American tennisprestige—withering away for four years—was restored to hopeful bloom lastweekend on the steamy courts of the Los Angeles Tennis Club. There, beforeappreciative and pleasantly chauvinistic crowds, U.S. Davis Cup players ChuckMcKinley and Dennis Ralston beat the Mexican team that last year had defeatedthe U.S.
The American wayback to world amateur tennis supremacy looks easier than it has in a long time.Venezuela, England and India—none of them strong—bar the path to the finalassault on Australia, the Davis Cup holder, which this year plays without RodLaver, now a pro.
Against theMexicans, Ralston was scintillating; he won his two singles matches and sharedin the doubles victory over the world's finest. The Ralston story—the humanstory of the most rapidly improving player in the game—begins on the nextpage.
DENNIS IS HIS OWNMENACE
August 25, 1963
If the ancientstatesmen of amateur tennis agree on anything as the national championships getunder way at Forest Hills, it is that only two men are capable of preventing21-year-old Dennis Ralston from becoming the national champion. One is ChuckMcKinley, the Wimbledon champion who in 1963 has been playing the best tennisof his career; the other is R. (for Richard) Dennis Ralston (see cover).
Chances are thatwhen the tournament is over, Ralston will have continued to confound andconfuse the experts—much as he did last week in the U.S.-Mexico Davis Cupmatches, in which he beat both Rafael Osuna and Antonio Palafox with ease. Hemay have roared through the nationals untouched, leaving the top seeds strewnbehind him, or he may have blown his stack and been knocked out in the firstround by a player known only to his own next of kin and a few close familyfriends. That is the very nature of Dennis Ralston, a fretful young man who,for several years, has been the heir apparent to the throne of American amateurtennis.
It has been 12years since Ralston came down U.S. 99 from Bakersfield to amaze the nabobs ofsouthern California tennis with a sample case of strokes and techniques worthyof a person three times his age. And it has been 15 years since he played hisfirst official tournament (it was tough enough to be only 6, but Dennis wassmall for his age). He lost, 6-2, 7-5, to an 11-year-old, and immediately alocal sports editor called Dennis "the brightest prospect we have."
By the time hewas old enough to fool around with his father's shaver, Ralston had filled halfa dozen shelves with trophies, including the national junior singleschampionship. At 17, he went to Wimbledon, paired with Osuna of Mexico (neitherplayer had been able to find anyone hard up enough to join him in the doubles).Together, they brought off the first victory for an unseeded team in thehistory of that old dowager of tournaments. The same year Ralston became theyoungest player ever to reach the semifinals at Forest Hills. At 19, he wasnational doubles champion with Chuck McKinley. And in his 20th year, whichended last month, he knocked off the national indoor singles & doubleschampionships, the national intercollegiate singles and doubles championshipsand more than a few other major tournaments. Perry T. Jones, the paterfamiliasof southern California tennis and a former Davis Cup captain says: "Noplayer of Ralston's age has ever made a record to match this. Not Gonzalez, notBudge, not Tilden, not Vines. He has looked like a champion since he was 9years old."
The indisputablefact, however, is that Dennis Ralston is not the U.S. champion. He is not evenranked, because an operation kept him from playing enough last year. Tennis hasset up the throne, waxed it and polished it for him, and still something keepsDennis from sitting on it. The something is his own quixotic disposition. Heseems, at times, to be a man firmly arrayed against himself. It is not onlythat he has a bad temper, and that he is his own favorite target. He also hastrouble concentrating on his game. His brooding has cost him more tournamentsthan the average top player has won.
Ralston'spersonality problems would be far less of a handicap in any other sport, but inamateur tennis the tiniest indiscretion on the part of a player is visited witha show of official housemother pique, which only compounds the inner turmoil ofa touchy player like Ralston. He repeatedly has been in trouble for disturbingdomestic and international tranquillity by throwing his racket and making"menacing gestures" at the crowd. What manner of ruffian is this?
Well, DennisRalston is, in simple fact, a 6-foot 2-inch 165-pounder who looks like HiramHayshaker, parts his short, straight reddish-blond hair neatly on the side,uses greasy kid stuff and has close-set, vivid-blue eyes. Off the court he iscourteous and gracious and has as much poise as Prince Philip. He is kind toold ladies and little children (not in the literary sense but in the actual: atbuffet dinners he is to be seen helping elderly women carry away theirdelicacies, and he devotes two days a week, when he is in California, toinstructing children under the direction of the Youth Tennis Foundation). Hedrinks Coke by the quart and eats ice cream by the gallon. He does not smoke,and he confines his serious drinking to an occasional bottle of imported beer,a taste which he acquired at one of his tournaments abroad. He has a dread offlying. A University of Southern California teammate, Bill Bond, says: "Hesits by the window so he won't miss any details of the crash. He clenches theseat, he grabs me, he says nervous things, he asks me to feel how his heart ispounding."
But Ralston'sbusiest hours, in a sense, are from midnight to dawn, when he talks to himselfand fights furious battles in his sleep. Says his mother: "Dennis bangsinto the wall. All night long it's crash, crash." When he drives, he keepsup a running commentary of annoyance at rotten drivers (rotten drivers aredrivers of other cars). And he will cuss out a stoplight for taking too long tochange to a shade pleasing to R. Dennis Ralston. His internal life is asymphony of shoulds: "I should get a good night's sleep." "I shouldconcentrate more." "I shouldn't let little things get me down."
Ralston stalksout on the tennis court with a scowl, as if something near by smells bad. Helooks mean. It is his normal countenance when he plays. Even his walk isaggressive, like a farm boy who is on his way to town and, by gum, he is notgoing to be detoured. It is a plodding, functional, pick-'em-up-lay-'em-downwalk. The effect is accentuated by the fact that he is a big strong kid withsolid legs, heavily muscled thighs and a powerful shoulder development.
When he startsplaying, everything is silence until he misses a shot—any shot. Then he beginstalking loudly to himself: "Oh, you idiot!" "Gosh, that's just theworst!" "You're so bad it's unbelievable!" "Isn't that justlovely." "God bless it!" When the wind blows one of his lobs out,he will shout: "Thanks, wind, thanks a lot!"
Now, none of thisbehavior is in the Boy Scout Handbook or the gentleman's code of tennis. Andpretty soon Ralston finds the crowd against him. "My attitude on thecourt," says Ralston ruefully, "is not the crowd-pleasing type, Iguess." And although he knows he should not let the crowd bother him, itdoes. Sometimes his cornucopia of strokes pulls him out; sometimes hisannoyance costs him a match he should have won. He has a rationalization forall this: he says he needs to goad himself to raise his game to the necessarypitch. So he cusses himself out when he misses.
Ralston is not,by a long shot, the first tennis player with this attitude. "I've knownplenty of great players who looked around for ways to get mad, people to getmad at: their opponents, umpires, anybody or anything," says his USC coach,George Toley. "Bill Tilden would select a line judge and convince himselfthat the fellow was doing him dirt. Pancho Gonzalez developed his 'hatred' byrefusing to travel in the same car with his pro-tour opponents. Evensmooth-tempered Ellsworth Vines once acted like a sorehead on the court in adeliberate attempt to build up his temper, until one year he saw George Lottdoing the same thing and realized how bad it looked."
The primedifference between Ralston and the others is that his anger is directed only athimself. But tennis fans, like USLTA officials, are not mind readers, and whenthey see Ralston kick his racket, thump the net or slam a ball over theofficials' stand, they are entitled to believe that he is acting like a poorsport and, in effect, insulting his opponent. For this misapprehension, Ralstonhas had to pay dearly. In fact, his rise to the heights of U.S. amateur tenniswas, at one point, seriously jeopardized. Three years ago, playing in atournament in Australia, Ralston behaved badly. He stomped off the court afterlosing a singles match, he drove a ball over the stands, because, as usual, hewas fed up with his own play and he asked to have a roving photographer removedfrom the sidelines because the man was impairing his concentration. For theseoffenses, against the Commonwealth and for other offenses at home, he wasplaced on a year's probation.
In August 1961 atthe American Zone Davis Cup finals in Cleveland, there was more trouble. Thereferee charged that Ralston smacked the tape so hard it was feared he wouldbreak the net; that he used vulgar language; that he was rude to the Mexicancaptain; that he flung his racket four times and made menacing gestures at thecrowd. Others, including Ralston, did not see the incident exactly as thereferee. "I did say 'God damn it' when I slipped and fell on my face, andI'm sorry," said Ralston, "but that's about all I did." The USLTAsuspended Ralston for four months, or just long enough to keep him from playingin several important tournaments. A fuss went up from all quarters, and forweeks nearly every ranking tennis player in the world was busy signingpetitions beseeching the USLTA to change its bureaucratic mind. Included in thesigners: the Mexican Davis Cup captain whom Ralston supposedly hadinsulted.
Ralston went hometo Bakersfield and brooded. At one point he decided, childishly, never torepresent the U.S. again in a Davis Cup match. At another, he made up his mindto quit tennis altogether. He tried a few half-hearted attempts to explain tothe hometown press that he had not really acted so horribly at Cleveland. Thenold Perry Jones, who had known him since he was 9 years old, called Ralston toLos Angeles and sat him down in his office at the Los Angeles Tennis Club."I told him something," says Jones, "that Helen Wills once saidright in this office: 'Nobody is interested in how you lose. They're onlyinterested in how you win.' I said, 'Now you've been suspended, and you thinkit was unfair. And you're right. But you are suspended, and I recommend thatyou say nothing. Take your punishment! You've been called out at first base.You're out!' After that, and to this very day, he has never complained aboutthat suspension. Not a blessed word. I say people shouldn't call him a poorsport. I say he should get a good sportsmanship award for keeping his mouthshut!"
But keeping hismouth shut did not stop Ralston from brooding, and it was almost two monthsbefore his tennis-playing father was able to lure Dennis out on the courtsagain. The suspension lasted until the beginning of 1962, and then the nextaffaire Ralston happened. Representing the United States in the Davis Cupdoubles in Mexico City, with Chuck McKinley as his partner, Ralstondouble-faulted 15 times in the first three sets, including five times in a row.The U.S. team lost the doubles to Palafox and Osuna, with Ralston chalking up agrand total of 18 double faults in the five sets. Three or four would have beenpar. "Ever since then," Ralston says dryly, "all you hear is how Ilost the Davis Cup with my double faults. Well, we won two of the first threesets where I double-faulted 15 times. We lost the last two sets where Idouble-faulted only two or three times." Ralston had a legitimate excuse; acartilage in his left knee was damaged. (He was operated on shortlythereafter.) But instead of alibiing, he went home. His mother recalled:"Those articles that came out in the papers saying how he lost the DavisCup, they just about tore him to bits. He was in awful shape. He goes to piecesover something like that. He was talking in his sleep all night. He went overthat whole match. He would say, 'I'm gonna get this next point, I've got to getthis next point!' I would lie awake and listen to him. He'd say, 'We've got towin this, I've got to get this one back.' He relived the whole thing in hisdreams. In the mornings, I would be practically in tears."
Ralston'stroubles in Mexico City were all the more painful to him because of his owngalloping annoyance at himself for hitting a ball poorly—any ball, any time,against any opponent, no matter what the score. He has carried competitivenessto a fault, and frequently the loss of one point will cause him to lose threeor four more through residual anger at himself. "He is the most competitiveathlete I have ever seen," says the brilliant Osuna, who is in a uniqueposition to evaluate Ralston, having been his roommate at USC, his partner inwinning Wimbledon and his arch-opponent in Davis Cup competition. "When Imiss a shot, I say, 'Well, it is only a shot, I will get the next one.' But toDennis it is like losing his life to miss a single shot." Bill Bond, afriend since early childhood, says: "His feet are moving every second. Hetries for every ball that he has any chance of getting." Ralston himselfsays: "I try to beat everybody as bad as I can. It's just my nature Iguess. I don't take it easy on any shot—even if I'm behind 40-love and the gamedoesn't matter anyway. I've learned that a lot of games are won from thatpoint. You only have to win five points to win the game. If a guy gets you40-love he relaxes a little bit. He maybe gives you the first point. Then youmake the second point. Then you're only one point from deuce...." DennisRalston wants to win. On several occasions, when his doubles partner had beeninjured, Ralston asked the judges to permit the injured partner to stand on thecourt while Ralston opened the match singlehanded. Obviously the match wouldend in a default as soon as the injured partner could not take his normalservice turn. But in the meantime, Ralston points out in total seriousness, itmight rain.
Such an attitudeonce induced Jack Kramer to say, "That boy is a scowler, and he is goingplaces. He is not interested in pleasing. His only aim is to win."
All of theseattitudes seem to have been fully developed in Ralston at a very early age.What he lacked in height, while he was growing up, he made up for in a fiercedetermination lo run the legs off anyone who stepped on a court with him. Hisparents remember the old days proudly. Says his mother, Gail, a junior highschool teacher who once was women's singles champion of Kern County: "Hewanted to win so badly, and he tried so hard, that on close sets in manymatches he would cry. But he didn't want anybody to see him cry. I rememberonce in a tournament at Altadena—he was 9 then—he went around behind thebushes, and he was crying. That's the way he is. He hates to lose. He'll playuntil he drops. But we're both that way: we play to win. It's in the genes andthe chromosomes."
Dennis' father, atransmission man for the telephone company and a fine tennis player himself,adds: "He wants to win everything. He demands four strokes a side when weplay golf, even though he plays too good for that. He always wants to beat me,whether it's gin rummy or cribbage or whatever. Five minutes after he gets inthe house from a long trip he wants to play me cards."
"Yes,"says Gail, "he just seems to want to beat his father at everything. And yetthey've got a very close relationship, a wonderful relationship."
Dennis Ralston'sintroduction to tennis, its play and its attitudes, came when he was an infant.He used to peep through the slats of his playpen, which was parked alongsidethe Coke machine at the public courts in Bakersfield, and watch his parentsplay a fast game of singles. When he was barely out of diapers, his father gavehim a cut-down racket. "From then on," said his sister Roberta, twoyears older, "he would go out to a brick wall we had in the back of thehouse and hit balls against it for hours, while all the other kids were outmaking mud pies."
Ralston's earlytutelage on the courts was handled by his parents, and in a discussion at theirneat home in Bakers-field, accompanied by daughter Roberta, they recentlyrevived their memories.
"I used to beable to get him upset," said the father.
"Yes,"said Roberta, "I remember that. You used to get him mad at me when he and Iwere playing. He'd just stomp around—he was such a little guy, and I was sortof tall and skinny. He'd march around, and he'd swing his racket, and he was somad, and he'd call me all sorts of names, and Daddy'd just sit back there andlaugh. Sometimes Denny would get so mad he'd sock me."
"I made himmad when I played him too," said Mr. Ralston. "It was gamesmanship. Itried to get him mad for a definite purpose. I would do it hoping he wouldfinally get to the point where he could see that it wouldn't do him any good toget that mad."
"But that's ahard thing to learn," said Mrs. Ralston. "It takes years andyears."
"Well,"said the father, "it's taken Denny quite a while to learn, really. Somepeople never do."
Roberta, a recentgraduate of Stanford who will teach social studies, has her own explanation forher brother's court antics. "I've always thought that he does a lot of itas a way to show people that he doesn't like the way he's playing. That's howhe started out. When he was young and used to put on a show, I'd say, 'Oh,Denny, who are you trying to kid?' You see, people used to laugh at him when hewas little. They used to think he was so cute. And he never got censure frompeople."
Roberta explainedthat while she has the deepest affection for her brother, she does not approveof his racket-throwing and other outbursts because they are bad influences onyounger players. "Why should we have all these little kids be DennyRalstons and swing their rackets and act mad?" she said. "No! I've seenit all over northern California. Kids idolize Denny. When I was a counselor atcamp, they'd say, 'Are you Denny Ralston's sister?' and then they'd say, 'Howdoes this look?' and they'd start throwing their rackets around."
Said Mrs.Ralston: "It doesn't look good, let's face it, to get exasperated, butstill it's a way of getting rid of a frustration that builds up inyou."
Back East at atournament, the party of the first part talked about his childhood. "When Iwas real little and I lost, I used to cry," said Dennis Ralston,"because I hated to lose so much. Somehow I got the feeling, the attitude,that I should never miss a ball, that I was letting people down and when I did,that's when I got mad and it would hurt me. I'd get blind mad, furious. Icompeted against my sister, and I hated to lose to her. I started beating herwhen I was very young. Then next, I beat my mother—she got a little older, andshe couldn't move as fast as she had. And then I was out to beat my father. Hewas a good club player, better than a good club player. He beat Bobby Riggs,when Riggs was in high school, in a team match. I was about 11 or 12 when I wasable to beat my father. I started out by being able to win a game, then a set.I always wanted to beat him, and he knew it. He laughed at me. For so long, helaughed at me. He'd beat me, and he'd just laugh, and I'd get mad." Thememory made Dennis Ralston laugh at himself. Now the two are very close, andlast year, when they won the USLTA father-and-son hard court championship at LaJolla, Dennis grabbed a microphone and announced: "This is the highesthonor I have ever won."
Whatever else hemay have picked up from his parental mentors, Dennis Ralston vaulted intojunior tennis tournaments with as fine a set of basic strokes as could be seenshort of a training film. Perry Jones had had his first look at the youngRalston, who was then being taught independence and resourcefulness by hisparents, in 1951. They had loaded him on the bus from Bakersfield to LosAngeles, and at age 9, all alone, he appeared for a junior tournament at theLos Angeles Tennis Club. "His eyes barely came up to the counter,"Jones said, "and right next to him was the biggest valise you ever saw. Helooked up at me and he said, 'I'm Dennis.'
"I said,'Dennis who?'
"He said,'Why, I'm Dennis Ralston. Where do I stay?'
"Well, I mustsay I almost fell over at the sight of this little kid telling me he was Dennisas if I ought to know. Luckily, I had someplace to put him up. Now that I lookback on it, I think the Ralstons were awfully smart with Dennis, because theydidn't baby him. Think of that trip—120 miles, at age 9! Usually the anguishedparents would come along and want to know where he was every second. No, sir,not the Ralstons. They cleaned his clothes, pressed his suit, and put him onthe bus and said go down there and see Mr. Jones. Dennis once said to me, 'Youknow my family never babied me. They treated me like a man, even when I was alittle kid. They told me what to do and that was it!' As a result, Denny isvery resourceful."
It was notuncommon, in those days, for the youthful prodigy to work out with the likes ofthe Panchos, Gonzalez and Segura, and other fine players who hung around theLos Angeles Tennis Club. When Dennis was 16, Ken Rose-wall came through LosAngeles on the way to Wimbledon and paid a visit to Jones, who savors thestory:
"Rosewallsaid, 'Mr. Jones, I've just a few hours here but I'd like to have a rally.' Isaid, 'There's nobody that could give you any kind of a game.' He said, 'Thatdoesn't make any difference. Just somebody that can bat a ball.' 'Well,' Isaid, 'I got a boy 16 years old here, and he'd get a tremendous thrill battingballs with you. But of course he can't give you much of a game!'
"I tookDennis out there to court No. 2, and he beat the heck out of Rosewall. Beathim, beat him, beat his ears back!"
No one, not evenRalston booster Perry Jones, is arguing that Ralston was the better player."Rosewall wasn't concentrating," said Jones. "And he was justworking out, loosening up. But he never expected to see a 16-year-old with thatcollection of strokes and so much finesse. Right then Denny certified that hewas going to be a great player."
Ralston'srepertoire of tennis shots, most of them learned from his mother, blends withan innate tennis sense that cannot be taught. As Jones explains it: "Whenyou look at slow-motion pictures of Vines, of Budge, of Kramer, you find thatthey're in the exact place they should be in order to return the ball mostcomfortably. This is an uncanny quality, and Dennis has it. When I asked himabout it, he said he thought it came from watching the ball. In watching wherethe ball's coming, in judging its speed, where it's going, how it's going tobounce, he instinctively gets in the right spot." One is reminded of GailRalston's instructions to her son: "I told him to watch the ball as thoughthere were writing on it, and he had to read the writing."
Other facets ofRalston's game mark him as a special case. For one thing, he is an all-courtplayer without a stroke weakness (with the occasional exception of the firstserve, which has gotten better since the Mexico City debacle, but which canstill use further improvement). He can play steady baseline tennis withanybody. There is no solace to be gained from hitting to his backhand; it is asstrong as his forehand. He is an expert volleyer and has perhaps the bestoffensive lob in amateur tennis. It is difficult to crowd the net on himbecause he begins plunking lobs that soon take the wind out of an opponent if,indeed, he gets them at all.
With a superbpair of eyes, Ralston picks up the ball sooner than most other players and thusis able to play it faster, an important advantage in top tennis. ExplainedCoach Toley: "Dennis plays the ball on the rise; he plays it early. Mostplayers let the ball come down off the rise a little. But Dennis plays it onthe short hop, when the ball has barely left the ground after bouncing, like ashortstop charging a ball instead of backing up on it. This cuts down on thenumber of steps the other fellow can take to get to the ball. In addition, hegets more speed because he is using the full speed of the other boy's hit.
"Eightypercent of the top players can't play the ball early. It takes a great eye andgreat timing. Ellie Vines played the ball on the rise, and so did Don Budge.Denny is as close to Budge in all-court ability as any player we've had for along time. He's got that short backswing and those eyes, and he has the abilityto hold off doing what he's going to do until the last second. He doesn'tcommit himself, and that's murder on the opponent. That's why he gets a lot oflobs over people's heads. They don't know it's going to be a lob."
Now, with his badknee corrected (his left leg had become shorter than his right), all thatstands between Ralston and the top spot is his disposition, a fact of which heis well aware. He wishfully thinks he has his temper well under control. "Idon't have that problem any more," he said recently, with bland innocence."I still get a little irritated just like anybody else, but I get overit." He thinks his main problem now is an inability to concentrate."It's so hard," he explained, "especially on clay where it takes along time to run out a set and each point takes so much out of you. If youconcentrate, you don't look at the stands. You don't look at anybody. All youdo is concentrate on the ball."
"I knowthat's what is on his mind these days," says his roommate, Osuna. "Theother night I was reading and he was sleeping, and all of a sudden he startedshouting in his sleep: 'Concentrate! Concentrate!' " Again one is remindedof a statement by the former women's singles champion of Kern County,California. "If a person is playing competitive tennis," said GailRalston, "he ought to be able to eliminate all the outside conditions andconcentrate, concentrate on the ball regardless of anything." DennisRalston tries to follow his mother's advice, even when he is sleeping.