Article: Timeless tennis
The International Tennis Hall of Fame was officially sanctioned by the United States Tennis Association in 1954 and recognized by the International Tennis Federation in 1986. The first Hall of Fame members were inducted in 1955; as of 2007, there are 200 inductees from 19 countries.
Hall of Famer Dennis Ralston delivers his words as crisply as he struck his volleys. His are the sensibilities of a man raised in the wide open spaces of 20th century California, similar in cadence, diction and precision to the forceful resonance emanating from such fellow Golden State tennis legends as Jack Kramer, Don Budge and Billie Jean King. It’s a voice of concrete experience gained early and frequently on concrete courts.
He’s speaking in the clubhouse of Mission Hills Country Club in Rancho Mirage, California. After years at such places as SMU and the Broadmoor Hotel, Ralston has returned to where he created the tennis program in the late ‘70s. At Mission Hills, Ralston is currently giving lessons, running camps, marketing an instructional video called “Timeless Tennis” and continuing to offer the wisdom that made him a superb player – America’s best from 1964-’66 – and arguably an even better coach by dint of his work with the likes of Chris Evert, the U.S. Davis Cup team, Roscoe Tanner, Yannick Noah, Gabriela Sabatini and countless others.
“He was a great competitor,” says his lifelong friend and former rival, BNP Paribas Open chairman Charlie Pasarell. “But he’s also one of those rare guys. There are teachers and there are coaches. Dennis is both.”
What comes across in speaking to Ralston is his love for what occurs in between the lines of tennis court. “Timeless Tennis” boils the game down to the significance of the hands and the feet, coupled with the need to prepare early enough so that a player can properly wait for the ball to get into the hitting zone. It’s a simple, refined approach that’s exquisitely pruned.
Outside the lines life has been a little different. The world and the sport are governed by a sobering vagueness and mysterious form of politics so different from the values Ralston was raised with – distinctly California notions such as ambition, hard work, merit by dint of competition and a credo of self-reliance.
More than 50 years later, Ralston remembers the day his parents – father Bob a lineman for the phone company, mother Gail a school teacher -- put him on a 110-mile bus ride from Bakersfield to what was then arguably the center of the tennis universe, the Los Angeles Tennis Club (LATC). Dubbed “the cradle of champions,” the LATC had been the place where virtually every American great had cut his teeth, including Ellsworth Vines, Bobby Riggs, Jack Kramer and Pancho Gonzales.
He was ten years old and told to see a Mr. Perry T. Jones, then the majordomo of Southern California tennis – as powerful an American as the tennis world knew. “Hi, I’m Dennis,” he said. “I’m here to play. Where do I stay?”
That was just the first of many solitary bus rides Ralston took all over Southern California, crisscrossing the state to play 350 sunshine-stoked days a year. So precocious was Ralston that at 17 he won the doubles at Wimbledon. A year later he reached the singles semifinals at Forest Hills. His destiny as another great Southern California champion seemed assured.
It didn't quite happen. There were great moments, such as Ralston joining forces with Chuck McKinley to bring the Davis Cup back to the U.S. in 1963, the same year Ralston spearheaded a USC team to the NCAA title. He and McKinley also won three U.S. doubles titles. In The Golden Age of College Tennis, a posthumously published memoir published this year, Ralston’s USC coach George Toley consistently praises Ralston’s unmatched ability to take the ball on the rise, most notably with his service return. “You always knew when you played Dennis you were in for a hard battle,” says another rival, Roy Emerson.
But his racket could only do so much talking. In those pre-Open, pre-ATP days, power rested firmly in the hands of Old World patricians who ran such organizations as the International Lawn Tennis Federation (ILTF) and United States Lawn Tennis Association (USLTA). Amateurs like Ralston were kept on a tight leash, told when they could play, where they must play – all for $20 a day in expenses and the occasional under-the-table payment (never more than $1,000 for Ralston). “We really had no way to shape our destiny then, no say in the game,” says Ralston. In 1964, for example, even though Ralston and McKinley were superb on fast surfaces, the USLTA opted to play the final round of the Davis Cup on clay. Caught in the cross-hairs of reactionary tennis politics, Ralston and his peers were often treated like little more than chattel.
In many ways, all the shortcomings that frustrated Ralston the player translated into excellence as a coach. “All I had when I played Australia was a Coke sitting in the dirt,” says Ralston. Joining forces with Donald Dell to run the team in 1968 at the tender age of 25, Ralston dramatically upgraded everything from practice to fitness to challenge matches to coaching during matches. Let other coaches issue platitudes. Ralston was a far-reaching field general, able to spot a wayward toss or manage a team in a hostile environment. As a player, he’d failed to motivate himself for the 1966 Wimbledon singles final, losing to Manuel Santana. Four decades later, Ralston pounds a table in remorse with his fist and says, “So when I was coaching Roscoe [Tanner] and he made it to the finals, I said, ‘Don’t be like me and just be glad to be there. Get psyched up.’” Tanner went on to severely test Bjorn Borg before losing 6-4 in the fifth.
“I just want to help people get better,” says Ralston. Even as tennis has taken from him too – Ralston has had eight surgeries on each of his knees – he continues to give his heart and soul to the game he loves. After all, once he boarded that bus in Bakersfield, an ambitious net rusher could only keep moving forward.