FBF, 1964: LBJ hosts U.S. Davis Cup champion team at the White House

FBF, 1964: LBJ hosts U.S. Davis Cup champion team at the White House

Less than three weeks after the triumph, Dennis Ralston, Chuck McKinley, Marty Riessen, team captain Bob Kelleher and USLTA president Ed Turville met with President Lyndon Johnson.

It had been quite a trek for the 1963 U.S. Davis Cup team. There were matches in Teheran, Iran; Los Angeles and Denver; Bournemouth, England; Bombay, India. The long campaign was capped off in Adelaide, Australia, where—just after Christmas—America’s team earned a rare victory. It brough the Cup home for the first time in five years—and only the third U.S. win between 1951 and ’67. 

The heroes of that championship effort were Dennis Ralston and Chuck McKinley. Earlier that year, both were still college students—Ralston at the University of Southern California and McKinley at Trinity University, a small school in San Antonio that for a time was also a tennis powerhouse. Ralston led his ’63 Trojan team to the NCAA Championship, including a run to the singles title. McKinley eschewed that tournament, as it was played just before Wimbledon—which McKinley won that year without the loss of a set.

Against the Australians, Ralston and McKinley each won demanding singles matches versus a big-serving, highly promising 19-year-old, John Newcombe. On the opening day, Ralston beat Newcombe in a compelling five-setter, 7-5 in the fifth. On the last day, in the decisive match of the US-Australia battle, McKinley dropped the first set to Newcombe, but went on to win the match 10-12, 6-2, 9-7, 6-2.

On this January day, less than three weeks after that triumph, McKinley, Ralston and another teammate, Marty Riessen, were joined by team captain Bob Kelleher and USLTA president Ed Turville, and headed to the White House to be honored by President Lyndon Johnson. Johnson himself was new to the position, having only assumed the office in the wake of President John Kennedy’s assassination on November 22, 1963.

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While several American presidents have had a strong affinity for tennis—George H.W. Bush and Jimmy Carter among the most zealous—Johnson admitted he knew little about the sport. As the Texas-raised Johnson met with the team, he pointed to his press secretary, Pierre Salinger, and joked, “There’s my tennis player. If I can teach Salinger to ride a horse, maybe he can teach me to play tennis.”

Said Johnson, “Mr. Turville, we appreciate your bringing the Davis Cup winners here where we can, in the first house of this country, congratulate them for their achievements, because they exemplify one of the most important attributes that can be possessed by either people or a nation, and that is the pursuit of excellence.

The Davis Cup winners have brought honor to the United States of America. The honor does not lie solely in winning this athletic event. The honor really lies in the fact that in America we do have young men who are willing to dedicate themselves to excellence and who are ready to set a goal and to work unswervingly toward that goal.”

McKinley and Ralston’s White House trip scarcely generated a headline. Tennis then was very much a small sport, the American amateur players who’d won the Davis Cup paid not a cent in prize money. Further evidence of the sport’s presence on the sports radar came barely a month after the White House meeting. On February 17, McKinley and Ralston appeared on the popular CBS show, “I’ve Got a Secret.” McKinley—the reigning Wimbledon champion—was simply called “Mr. X.” Ralston, then ranked number two in the U.S., was “Mr. Y.”

No one on the show’s panel could identify either.