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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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Madrid Open Daily Preview: Ash Barty and Aryna Sabalenka Meet in a Second Consecutive Final

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Aryna Sabalenka has steamrolled her way to Saturday’s final (twitter.com/MutuaMadridOpen)

Just 13 days ago in Stuttgart, Barty and Sabalenka competed in the championship match, with Barty coming back from a set down to win the title, claiming 12 of the last 15 games.  On Saturday, Sabalenka looks to avenge that loss, and even their head-to-head at 4-4.  The women’s doubles championship will also be decided, between two of the top three seeds.

 

On the men’s side, the singles and doubles semifinals will be played.  Sascha Zverev hit a subpar Rafael Nadal right off the court on Friday, and just 24 hours later will try to take out the next-best clay courter of the last few years, Dominic Thiem.  Saturday will be a busy day for Zverev, as he’s also a semifinalist in doubles.  In the other singles semifinal, Matteo Berrettini and Casper Ruud will do battle, with the winner achieving their first Masters 1000 final. 

Throughout the tournament, this preview will analyze the two most prominent matches of the day, and note the other intriguing matchups on the schedule.  Saturday’s play will begin at 1:30pm local time.

Dominic Thiem (3) vs. Sascha Zverev (5) – Not Before 4:00pm on Manolo Santana Stadium

This will be their first encounter since their dramatic, yet rather ugly US Open final, where Thiem came back from two sets down to eventually prevail in a fifth set tiebreak.  Overall Dominic leads their head-to-head 8-2, and 4-1 on clay.  The Austrian has claimed their last four meetings, with Zverev’s last victory coming in the final of this event three years ago.  

Both men struggled with some nagging injuries prior to this event, but both have looked sharp to this stage.  Thiem overcame a one-set deficit on Friday against John Isner, while Zverev is yet to drop a set.  Defeating Nadal on clay is always a big achievement, especially when it’s your first time doing so.  It will be interesting to see if Sascha can maintain his high level from a day prior.  Zverev struck 28 winners on Friday, compared to only six by Nadal.

In last year’s US Open final, the winner of each set was the player who won a higher percentage of first serve points.  If you’re Sascha Zverev, there has to be some baggage from blowing a two-set lead in his first career Major final.  In a rivalry that has strongly favored Thiem, I like the reigning US Open champion to reach his third final in Madrid.

Ash Barty (1) vs. Aryna Sabalenka (5) – Not Before 6:30pm on Manolo Santana Stadium

They’ve already met twice this year, in Miami and Stuttgart, with Barty taking both matches in a third set by a score of 6-3.  In their Stuttgart final, converting break points was a key difference.  Barty broke five times, while Sabalenka only claimed two out of 10 break points.  That exemplifies the composure of the world No.1, who has won 16 out of her last 18 deciding sets. 

Sabalenka hasn’t faced a deciding set this fortnight, as she’s been dominating all competition.  No opponent has claimed more than three games in a set.  Aryna has spent about three less hours on court than Barty, though that shouldn’t be a significant factor on Saturday.  Both players had a day of rest on Friday, and comfortably won their Thursday semifinals in straight sets.

Barty has amassed several impressive streaks: 9 straight match wins, 16 straight on red clay, and 10 straight victories over top 10 opposition.  She’s also prevailed in 10 of her last 12 finals.  Similarly, Sabalenka has won seven of her last nine finals.  Yet as impressive as the Belarusian has been, winning 32 of her last 38 matches, she’s only 1-3 during that span against the top 10.  If these two go the distance again, it’s harder for Sabalenka to maintain her level than Barty.  And Ash possesses many more backup plans in her arsenal.  In what should be another tight contest, I give the slight edge to Barty to earn her fourth title of the year.

Other Notable Matches on Saturday:

Matteo Berrettini (8) vs. Casper Ruud – Berrettini is on a seven-match win streak, dating back to his title run two weeks ago in Belgrade.  Ruud is into his third consecutive Masters 1000 semifinal on clay, and all 14 of his wins at this level have come on this surface.  Casper has been serving spectacularly, as he’s yet to be broken at this event, facing only one break point thus far.  They’ve split two previous meetings, with the clay court clash going to Ruud in straight sets, two years ago at Roland Garros.

Barbora Krejcikova and Katerina Siniakova (2) vs. Gabriela Dabrowski and Demi Schuurs (3) – Krejcikova and Siniakova won the Gippsland Trophy earlier this season, and reached the final of the Australian Open.  This is the first tournament for Dabrowski and Schuurs as a team.

Nikola Mektic and Mate Pavic (2) vs. Sander Gille and Joran Vliegen – Mektic and Pavic have now won 31 of 34 matches since teaming up for 2021.  Their Belgian opponents won the Singapore Open earlier this year, then went on a five-match losing streak before reaching the final of Munich last week.

Marcel Granollers and Horacio Zeballos (3) vs. Tim Puetz and Sascha Zverev – Granollers and Zeballos are looking to reach their second final of the season.  This is Puetz and Zverev’s second event this season as a team.  In Miami, the Germans defeated Granollers and Zeballos in straight sets.

Saturday’s full Order of Play is here.

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Alexander Zverev Powers Past Erratic Nadal To Set Thiem Showdown

Alexander Zverev secured his best win of his career on a clay court by beating Rafael Nadal in Madrid.

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Alexander Zverev (@ATPTour_ES - Twitter)

Alexander Zverev powered past an erratic Rafael Nadal 6-4 6-3 to reach the semi-finals in Madrid.

 

After a slow start Zverev produced some stunning tennis to knock out the five-time champion Nadal, who had an error-prone day at the office.

The German will now play Dominic Thiem in the last four in a rematch from the 2018 final.

It was the 20-time grand slam champion who started off the fastest as he looked to target the Zverev forehand early with uncomfortable spins and heights.

Eventually Nadal would get his rewards for an accurate tactical game-plan as a Zverev double fault handed him the break.

However that advantage was to be short-lived as the first point of the seventh game would change the momentum of the match with Nadal putting in simple unforced errors especially on the forehand side.

The German took advantage as he used his backhand to dictate points from the baseline. Furthermore, Zverev used his superior net play to his advantage by shortening the points and creating a faster tempo.

An unusual first set from Nadal’s perspective was complete as the fifth seed reeled off four games in a row to seal the opening set 6-4.

At the start of the second set, the Spaniard tried to up his level and intensity as he used some drop-shots at unexpected moments and attempted to bring the crowd into the match.

Despite this Nadal’s return game was lacking its usual ferocity as he couldn’t capitalise on Zverev’s second serves.

There was a lack of confidence in the Spaniard when implementing effective patterns of play as Zverev had a lot of success dictating play and winning the baseline and net rallies.

Another break in the fifth game ensured that Zverev’s dominance was being rewarded.

Although a double break advantage was denied, Nadal couldn’t deny victory for Zverev as the German sealed his first clay court victory over the ‘King of Clay.’

After the match Zverev admitted it was one of the biggest wins of his career, “Definitely one of the biggest wins of my career so far, especially on clay against Rafa. It is the toughest thing to do in our sport,” Zverev said in an on-court interview.

“Beating him in his house, in Spain, is incredible but the tournament is not over yet.”

Lots to ponder for Nadal as an error-prone performance sees him looking to improve in Rome next week.

As for the German, he sets up a 2018 final rematch with Dominic Thiem in the last four as he secured his best victory on this surface of his career.

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Dominic Them reaches semifinal in Madrid after three-set battle with Isner

Dominic Thiem is into the Madrid semi-finals after an impressive three set win over John Isner.

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Dominic Thiem (@atptour - Twitter)

The Austrian booked his spot in the semifinals after coming back to beat the American in three sets.

 

Dominic Thiem needed one hour and 55 minutes to beat the world number 39 John Isner in three sets 3-6, 6-3, 6-4 hitting 20 winners in the win while his opponent hit 26 unforced errors.

“We all know that he is one of the best servers in history and this altitude in Madrid makes it even tougher to return his serve but I was a little bit surprised by his return games, I think he attacked both my first and second serves and it took me a while to get used to it and I think the match changed when I saved those three breakpoints in the second set”.

It was the American who got off to the faster start holding his opening service game and then going on the offensive earning a breakpoint the following game and taking an early 2-0 lead.

The Greensboro, North Carolina native had a chance to go up a double break but the world number four saved both breakpoints he faced and managed to hold his first service game of the match.

That break was enough for the American to serve out the first set and he was one set away from the semifinals.

The second set stayed on serve until 2-2 when the Dallas, Texas resident had four breakpoints but failed to convert and the match was starting to turn with the American looking gassed.

In the next game the Austrian had three breakpoint and converted for his first break of the match as he served out the second set to send it to a deciding third set.

Isner was put under pressure early in the third set facing a breakpoint in the first game of the set but managed to save it and hold serve and it stayed on serve until 4-4.

That’s when the world number four earned two chances to break and on the second time of asking he would break and served out the match to book a date with either Alexander Zverev or Rafael Nadal.

After his match in an on court interview he gave this thoughts on a potential matchup with either Nadal or Zverev.

“It’s going to be a good one, I’ve played two big matches here against Rafa ( Nadal) and one big match against Sascha ( Zverev), and against either one of them it’s going to be an incredible challenge and it’s going to be exciting tomorrow”.

With the loss today by Isner when the new rankings come out on Monday it will be the first time in the open era and since the rankings came out that an American will not feature in the top 30 players in the world.

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