You would be hard-pressed to find someone who put more heart and soul into tennis than this man, as Ralston lived for the chance to be on the court and share his considerable wisdom with players of all levels.
Posted on December 06, 2020
Tennis has lost one of its most memorable legends. Dennis Ralston died on Sunday, December 6, at age 78, of a battle with cancer. At the time, he was living in Austin, Texas. Ralston is survived by his wife of 56 years, Linda, and his three children, Mike, Lori and Angela.
You would be hard pressed to find someone who put more heart and soul into tennis than this man. From childhood sweetheart to teenage success at the highest levels to star-studded moments as a player, captain, coach, instructor and friend, Dennis Ralston lived for the chance to be on the tennis court and Share your considerable wisdom with players of all skill levels. . .
Ralston won the Wimbledon doubles title in 1960 with fellow Hall of Famer Rafael Osuna at age 17. That initial effort was Ralston's first of five Grand Slam doubles titles. For three consecutive years, from 1964 to 1966, Ralston was the highest-ranked American. Individual highlights of Ralston's amateur career include being one of the leading singles players in the United States' run to the 1963 Davis Cup championship and runner-up at Wimbledon three years later. Turning professional in late 1966, Ralston later that year became a member of the "Handsome Eight" company of players who helped set the stage for open tennis. He continued as a formidable force, in 1970 he defeated John Newcombe at the Australian Open and Rod Laver at the US Open. The following year, Ralston and his good friend Arthur Ashe reached the Wimbledon doubles final, losing five tight sets to Laver and Roy Emerson.
Beginning his career in tennis-rich Southern California, Ralston was a quintessential net shooter, his game relying primarily on accurate volleys. He perfected his full-court game in his native Bakersfield, two hours north of Los Angeles.
Ralston quickly became one of the best juniors in the country, often competing at one of the most important venues in tennis history, the Los Angeles Tennis Club (LATC). After winning Wimbledon, Ralston left for USC, who also coached and played in his LATC matches. Ralston led USC to three straight NCAA titles ('62-64). That's right: In the same year, 1963, Ralston starred on the NCAA and Davis Cup championship teams.
And yet, as much as Ralston generated with his own racket, he flourished even more brilliantly when in service to others. In 1968, at age 25 and still traveling the world as a competitor, Ralston became head coach of the US 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 fan from the late 1960s to the 1980s.
“I learned so many things the hard way while playing that I knew they were important to the players,” Ralston said in 2019. “Everything from towels and water to the right approach to training and what to do in big games. .”
In 1968, America won the first of five consecutive Davis Cup titles. In 1972, Ralston became captain, and that year he led the team to one of the most incredible campaigns in tennis history. Before that, the country that had won the Davis Cup the previous year sat out the entire season and only played in the final, then known as the Challenge Round. But starting in 1972, the defending champion would play from the start. Ultimately, the American team played every game away from home, including four Davis Cup matches on clay, in Mexico, Chile, Spain, and eventually Romania.
The victory against Romania in Bucharest was one of the liveliest Davis Cup finals ever, a battle played out behind the Iron Curtain, with plenty of security, Cold War tensions, controversial call-ups and dramatic matches. Through it all, Ralston led the team with sharp focus. Away from tennis, he kept his cool by reading two of his favorite books: James Bond and the Bible. America's end-to-end quest in the 1972 Davis Cup, contested across three continents and capped off by the incredible events in Bucharest, may well have been the greatest of many tennis highlights for Ralston.
The Davis Cup was just the beginning of Ralston's fantastic coaching career. In the late '70s, he began teaming with Roscoe Tanner, Ralston primarily front and center when Tanner reached the 1979 Wimbledon singles final against three-time champion Bjorn Borg. "When I got to the Wimbledon final, I didn't know how to prepare," Ralston said. “So I made sure Roscoe did it. I told him that he was about to walk onto Center Court with the best serve in tennis and play a great match." Tanner tested Borg severely, losing only to the big Swede, 6-4 in the fifth.
Soon after, Ralston began a six-year partnership with Chris Evert. This was the time when Evert worked hard to be on an equal footing with the rising Martina Navratilova. “I've never seen anybody more willing to work hard,” Ralston said of Evert. “She did everything from the court to more time in the gym. Chrissie was the complete definition of a champion."
Other professionals Ralston has coached include Yannick Noah and Gabriela Sabatini. From 1981 to 1989 and again from 1991 to 1993, Ralston coached the Southern Methodist University men's team. For the past decade, Ralston has taught at the Gray Rock Tennis Club in Austin.
He was inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame in 1987.
I was fortunate to know Dennis very well, both professionally and personally. It all started with several lengthy interviews for multiple stories, Ralston delving into everything from coming of age in Southern California to Davis Cup stories to his off-court challenges. A great fight ensued after repeated knee surgeries, Ralston became addicted to painkillers. Infections also came, including a series that led to Ralston's left leg being amputated below the knee. Dennis freely discussed all of these topics, never hesitating to bare his soul. And the prosthesis didn't stop him from playing USTA League tennis. "As long as he can get to the ball," he said, "they're going to be in trouble."
In a rare turn of events, during this time, a tennis buddy of mine named David, someone I played with over 100 times, began traveling to take lessons from Dennis. Soon, Dennis and I spent time talking about David, focusing on various techniques, tactics, and more about our rivalry. It was amazing to hear Dennis explain the nuances of each of our styles, how we could best practice, and even how our matches were similar to the ones he played and witnessed. Being left-handed, Dennis compared me to one of his rivals, Australian Tony Roche, while David was more like Stan Smith. During our most recent conversation last fall, Dennis suggested that David and I try an exercise that he used to do with Osuna. In no way was Dennis favoring us. There was a touching generosity in every word he spoke, powerful insights, and sincere, unrelenting interest.
The last time I saw Dennis was in December 2019. I flew to Austin to do a lengthy oral history interview with him for the International Tennis Hall of Fame. As always, his candor and kindness were exceptional as he covered decade after decade of games, teammates and rivalries.
This has been an epic life in tennis, an incredibly rich and rare journey. What a soul we lost.
International Tennis Hall of Fame photo (Tennisfame.com)