For six months now, Dennis Ralston, the onetime bad boy of amateur tennis, has been a pro—a pro in more senses than one. Dennis the Menace signed with the International Professional Tennis Association (the descendant of Jack Kramer's old group) last December at $70,000 for two years, and since then his adjectival description has altered both in quality and quantity. Where once he was called "brash," "cheeky," "spoiled" and "petulant," he is now characterized merely as "grim" and "perfectionist."
In New York last week for the $25,000 Madison Square Garden Invitation Tournament, the 10th stop on a 19-city tour the suddenly prosperous pros are making in North America this year, Ralston brushed aside any suggestion that he has turned over a new leaf, but the evidence is there.
"I haven't changed much since I turned pro," Dennis said. "I'm pretty much like I always was, except that my game has improved, which was a natural thing to expect. I admit," he went on, "that I did some things that were—well, stupid. But every time I stepped on the court people expected me to win. Sure, I was No. 1 in the amateur rankings, but tennis just doesn't work that way. For instance, I lost to Fred Stolle at Forest Hills last year. Well, he was serving great and playing sensational tennis. Every time I lost it was a national disaster, but nobody said anything about the big matches I won.
"You know," Ralston continued, referring to last week's quarter-final match with Pierre Barthes at the Garden, "I was thinking about this whole thing when I was playing Pierre. He was serving well and swinging from the heels, and we had a close, tough match. About halfway through it I could just see the headline if I lost: RALSTON UPSET AGAIN. Well, I said to hell with it and decided right there to forget all about it."
Perhaps because of this new maturity, Ralston has had more success as a professional than he ever had as an amateur. "I didn't know if I could play with these guys when I first started," he admitted. "I was scared. All I wanted to do was survive."
That he has done and more. His contract does not include a bonus; he must play for every dollar he earns. He is currently ranked third behind Rod Laver and Ken Rosewall, and he has a winning record against everybody on the tour except Laver. In Australia, when he made his professional debut at Toowoomba, he lost to fellow rookie Fred Stolle but came back the following week in Sydney to beat Stolle and Rosewall in succession, the latter in straight sets, 6-3, 9-7. At that point Pancho Gonzalez, once the best on the courts and Ralston's unofficial coach, told him, "You can play with these guys." And so he has. At the finish of last week's tournament he was second only to Laver in total earnings, having collected approximately $21,000.
Ralston's good play hasn't surprised everyone. Mai Anderson, for eight years a journeyman pro, said, "I looked at this guy—never saw him play as an amateur—and I said to myself, 'My God, why didn't this guy ever win a major championship?' "
Rosewall agreed. "He's got everything to become a great player," said the diminutive Aussie. "Size, strength, power and good strokes."
In New York Ralston played excellent tennis with only occasional lapses. He defeated Luis Ayala and Barthes in straight sets before Laver beat him in the semifinals. (Laver then defeated Rosewall for his eighth win on the North American portion of the tour.) In short, Ralston appears to have everything necessary to become the dominant professional in a year or two. He is already one of the tour's most colorful personalities. He still scowls on the court, but his only audible complaint is an occasional "gawdammit" as in "Gawdammit, hit the ball!" The crowds, surprisingly, are very partisan in his favor. When he walks on the court or changes sides after the odd game, they clap and cheer—quite wildly for a tennis crowd. They also root for Laver and Rosewall and occasionally Stolle, but it's not the same. Those three receive applause because of their play, not because of their stage presence. Ralston draws cheers on personality alone. The Menace is becoming a hero.