noah, then embarked on a college coaching career at SMU.

Ralston’s achievements punched his ticket to the International Tennis Hall of Fame in 1987, but they came at a cost. Eight surgeries on each knee left him in constant pain.

Determined to get in shape for the 1999 Wimbledon legends event, Ralston was prescribed
Vicodin. What began as actual therapy spiraled into addiction, exacerbated by the continued deterioration of his body. In 2010, an infection after foot surgery led to the amputation of his left leg below the knee. Five months later, he was in rehab.

“[Those drugs] kill your soul,” says Ralston, now 76. “I’m thankful that I’m still here; I could have easily been gone without even knowing it.”

As Ralston recovered, tennis contemporaries offered words of encouragement. Charlie Pasarell worked with the Hall of Fame to assist Ralston financially. With the support of his wife and three children—who pleaded with him to get help one Thanksgiving—Ralston returned to the court a year after his amputation, clean and sober.

“When I was at Betty Ford [Center] for rehab, I always said that if I make it out I’m going to tell people about my experience,” says Ralston. “I’m not going to be ashamed.”

He has stayed true to his promise, always willing to share openly about his struggles and the dangers of opioid use. He also teaches tennis at the Grey Rock Country Club in Austin, TX. Ralston hasn’t played competitively since hip replacement surgery last fall, but figures he still has plenty of time.

“Maybe I’ll be ready for the 80 and overs,” Ralston says with a chuckle. “That’s my next goal.”

Share to Facebook Share to Twitter Email