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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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Statistical Deep Dive: Sinner At Rotterdam One Year Later

Jannik Sinner’s Rotterdam title compared with his run to the final last year.

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By Federico Bertelli

Let’s delve into Jannik Sinner’s triumphant journey at the ABN Amro Open and compare it with his 2023 campaign. Service and down-the-line backhands were the keys to victory.

Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger. This is the version of Sinner that his opponents tasted, and it’s also the title of a Daft Punk song; the clip particularly reflects what the rest of the ATP circuit has been thinking about Jannik for some months now: an android emerging after a heavy upgrade. Jokes aside, as the sunshine double is about to start, we thought it wise to rewind and closely examine Sinner’s recent victories.

The focus of our analysis is the Rotterdam tournament: Sinner’s performance was spotless, a feat not seen since 2001 when Lleyton Hewitt, after his victory at Flushing Meadows over Pete Sampras, managed to repeat his success in Tokyo. If the Italian were to win next week under the California sun as well, he would be the first in ATP tennis history to win two consecutive ATP tournaments after the first Slam. But before we dive into the action of the Indian Wells, let’s scratch the surface of Sinner’s victory in the Netherlands a bit. The comparison is plausible as the Italian reached the final in both editions, playing 5 matches in each case.

Draw: The 2024 run was undoubtedly smoother compared to 2023, both on average and in absolute terms. In 2023, the average ranking of Sinner’s opponents increased significantly, from 50.6 in 2023 to 97 in 2024. This means that, in general, we can assume that the journey, at least on paper, was easier. Also, in absolute terms – considering the lowest ranking of an opponent faced – there was a notable difference. In 2023, the insurmountable obstacle was the Russian Medvedev, then the blue’s nemesis and number 3 in the rankings. In 2024, it was a more approachable De Minaur – number 11 in the ATP ranking – against whom the H2Hs have also always been in favour of Jannik.

Source, ATP data, ATP 500 Tournament Rotterdam: Comparison of Opposing Players’ Rankings

Break Points: One aspect frequently discussed about Sinner in the last 12 months is his overall growth in all areas: technical, physical, and mental. However, it’s not news that Jannik is mentally tough. Surely, Sinner will continue to tirelessly work on this aspect, as he has always stated, but his starting base has always been enviable. And the results are there for everyone to see. Despite facing a number of break points in the tournament equal to 20 in both 2023 and 2024 – which perhaps was unexpected given the more modest caliber of opponents – the Italian’s response was undeniable. An 80% break point save rate, compared to 65% in 2023 and against an ATP tour average of 61%. (Note: The tour average refers to the average of the last 52 weeks of players who have competed in ATP level tournaments). This figure, among other things, underscores Jannik’s solidity, already above average in 2023.

Source, ATP data, ATP 500 Tournament Rotterdam: Comparison of Break Points Saves, Years 2023-2024

Service – Overall Statistics: Another aspect that has been frequently discussed is Jannik’s improvement in his service game; indeed, the data speaks for itself. Both in terms of the percentage of first serves in play and in terms of effectiveness in converting such a play situation into a point, Sinner has significantly elevated his game. Working on the percentage of first serves in play was the number one priority to improve the Italian’s game performance, and the efforts of Vagnozzi, Cahill & co. have paid off handsomely. In 2023 in Rotterdam, the percentage of first serves in play was 57%, in line with the general performances recorded by Sinner up to that point. Considering that the ATP tour average was 62%, it’s clear this was an aspect still needing improvement until last year. However, the conversion rate from good became excellent. In 2023 in Rotterdam, the conversion rate of points on the first serve stood at 74%, a figure above the tour average, which is at 72%. In 2024, however, we witnessed a further leap forward, reaching the 80% threshold.

Source, ATP Data, ATP 500 Tournament Rotterdam: Service Performance Comparison

To understand how high this figure is, just look at the leaderboard rankings of the last 52 weeks. In terms of first serves converted into points, 80% is the threshold of absolute excellence. Consider that the two most impressive serving machines ever seen on a tennis court, Karlovic and Isner, had career averages of 83% and 80%, respectively.

ATP Leaderboard

Finally, a somewhat surprising data point is the success performance on the second serve. The Italian won 60% of the points on his second serve in 2023, while in 2024, “only” 56%. This rate is evidently more than sufficient to win matches and tournaments, but in 2023, it was not a problem at all, on the contrary.

Delving further into detail and referring to more detailed analyses (for the metrics used, we also refer to the general description found here), the analysis is further enriched. The data reported are the result of TennisViz processing, on data owned by Tennis Data Innovations (TDI).

Service – Detailed Data: The service performance, in terms of precision and reliability of the shot under pressure, has improved from all perspectives. Among the various metrics available, there are some of interest. Starting with the accuracy on the first serve, i.e., the distance with which the serve is placed from the service lines, measured in cm. Referencing a post from the X Tennis Insights account, we have an overview.

Source: TennisViz on TDI Data

In Rotterdam in 2023, Sinner executed this shot with an accuracy of 57 cm, better than what was measured over the course of the year. But in 2024, this figure impressively dropped to a notable 52 cm, in line with that of Hurkacz. We’ll spare you the statistical details, but the result (highly debatable, given the small sample size) is as follows.

Of course, there are many other variables that explain the yield on the first serve, but the inverse correlation between serve speed and precision is not bad, and generally leads us to say that serving at 125 mph with an accuracy of 52 cm, combined with an average quality in return shots, guarantees an untouchable performance of 80% of points won on the first serve. If the quality is that of Sinner’s serving machine, even less will suffice.

Continuing with the quality of the service shown by Sinner, another data point that deserves further exploration is that of unreturned serves, where the opponent fails to return the serve back into play. Here too, Jannik performed exceptionally well, with aces and opponents’ missed returns bringing home an impressive 40% in 2023 and an exceptional 42% in 2024. Remember, in tennis, variations of 1% can make the difference between a solid top ten player and a Grand Slam title winner. To put it in perspective, the ATP average is 38%.

Source: @Tennisinsight

Finally, to conclude the chapter on the serve, one last piece of data, which we’ve kept in reserve for the most deserving who have persisted in reading up to this point; do you know what the percentage of first serve balls on break points was in 2023? And in 2024? Well, we’ll present it to you in a table, and we’ll add nothing more:

Source: TenniViz on TDI Data

In 2023, when serving on break points, the first serve landed much less than usual in crucial moments. In 2024, however, the Italian did not lose his composure at all, serving as if it were any other point… not bad at all.

Performance in rallies: in this case, we rely on [metrics developed by TDI and TennisViz, which obviously carry the ATP brand](https://www.atptour.com/en/news/insights-introduction); (bonus: if you happen to watch a match on ATP TV, these advanced metrics are just a click away, in the stats section of the App).

Source: TenniViz on TDIData

It’s notable how Jannik has leveled up both in his ability to convert points where he had the advantage (conversion score) and in managing to seize the initiative from opponents when they were in a favorable position during the rally (steal score). Lastly, the final data point: from the baseline, with the current form of Jannik, it’s tough to come out on top, and if we consider his aptitude for turning defense into offense, the puzzle for his opponents is almost unsolvable. Indeed, this explains the overwhelming 56% of points won from the baseline, significantly above the ATP average. This data also finds an explanation in a significant tactical adjustment, the more pronounced use of the down-the-line backhand variation. The backhand crosscourt is already a comfort zone for Sinner, which he can comfortably use to extract points, like a boxer working his opponent with jabs; if we add that now Sinner is also able to find the down-the-line solution at the right moment, again, it spells trouble for his opponents. In 2023, Sinner hit 19.5% of his backhands down the line, while in 2024 this percentage rose to 31.4% in the Rotterdam tournament. A change that helped him tip the scale further in his favor in baseline battles.

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Juan Carlos Ferrero Remaining Positive Despite Carlos Alcaraz’s Poor Form

Juan Carlos Ferrero remains confident of Carlos Alcaraz’s abilities despite his poor form.

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Juan Carlos Ferrero is looking on the positive side despite Carlos Alcaraz’s poor form.

After winning Wimbledon last year, many people thought that Carlos Alcaraz would dominate the ATP tour over the next year.

However since then, Alcaraz has lost his world number one ranking with the Spaniard not winning a trophy since capturing his second Grand Slam title at SW19.

There are concerns that Alcaraz’s form is dipping with Jannik Sinner potentially overtaking him in potential to challenge Novak Djokovic at the big events.

Despite the lack of titles to Alcaraz’s name, there is no reason to worry for coach Juan Carlos Ferrero as he is confident that the Spaniard’s lack of form is normal, “He has been achieving good results,” Ferrero claimed in an interview with Marca.

“The Cincinnati tournament was a shame because we were one point away. At the US Open, he made the semi-finals. When you play with such good people, it is difficult to win every tournament.

“For any player, not winning tournaments can affect your confidence level. For very good players, it is important to achieve the results that one sets in their path. Of course Carlos wants to win, but I see him well, I don’t see him with any type of desire, and that is very important.

“He doesn’t have the stress of I want to win, I want to win. He wants to do things well and wants to improve in every aspect that he can, and at 20 years of age there are many. The objectives are there. Every tournament that goes, the objective is to achieve a good result.

“And if he is physically well, a great result for him is to win. When you have that level and that potential, it is not bad to think that. Then, when you don’t get it, you have to know how to manage it and come out just as motivated.”

Ferrero brings a great level of experience and composure to the Alcaraz team having been in the Spaniard’s position many times when he was a player.

The Spaniard’s experience is evident as he claimed that failure isn’t a bad thing for Alcaraz to go through, “Not every year you can win six or seven tournaments and that doesn’t mean it will be a failure,” Ferrero was quoted by tennis 365 as saying.

“[Michael] Jordan and Tiger [Woods] didn’t win every Grand Slam and every ring every year. We cannot call that a failure. There are many positive things in a year even if you have earned less.

“You may have evolved in aspects that can be useful for the future. That’s where we are. The most important thing is that he is happy, that he trains well, that traveling makes him happy and from there he generates good tennis, which is what he loves. We all agree on that.”

Alcaraz will look to return to his best when he looks to defend his title in Indian Wells which starts on the sixth of March.

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Daria Kasatkina And Alejandro Davidovich Fokina Lead Calls For VAR In Tennis

There have been calls for VAR to be introduced into the sport.

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Daria Kasatkina and Alejandro Davidovich Fokina have called for VAR to be implemented in tennis.

The calls have came after Andrey Rublev was disqualified from his semi-final with Alexander Bublik in Dubai.

As Bublik lead 6-5 in the final set, Rublev shouted in the face of an umpire allegedly swearing in Russian which was picked up by one of the officials.

This saw Rublev be disqualified from the event with Bublik reaching the final in Dubai.

However as a result of the incident players have called for a VAR review system with the video showing inconclusive proof of whether Rublev did swear in Russian.

Leading the calls for such innovation are Daria Kasatkina and Alejandro Davidovich Fokina as the duo called for VAR to be introduced on twitter, “So you can just disqualify a player, take away all his points and money, without even checking the video? What a joke, yet another confirmation that we need VAR in tennis and an electronic appeal system in all tournaments,” Kasatkina said on social media.

VAR has been implemented in football and also a similar system in rugby with mixed results.

It’s clear though that more technology would help umpires identify whether a grounds for disqualification would be necessary.

So far VAR has been trialled at the Next Gen Finals and the Nitto ATP Finals.

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