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Dennis Ralston…One Of A Kind

There was much more to Dennis Ralston’s illustrious tennis career than being the youngest player to win the Wimbledon Doubles title and after his playing days concluded, becoming one of the foremost coaches in the game, as Mark Winters story brings out…

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Dennis Ralston Photo Dallas Morning News

As bad as the year had been with the daily deluge of pandemic suffering and death news, along with flare-ups of racial disharmony, it became much worse when I learned that Dennis Ralston had passed away on December 6th. Having turned 78 this past July 27th, he lost his battle with brain cancer at his home in Austin, Texas. Though he wasn’t a close friend, we had a very strong relationship built over fifty-years of interaction. 

 
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1963 Davis Cup Team-Arthur Ashe, Dennis Ralston, Captain Robert Kelleher, Marty Riessen and Chuck McKinley – Photo Thelner Hoover (Gift To International Tennis Hall of Fame & Museum From The Honorable Robert Kelleher, 2001)

Ralston first came to my attention in 1963 when the US faced Mexico in the American Zone Davis Cup semifinal at the storied Los Angeles Tennis Club (LATC). I was new to the game as a player and this was my inaugural Davis Cup experience. He teamed with Chuck McKinley to lead the US to a 4-1 triumph over Rafael Osuna and Antonio Palafox, representing Mexico. As legendary writer Allison Danzig wrote in the New York Times on August 18, 1963, Ralston “…played the match of his life today…” defeating Osuna 6-1, 6-3, 7-5 to give the US a 3-1 lead. 

As a Davis Cup novice, I remember being awed by the fervor of the supporters of both teams. The setting was captivating, but I found the backstory even more riveting. Ralston had teamed with Osuna to win the 1960 Wimbledon doubles title, (the first unseeded team to do so). What’s more, the tie pitted the two USC teammates against one another. They had regularly practiced at the LATC, where USC played its home matches, and coincidently, after Ralston captured the singles championship, (as he had in ’62 and again in ’64), they won the1963 NCAA Doubles title. In ’64, he partnered with Bill Bond to take the NCAA Doubles again (and that same year, he won the National Father & Son Grass Court Championship with his father, Bob). 

R. (Richard) Dennis Ralston was a rarity. Few elite players become elite tennis coaches after their playing days conclude. He had the uncommon skills needed to reach the top in both fields. At 17 years, 341 days old, he was the youngest doubles winner at The Championships. He enjoyed Davis Cup triumphs as a player in 1963, a coach from 1968-1971 and in 1972 as a captain, a position he held for four-years. (Interestingly, he was the first to captain the US team after the elimination of the Challenge Round in 1972.) 

“I will never forget being in Bucharest in ‘72 and watching him handle the flagrantly poor officiating and deliberate cheating of the Romanians with great restraint”, said International Tennis Hall of Fame member Steve Flink. “That was his finest hour.”

Ion Tiriac and Ilie Nastase led the guerilla war of disruption against the US, but thanks to Ralston’s steadiness, his team – Tom Gorman, Stan Smith and Erik van Dillen – survived the challenge and earned a 3-2 victory.

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Dennis Ralston at the BNP Paribas Open Photo Mark Winters

At the time, tennis historians likely found his exemplary behavior extraordinary after his career as a player. Tempestuous is a suitable descriptive adjective to use. So is feisty. He was fiercely competitive. He hated losing so much that if he didn’t hit perfect shots he would begin berating himself. On occasion, he turned his tennis racquet into a javelin and/or helped a tennis ball leave the court enclosure swiftly. After a deplorable display in the 1961 American Zone Davis Cup final in Cleveland, Ohio against Mexico, the United States Lawn Tennis Association suspended him for four months.

Dennis Ralston (far left) with junior doubles finalists at 1953 Southern California tournament Photo Thelner Hoover

Perry T. Jones, the crusty overseer of the game in Southern California, first met Ralston in 1951 when he was 9-years-old. His parents, Bob and Gail both outstanding players, raised him to be self-reliant. So, they confidently put him on a bus for the more than 100-mile trip from his home in Bakersfield (California) to the Los Angeles Tennis Club, in the Hancock Park area of LA, to play a junior tournament. Jones used to love recounting how Ralston walked into his office at the LATC, dragging a large suitcase, and said, “I’m Dennis”. Not surprisingly, Jones responded, “Dennis who?” To which the youngster offered, “Why, I’m Dennis Ralston. Where do I stay?” 

After his suspension, Jones asked him to come to the club. They discussed what had taken place then “Perry T.” who was nothing but proper, told him to accept his punishment and stay quiet…and he did. It is ironic that his behavior did an about face and in 1966 he received the USTA’s William Johnston Award which is presented for character, sportsmanship and contributions to game.

Dennis Ralston Photo International Tennis Hall of Fame & Museum, Newport, Rhode Island

A stylish server and volleyer with a formidable forehand and uncanny feel for the lob, Ralston was ranked in the US Top Ten seven straight years, beginning in 1960. He was the first player since Don Budge (1936-38) to hold the No. 1 position three years running (1963-65). He was also the first of three men (Bob Lutz and Stan Smith followed) to win US doubles titles on grass, clay, indoor and hard courts. Playing the deuce court, with Chuck McKinley on the ad side, he won the US National Doubles title in1961, ’63 and ’64 at Forest Hills, New York. (In ’62, the two were finalists.)

During his career, the Bakersfield native won 27 national singles and doubles titles, along with 41 pro and five major doubles titles. These are consequential numbers, but they pale in comparison with the fact that he had close to 20 major surgeries, including knee replacements and later having his left leg amputated below the knee in 2012. After the operation, he returned to teaching wearing a prosthetic on his lower-left leg. If this wasn’t enough, in 2017 he had a hip replaced. In time, he candidly admitted being addicted to painkillers following the knee replacements and discussed how he overcame the problem. (I must add that in all our discussions over the years there were times when I knew he was in pain…but he never complained or said a thing about being uncomfortable; he just continued with the interview.)

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Court dedicated to Dennis Ralston at Mission Hills Country Club, Rancho Mirage, California Photo Mark Winters

Steve Solomon was the Tournament Director of the Campbell’s National Men’s 60 & 90 Hard Court Championships that took place at Mission Hills Country Club in April 2006. After the tournament he told me this story, “Dennis had been teaching at Mission Hills for part of the winter and said he would like to play doubles. I told him I would find a good partner. Then I called Charlie (Hoeveler)”. Hoeveler, President and owner of Nike Camps, remembered, “Steve said, ‘I see you’re not playing doubles. Would you like to play with a friend of mine, who has had both knees replaced; hasn’t played a tournament in years, but used to be pretty good? I said, ‘Why would I do that?’ Steve replied, ‘Because it is Dennis Ralston.’ I told him it would be an honor to play with Dennis.”

Hoeveler and Ralston reached the semifinals, (and Solomon explained that the dedicated Ralston had been teaching the morning of the match). “I hadn’t played since the Wimbledon 45 Doubles the year after having my second knee replacement,” Ralston told me. “That was roughly ten years ago (1996)”.

When he teamed with McKinley, Ralston played the deuce side of the court. Hoeveler revealed, “You can imagine how I felt when he told me that the last time he played the ad court was with a red-headed Australian lefthander, a guy named Laver”.

Discussing his performance, Ralston, in his typical self-deprecating style, said, “Actually, I played like a guy who had two knees replaced…I know Charlie and realized that he is a ‘Road Runner’. He is very fast and a great competitor. I had been practicing but I hadn’t played any matches. That made it tough. I didn’t enjoy missing shots that I would ordinarily make. I had a lot of trouble with my overhead in the semifinal. I must have missed something like ten in a row. I was worried that Charlie was going to lose all his energy and not be able to compete well in the singles final”. (Hoeveler did go on to win the title.)

Dennis Ralston – Photo by Thelner Hoover

At The Championships in 1966, he was a finalist to Manolo Santana of Spain, 6-4, 11-9. 6-4 and afterward he was “Ralston Honest” saying he hadn’t been prepared. 

He turned pro that year and in 1967 he became a member of the “Handsome Eight” – Pierre Barthes, Butch Buchholz, Cliff Drysdale, John Newcombe, Nikola Pilic, Tony Roche and Roger Taylor – They were part of the World Championship Tennis Tour.

Flink, the widely respected tennis historian, observed,  “He never fulfilled himself as a player and always seemed burdened by too many people expecting too much from him. But, thankfully, his coaching experiences were much richer and [more] rewarding.”

It certainly was as Flink continued, “He went on to work with all of those American players in the ‘70s (including Roscoe Tanner) leading up to his great years with Chrissie in the 80”s and then there’s the work he did with (Gabriela) Sabatini and (Yannick) Noah and others. I have not even mentioned his stint at Southern Methodist University as their head coach.”

He guided the men’s team at the Dallas school on two occasions.  Initially, it was from 1981 to ’89 then 1991 to ’93. He was named the 1983 NCAA Division I Coach of the Year after leading the team to the NCAA final where Stanford escaped with a 5-4 victory.

Charlie Pasarell, Pam Shriver and Dennis Ralston at Southern California Tennis Association Hall of Fame 2007 Induction Ceremony. Photo Mark Winters

Over time, Ralston was duly recognized. He was a member of the first Intercollegiate Tennis Association Men’s Hall of Fame class of 1983. He was inducted into the USC Athletic Hall of Fame in 1995; the Southern California Tennis Association Hall of Fame in 2007; and the Texas Tennis Museum & Hall of Fame in 2016. The ultimate accolade came when his name was added to International Tennis Hall of Fame honor roll in 1987.

“I am glad I saw him for the first time in nearly 15 years in Newport three years ago when I was inducted,” Flink said. (That was the last time that our paths crossed.)

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Linda and Dennis Ralston Photo Sandy Behrens

After learning about his death, I took time to sort through my many memories. The flood of recollections that ensued left me feeling sad but very fortunate. I remembered his rich candor and his sly, sometimes devilish wit. His patience explaining a competitive situation or a stroke technique was revealing. He never flooded me with unnecessary facts or asides. For someone who enjoyed so much success, his ego never invaded our discussions. On occasion, he expressed self-doubt. His love of the game and the enjoyment that he received from being part of it was boundless. The same was true of the joy that his wife of 56-years Linda, and his children, son, Mike and daughters Lori and Angela brought to his life.

Ralston was always rough on himself. Osuna said that he had never seen anyone more competitive. Revealingly, he told stories about rooming with Dennis and listening to his nightmares as he castigated himself about his play.

Ralston was a talented and complex individual who had a big heart. He genuinely cared for so many. I consider myself privileged to have had opportunities to take advantage of his desire to share his tennis knowledge and more important, a bit of himself…

To me, Dennis Ralston was…One Of A Kind.  

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Simona Halep Cliches Third National Bank Open Title With Topsy-Turvy Win Over Haddad Maia

The two-time Grand Slam champion battled with her own consistency on the court en route to her latest title.

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Image via https://twitter.com/NBOtoronto/

Simona Halep overcame a poor start and lacklustre second set performance to oust Beatriz Haddad Maia and win the National Bank Open on Sunday.

 

Halep looked far from her best at times on the court as she battled to a hard-fought 6-3, 2-6, 6-3, win over her Brazilian rival who beat world No.1, Iga Swiatek, earlier in the tournament. During the roller-coaster clash, which lasted more than two hours, she hit a total of 16 winners against 31 unforced errors. The triumph avenged her loss to Haddad Maia two months ago in the final of the Birmingham Classic.

“I’m really exhausted, today has been a tough battle,” Halep said during the trophy presentation.
“I have won in Montreal two times but never here (in Toronto) so today is a special day. I fought really hard because I wanted to win in front of you guys (the crowd).”

Seeking her third title at the tournament in her career, Halep erratically started her latest final. A nightmare opening service game saw the Romanian produce four double faults, as well as a forehand error, to go down a break early on. Paving the way for Haddad Maia to surge to a 3-0 lead. After that blip, Halep soon found her footing on the court as she staged a valiant fight back. Winning six games in a row to clinch the first set. She closed out the opener with a blistering backhand winner to the corner of the court.

It was a case of deja vu in the second frame with history-maker Haddad Maia breaking early on yet again. The 26-year-old is the first Brazilian player to reach the final of a WTA 1000 event. However, this time the world No.24 was able to maintain the advantage at the expense of a dramatic lull in form from her opponent. After storming to a four-game winning run, Haddad Maia eased her way to a 5-1 lead. Then serving to level the match, she triumphed with the help of back-to-back forehand errors from Halep.

Historically, the previous 20 finals at the Canadian Open have been won by the player who takes the opener. The last player to break this trend was Martina Hingis back in 2000 against Serena Williams.

Eager to avoid a Hingis-like fightback, Halep held her nerve to prevail during what was a rollercoaster decider. Three straight breaks of serve occurred before the world No.15 managed to hold and move ahead 4-1. Closing in on the title, Halep secured victory on her second championship point after a Haddad Maia forehand slammed into the net.

“Two months ago I wasn’t thinking that I would be lifting this trophy,” said Halep.
“Patrick (her coach) thank you for believing in me and being by my side since two months ago. Hopefully, I made you proud today even if I didn’t play great but I fought. Hopefully, we will have many more titles together.”

There is also a silver lining for runner-up Haddad Maia who will break into the world’s top 20 for the first time on Monday. The Brazilian is currently enjoying a breakthrough season where she has won two Tour titles. She is the first player from her country to reach the final of three or more WTA events within the same year since 1969.

“I want to congratulate Simona and her team. You work very hard to be here and it’s very nice to share a moment like this with you in front of this crowd (in Toronto),” she said.
“Today I pushed myself as much as I could. I didn’t control my emotions very well today but even if I wasn’t playing my best tennis I was trying to fight. That was what I have done since the first round.”

30-year-old Halep has now won 24 titles on the WTA Tour and her ninth at a WTA 1000 event. It is the first time in her career she has managed to win the same tournament for the third time after previously triumphing in 2016 and 2018.

Halep will now rise to sixth in the rankings on Monday which will be her highest position in over a year.

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Canada Daily Preview: Championship Sunday Features Halep/Haddad Maia and Hurkacz/Carreno Busta

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Hubi Hurkacz this week in Montreal (twitter.com/OBNmontreal)

On Sunday in Toronto, Simona Halep plays for her third title at this event.  She faces a surging 26-year-old in Beatriz Haddad Maia, who has already defeated four top 15 players this week, including world No.1 Iga Swiatek.

 

In Montreal, Hubi Hurkacz is vying for his second Masters 1000 title, after winning his first last year in Miami.  In Sunday’s championship match, he plays Pablo Carreno Busta, who at 31-years-old has reached his first Masters 1000 final in his 52nd appearance.


Beatriz Haddad Maia vs. Simona Halep (15) – 1:30pm on Centre Court in Toronto

What a season Haddad Maia is having.  She started the year ranked 83rd in the world, but with 43 match wins and three titles at all levels, she will debut inside the top 16 on Monday.  She is the first Brazilian to reach a WTA 1000 singles final.  Beatriz credits her 2022 success to focusing on being more aggressive.  But Halep is a player who has achieved much success by absorbing her opponents’ power and using it against them.  And after a solid yet underwhelming season, Simona says her fire is back this week in Toronto.  This will be her fourth meeting with Haddad Maia, and her third this year.  She leads Beatriz 2-1, though they split their two 2022 encounters.  In a match of this magnitude, which is new territory for Haddad Maia, Halep’s experience and more consistent style make her the favorite to win her third title in Canada.


Hubert Hurkacz (8) vs. Pablo Carreno Busta – Not Before 4:00pm on Court Central in Montreal

Hubi’s path to this final has been a complicated one.  All four of his matches went the distance, and he even had to save a match point against Albert Ramos-Vinolas.  Meanwhile, Pablo had advanced to his first Masters 1000 final rather decisively, only dropping one set to this stage.  Hurkacz and Carreno Busta are 1-1 at tour level, as each earned a hard court victory over the other last year.  Three of the four sets they contested were decided by tiebreaks, which is not surprising given their contrasting styles.  Hubi will look to dictate matters with his serve, while Pablo will look to extend points and force Hurkacz into long baseline rallies.   However, Hubi often doesn’t mind participating in long rallies.  As impressive as Carreno Busta’s level has been this week, Hurkacz has been the better player this season.  Hubi’s serve and powerful groundstrokes make him a slight favorite to win his second Masters 1000 crown.


Other Notable Matches on Sunday:

Coco Gauff and Jessica Pegula (3) vs. Nicole Melichar-Martinez and Ellen Perez – Gauff and Pegula were finalists this year at Roland Garros.  If they win on Sunday, Gauff will become the new world No.1 in doubles, and be the youngest player to do so since Martina Hingis.  Melichar-Martinez and Perez have already defeated three seeded teams this week.

Wesley Koolhof and Neal Skupski (3) vs. Dan Evans and John Peers – Koolhof and Skupski lead the year-to-date doubles rankings, and are playing for their sixth title of the season.  This is only the second event in 2022 for Evans and Peers as a team.  Evans was also a semifinalist this week in singles.


Sunday’s full Order of Play is here.

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Serena Williams Set For Raducanu Challenge In Cincinnati

Serena Williams will play US Open champion Emma Raducanu in one of her final tournaments before the end of her career.

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Serena Williams (@BleacherReport - Twitter)

In what could be the penultimate tournament of her career, 23-time grand slam champion Serena Williams takes on US Open champion Emma Raducanu in Cincinnati.

 

Potentially two more tournaments to go before a legend of the sport retires in the form of Serena Williams.

Williams began her farewell tour in Toronto where she went out in the second round to Belinda Bencic and will look to make a bigger impression in Cincinnati.

However an intriguing task awaits in her opening match in Ohio as she will take on US Open champion Emma Raducanu in the opening round.

Raducanu enters the match in uninspiring form having reached the quarter-finals in Washington before an opening round exit against Camila Giorgi in Toronto.

It will be interesting how this match fairs as Williams gets a taste of facing the younger generation before she departs the sport.

That match is in a packed part of the draw where the winner of that match will play the winner of Kaia Kanepi and Victoria Azarenka.

There is also a huge match between Bianca Andreescu and Camila Giorgi with the winner taking on seventh seed Jessica Pegula in the second round.

As for Serena’s sister, Venus Williams, she hasn’t fared much better with her draw as she takes on 14th seed Karolina Pliskova in her opening round.

Also in this section of the draw is fourth seed Maria Sakkari who takes on either a qualifier or Alison Van Uytvanck.

Other highlights of the bottom half of the draw will see Sofia Kenin take on Shelby Rogers while Amanda Anisimova takes on Daria Kasatkina.

Naomi Osaka is also in the bottom half of the draw where she takes on Shuai Zhang.

Meanwhile in the top half of the draw Iga Swiatek will look to bounce back after an early exit in Toronto as she takes on Sloane Stephens or Alize Cornet in her opening round.

Other exciting matches in the top half of the draw sees Simona Halep take on Karolina Muchova while Beatriz Haddad Maia takes on Jelena Ostapenko.

Here is the full Women’s singles draw with Serena Williams expected to play on Monday night:

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