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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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‘I Play For Grand Slams’ – Serena Williams Hails Quarantine Measures Ahead Of Australian Open

The tennis star gives her own view about the quarantine process in Australia.

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Former world No.1 Serena Williams has praised Australian authorities over their handling of the COVID-19 pandemic as she nears her return to professional tennis.

 

The multiple Grand Slam winner is currently conducting her 14-day quarantine process in Adelaide along with her team and family as part of the rules set out by Tennis Australia. All players have been kept inside what has been described as a ‘bubble’ for their first two weeks of arriving in the country before they are allowed to play any tournaments. Those who test positive or are a contact case of somebody who has tested positive for COVID-19 must stay in their rooms at all times.

As a result of the procedures, some players have complained about the conditions and how they have been treated. Spain’s Paula Badosa, who has the coronavirus, says she feels ‘abandoned’ by authorities. The world No.67 has been moved to a health hotel with her coach following the positive test. There has also been some complaints from others over their rooms, food and allegations of preferential treatment for those in Adelaide.

On the other hand, Williams says she has no problems with what she describes as a ‘super intense’ quarantine as she pays tribute to those running the system.

“It’s super, super strict, but it’s really good,” Williams told The Late Show With Stephen Colbert.
“It’s insane and super intense but it’s super good because after that you can have a new normal like we were used to this time last year in the United States.
“It’s definitely hard with a three-year-old to be in the hotel all day, but it’s worth it because you want everyone to be safe at the end of the day.”

The 39-year-old will head to Melbourne Park next week with the goal of trying to tie the all-time record for most Grand Slam titles held by a singles player. It was at the Australian Open where she recorded her last major triumph back in 2017. However, since then Williams has only won one title which was at the ASB Classic 12 months ago. Although she did finish runner-up at four majors between 2018-2019.

“I play right now for Grand Slams and I love to have the opportunity to still be out there and to compete at this level,” she stated.
“It (the Australian Open) was one of my favourite slams growing up. I have so many friends in Melbourne, it’s really nice. Every time I win a Grand Slam it means the world to me so they are all really special.”

Williams’ Grand Slam tally currently stands at 23 which is one behind Margaret Court. Although Court won 13 of her titles prior to the start of the Open Era in 1968 which was when Grand Slams allowed professional players to compete with amateurs.

This Friday Williams will take on Naomi Osaka in the ‘Day at the Drive’ exhibition event in Adelaide.

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‘An Incredible Job’ – Nick Kyrgios Hails Strict Australian Open Quarantine Measures

The outspoken Australian also explains why he believes it is right to publicly criticise top names such as Novak Djokovic.

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Nick Kyrgios says he feels safer playing tennis than last year following a series of COVID-19 measures that have been implemented ahead of the Australian Open.

 

The former top-20 star has hailed the action taken by authorities which has triggered a somewhat mixed response from other players. Those playing in the first Grand Slam of the season are currently going through a 14-day quarantine with 72 players being unable to leave their room after being deemed a close contact of somebody who has tested positive for the virus. A series of positive tests was detected on flights en route to the country.

Although some players have criticised the process with allegations of poor room standards and preferential treatment for the top players who are currently based in Adelaide instead of Melbourne. Spain’s Paula Badosa tested positive for COVID-19 on the sixth day of her quarantine and had symptoms. In a recent interview with the Marca newspaper, Badosa says she feels ‘abandoned’ by authorities during what is the ‘worst experience’ of her career.

However, Kyrgios has hailed the comprehensive approach that has been taken by the authorities. He was one of the few players not to travel to Europe or North America during the second part of last year due to concerns related to the Pandemic. Compatriot Ash Barty was another to do the same.

“In Melbourne, with obviously the bubble, they’ve done an incredible job there. The authorities aren’t letting up and [are] making sure everyone is sticking by the rules,” Kyrgios told CNN.
“I actually feel quite safe. I didn’t really feel safe during last year, traveling and playing overseas, I thought it was a bit too soon to play.
“I think now the conditions are safe enough and everyone is going to work together and make sure we do it the right way.
“I don’t want to put anyone else at risk. I have loved ones that I don’t want to even have the chance to expose to Covid so I think it’s safe enough.”

Renowned for his at times fiery behaviour on the Tour and outspoken tone, the 25-year-old has no intention of changing his habits. Last summer he hit out at a series of his peers over their behaviour during the pandemic and blasted the Adria Tour. An exhibition series co-founded by Novak Djokovic which had to end early following an outbreak of the virus among players and staff members.

Djokovic is one of the players who Kyrgios has criticised the most in recent times. On January 18th he called the 17-time Grand Slam champion a ‘tool’ on Twitter after his letter to Craig Tiley was leaked to the public. Nevertheless, Kyrgios has no regrets over his comments as he feels it is vital to hold the top names accountable as he drew parallels between Djokovic and NBA great LeBron James.

I think it’s very important, especially one of the leaders of our sport. He’s technically our LeBron James,” he said.
“He has to set an example for all tennis players out there and set an example for tennis,”
added Kyrgios. “I think when he was doing some of the things that he was doing during the global pandemic, it just wasn’t the right time.
“I know everyone makes mistakes. Even some of us go off track sometimes but I think we need to hold each other accountable.
“I’m not doing any of this stuff for media attention, these are the morals that I’ve grown up with. I was just trying to do my part.”

Due to a combination of the COVID-19 pandemic and injury, Kyrgios hasn’t played a full competitive match on the ATP Tour since his fourth round loss to Rafael Nadal at the Australian Open almost a year ago.

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The Slow And Successful Rise Of Veronika Kudermetova

Let us look at the long path to success at high levels of the current Russian number two, who just finished as the runner-up in Abu Dhabi.

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Veronika Kudermetova - Roland Garros 2019 (foto Roberto Dell'Olivo)
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While waiting for the end of the Australian quarantine, UbiTennis continues our analysis of the players involved in the first tournament of the year, the WTA 500 in Abu Dhabi.

After the article dedicated to Ekaterina Alexandrova, I shall continue with the Russian line by discussing Veronika Kudermetova. For her, the week in the Emirates was a very positive one, given that for the first time in her career she managed to reach the final of a WTA 500 event (the new denomination of the Premier tournaments, which assign 470 points to the winner). During the tournament, Kudermetova defeated Kontaveit, Turati, Badosa, Svitolina and Kostyuk, losing only to Aryna Sabalenka (who, between the end of 2020 and the beginning of 2021, has an active winning streak of 15 matches). Veronika’s excellent moment is validated by the best ranking she achieved this week at N.36 – had she won the final, she would have become the Russian N.1, overtaking Alexandrova. 

 

It should be emphasized, however, that all the talk about the rankings is muddled by the rules introduced with the pandemic, rules that tend to maintain the status quo, and in fact disfavour up-and-coming players like Kudermetova. Had only the results obtained in 2020 been counted, Veronika would have ended the season ranked 29th instead of 46th. Then, by factoring in the final reached in the UAE last Wednesday, her spot in the Top 30 would have been cemented even further. It might seem senseless to keep referring to a virtual ranking based on past rules (which are slated to come back in March, though), but I think it helps to identify the players who are doing better, despite the many difficulties of the current period. In fact, we know that we are playing less than usual, and this makes it more difficult to build that momentum which, thanks to above average conditions of form and enthusiasm, translates into significant leaps in quality and standing.

As for Kudermetova, there are at least two aspects of her career that, in my opinion, make her particularly interesting: the difficulties she faced to find financial support in her teenage years, and the comparison with her peers born in 1997, a special year for women’s tennis. In fact, Veronika was born in the same year as successful and precocious players such as Bencic, Ostapenko and Osaka, as well as Konjuh (unfortunately stopped by injuries) and Kasatkina, her Russian “twin” with whom she shared the years on the junior tour. Let’s start from those years.

On page 2, Kudermetova’s beginnings 

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