Chuck McKinley and Dennis Ralston have been coupled in glory so often during the past year that one tends to think of them as teammates, like Blanchard and Davis, or Mantle and Maris, rather than as red-blooded rivals. Indeed, before they met in the finals of the National Indoor championships last week, they had played only three formal matches against each other. In an unlikely setting on Maryland's Eastern Shore, rival McKinley beat rival Ralston in five sets, thereby proving that, for the moment at least, he is the better of the U.S. Davis Cup stars.
There was really very little difference between the play of the two, but Ralston's inability to stop fighting himself proved costly and is the major reason he is ranked No. 2 in the country behind McKinley. When McKinley won the long first set 15-13, Ralston's disappointment was obvious and he dropped the second easily 6-2. But Ralston fought back to win the third and fourth sets with some beautiful tennis. He looked like a certain winner, since McKinley, after three straight tough matches, was obviously tired, but in the final set Ralston lost control of his serve in the fourth game and McKinley held on to win.
When the match was over, the rivals closed ranks as teammates again. "We're both still learning," said McKinley. "We'll be better." Maybe so, but it was still some of the best tennis in the history of the Indoors and definitely the best tennis that ever came out of Salisbury, Md.
This was only the second time in the 64-year history of the National Indoors that the tournament was not played in the Seventh Regiment Armory in New York City, a building so dark and dusty that it was difficult to spot the Seventh Regiment, let alone a tennis ball. When the armory was closed this year for renovations, the USLTA surprised the tennis world by awarding the tournament not to Chicago or St. Louis, two big cities that wanted it badly, but to little Salisbury, Md., population 16,302.
Salisbury was given the Indoors for two reasons. First, it has a $700,000 civic center, a spacious, brightly lit building that glistens like a jewel. Second, it has Bill Riordan, who singlehandedly has turned Salisbury into one of the tennis-happiest towns in the country.
Bill Riordan is 44 and has been a tennis bug most of his life. He was raised in Forest Hills, but moved to Salisbury 10 years ago because there was a dress shop in town for sale. He bought the shop and started merchandising—Riordan never says "selling"—dresses and tennis.
The dresses sold fast, but not the tennis. There were only four courts in town, all with grass growing up through wide cracks. Riordan had the courts resurfaced and started giving lessons to any youngster who cared to learn. At first there were only five takers, but within a couple of years the game became so popular that the jealous baseball promoters forced kids to sign Pony League contracts with a clause promising they would not play tennis. "I knew we were home then," says Riordan. "Schopenhauer, the German philosopher, said that any good idea goes through three stages. The first is ridicule—they said tennis was sissy stuff. The second is violent opposition—the Pony League business. Finally there is acceptance, as if it was self-evident all along. That is the stage we're at now. We have 21 courts and they are crowded all year, even in winter."
When Salisbury built its civic center four years ago, Riordan organized a winter tournament, bringing in a few big-name players like Dick Savitt and Vic Seixas. Each year the tournament was a success and each year Riordan was able to draw a bigger and stronger field. When the New York armory closed its doors this year, Riordan was ready.
"A lot of people think I got the National Indoors in a smoke-filled room," says Riordan. "Actually, it was right out in the bright sunlight. I was at the Nationals at Forest Hills—it was Labor Day—and Cliff Sutter of the USLTA said to me, 'Bill, how would you like to hold the Indoors down at your place this year?' Well, at first I thought it was crazy, but then I became fascinated with the idea of trying to merchandise that big a tournament in a town the size of Salisbury. So I said, 'O.K.' "
Riordan's first decision was to get the best players in the world. "They've always had about six winners and 26 losers in the field," Riordan says. "I wanted all winners, 32 of them, and hang the expense. We flew in Billy Lenoir from Tucson. He draws Roy Emerson in the first round. People tell me: 'You're crazy to fly in Billy Lenoir and have him get beat by Emerson in the first round.' But look, Lenoir is a good player and he deserves to be in the tournament."
Transportation for the players cost Riordan almost half of the $17,000 tournament expenses, and the fare from Tucson was just the beginning: Boro Jovanovic and Nicola Pilic were brought in from Yugoslavia and both Were beaten in the first round. Manuel Santana and Luis Arilla came in from Spain, Rafael Osuna and Antonio Palafox from Mexico and Roy Emerson and Ken Fletcher from Australia, against the protests of the Australian Tennis Association, which threatened to kick both of them off the Australian Davis Cup Team. In addition, there were Tomas Koch, an up-and-coming young Brazilian, Gene Scott, Arthur Ashe and Tom Edlefsen, the fourth-, sixth-and ninth-ranking players in the U.S. and, of course, McKinley and Ralston. So strong was the field that McKinley, the Wimbledon champion, had to play Osuna, the U.S. champion, in the quarter-finals. "The draw is better than Wimbledon," Osuna told Riordan before the tournament began. "But then, Bill, a quarter more and you go first class, right?"
All of the players agreed that Salisbury's civic center was first-class. The tournament was played on canvas, stretched tautly over the center's wooden floor. The lighting was ideal. In the first round Bill Lenoir, as Riordan's friends had predicted, lost to Roy Emerson, but he made Riordan look good by winning the first set. "That match was good for me," said Emerson afterward. "In fact, I'll need a couple more tough ones, providing I get by them, in order to go all the way."
The next day Emerson got his tough match and found it too tough. Tom Edlefsen, a powerful hitter with a deadpan expression who is a teammate of Ralston's at USC, upset Emerson in three sets, accomplishing something neither Ralston nor McKinley could do during the Davis Cup matches. At the same time Arthur Ashe was beating Ken Fletcher, thus eliminating both Australians in the second round.
Emerson's defeat made Ralston's road to the finals a lot easier than McKinley's. His first name opponent was Whitney Reed, whom he met in the quarter-finals. Reed's game runs hot and cold, and against Ralston it ran very cold as he lost 6-1, 6-4. In the semifinals Ralston had another easy victory, beating teammate Edlefsen, who, after staying hot against Ashe, finally cooled off.
McKinley, on the other hand, had to get by Palafox, Osuna and Santana to reach the finals. The Santana match went five sets and in the final set McKinley was two points away from losing. But McKinley rallied, won and then bounced right back for three sets of doubles with Ralston as his partner. He didn't get off the court until 1 a.m., six hours and eight sets after he began. For this reason it seemed as if he would not be strong enough physically to beat Ralston, and, indeed, after Ralston had rallied to win the third and fourth sets of their match, McKinley looked through. But McKinley is a bulldog, and at the end of their match it was Ralston who looked exhausted.
It had been supposed that Salisbury would merely be an interim site for the Indoors and that next year the tournament would be returned to the renovated New York armory. But so large were the crowds—17,000 total, a record—and so pleased were the players with the conditions, that even before the tournament was over the USLTA decided to hold the 1965 National Indoors in Salisbury, too. The Seventh Regiment may have the armory to itself for a long time.