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Remembering Dennis Ralston, 1942-2020: Tennis Renaissance Man
You’d be hard-pressed to find someone who gave more of his heart and soul to tennis than this man, for Ralston lived for the chance to be on the court and share his considerable wisdom with players of all levels.
Published Dec 06, 2020
Tennis has lost one of its most remarkable legends. Dennis Ralston died on Sunday, December 6 at the age of 78, from a battle with cancer. At the time, he was living in Austin, Texas. Ralston is survived by his wife of 56 years, Linda, and their three children, Mike, Lori and Angela.
You’d be hard-pressed to find someone who gave more of his heart and soul to tennis than this man. From childhood love to teen success at the highest levels, to star-studded moments as player, captain, coach, instructor and friend, Dennis Ralston lived for the chance to be on the tennis court and share his considerable wisdom with players of all levels.
Ralston won the 1960 Wimbledon doubles title with fellow Hall of Famer Rafael Osuna at the age of 17. That precocious effort was the first of Ralston’s five Grand Slam doubles titles. For three straight years, 1964-’66, Ralston was the top-ranked American. Singles highlights of Ralston’s amateur career include being one of the lead singles players on America’s run to the 1963 Davis Cup championship and a runner-up showing at Wimbledon three years later. Turning pro at the end of 1966, Ralston later that year became a member of the “Handsome Eight” troupe of players that helped set the stage for Open tennis. He continued as a formidable force, in 1970 beating John Newcombe at the Australian Open and Rod Laver at the US Open. The next year, Ralston and his good friend Arthur Ashe reached the doubles final at Wimbledon, losing a tight five-setter to Laver and Roy Emerson.
Cutting his teeth in tennis-rich Southern California, Ralston was a net-rusher par excellence, his game backed most of all by crisp volleys. He’d first honed his sharp all-court game in his native Bakersfield, two hours north of Los Angeles.
Rapidly, Ralston become one of the best juniors in the country, often competing at one of the most significant venues in tennis history, the Los Angeles Tennis Club (LATC). Following his win at Wimbledon, Ralston headed off to USC, which also practiced and played its matches at the LATC. Ralston led USC to three straight NCAA titles (’62-64). That’s right: In the same year, 1963, Ralston starred on both the NCAA and Davis Cup championship teams.
And yet, as many results as Ralston generated with his own racquet, he flourished even more brilliantly when in the service of others. In 1968, at the age of 25, while still traveling the world as a competitor, Ralston became the coach of the American Davis Cup team alongside captain Donald Dell. “Dennis made sure everything was organized and we had everything we needed,” said Stan Smith, a Davis Cup stalwart from the late ‘60s into the ‘80s.
“There were so many things I learned the hard way when I was playing that I knew were important for the players,” Ralston told me in 2019. “Everything from towels and water to the right approach to practice and what to do in big matches.”
In 1968, America won the first of five straight Davis Cup titles. By 1972, Ralston became the captain, that year leading the team through one of the most amazing campaigns in tennis history. Prior to then, the country that had won Davis Cup the prior year sat out the entire season and only played the finals, known then as the Challenge Round. But beginning in 1972, the defending champion would instead play through right from the beginning. As it turned out, America’s team played all of its matches on the road – including four Davis Cup ties on rough-and-tumble clay, in Mexico, Chile, Spain and, finally, in Romania.
The victory versus Romania in Bucharest was one of the liveliest Davis Cup finals in history, a battle contested behind the Iron Curtain, complete with extensive security, Cold War tensions, controversial line calls and dramatic matches. Through it all, Ralston led the squad with sharp focus. Away from the tennis, he kept calm by reading two of his favorite books: James Bond and the Bible. America’s start-to-finish 1972 Davis Cup quest, waged on three continents and capped off by the incredible events in Bucharest, might well have been the greatest of Ralston’s many tennis highlights.
Davis Cup was only the beginning of Ralston’s fantastic coaching career. In the late ‘70s, he began to work with Roscoe Tanner, Ralston most notably front and center when Tanner reached the Wimbledon singles final in 1979 versus three-time champion Bjorn Borg. “When I made it to the Wimbledon final, I didn’t know how to prepare,” said Ralston. “So I made sure Roscoe did. I told him he was about to step onto Centre Court with the best serve in tennis and play a great match.” Tanner tested Borg severely, only losing to the great Swede, 6-4 in the fifth.
Soon after that, Ralston commenced a six-year partnership with Chris Evert. This was the time when Evert worked hard to stay on equal footing with the ascending Martina Navratilova. “I never saw anyone more willing to put in the hard work,” Ralston said about Evert. “She did it all, from on the court to more time in the gym. Chrissie was the complete definition of a champion.”
Other pros Ralston coached included Yannick Noah and Gabriela Sabatini. From 1981 to ‘89 and again from 1991 to ‘93, Ralston coached the men’s team at Southern Methodist University. For the last decade, Ralston taught at the Grey Rock Tennis Club in Austin.
He was inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame in 1987.
I was fortunate to get to know Dennis quite well, both professionally and personally. It began with several long interviews for various stories, Ralston digging deeply into everything from coming of age in Southern California to Davis Cup tales to his off-court challenges. A major struggle came in the wake of repeated knee surgeries, Ralston becoming addicted to painkillers. There also came infections, including a series that led to Ralston having his left leg amputated below the knee. All of these topics Dennis discussed freely, never hesitating to bare his soul. And the prosthesis didn’t stop him from playing USTA league tennis. “As long as I can get to the ball,” he said, “they’re going to be in trouble.”
In a rare twist, during this time, a close tennis mate of mine named David—someone I’ve played more than 100 times—began traveling to take lessons from Dennis. Soon enough, Dennis and I spent time talking about David, zeroing in on various techniques, tactics and much more about our rivalry. It was remarkable to hear Dennis explain the nuances of each of our styles, how we might better practice and even how our matches were similar to those he’d played and witnessed. Since I’m left-handed, Dennis often compared me to one of his rivals, Aussie Tony Roche, while David was more like Stan Smith. During our most recent conversation, just this past fall, Dennis suggested David and I try a drill he’d often done with Osuna. In no way was Dennis pandering to us. There was a generosity of soul in every word he spoke, powerful insights, and a sincere, relentless interest.
The last time I saw Dennis was in December 2019. I’d flown to Austin to conduct a lengthy oral history interview with him for the International Tennis Hall of Fame. As always, his candor and kindness was exceptional as he covered decade after decade of matches, mates, and rivalries.
This was an epic tennis life, an incredibly rich and rare journey. What a soul we have lost.
Photo from International Tennis Hall of Fame (tennisfame.com)