SI Vault
Jack Olsen
August 26, 1963
American tennis prestige—withering away for four years—was restored to hopeful bloom last weekend on the steamy courts of the Los Angeles Tennis Club. There, before appreciative and pleasantly chauvinistic crowds, U.S. Davis Cup players Chuck McKinley and Dennis Ralston beat the Mexican team that last year had defeated the U.S.
Decrease font Decrease font
Enlarge font Enlarge font
August 26, 1963

U.s. Tennis Is Back On The Center Court

View CoverRead All Articles View This Issue
1 2 3 4 5

Well, Dennis Ralston is, in simple fact, a 6-foot 2-inch 165-pounder who looks like Hiram Hayshaker, parts his short, straight reddish-blond hair neatly on the side, uses greasy kid stuff and has close-set, vivid-blue eyes. Off the court he is courteous and gracious and has as much poise as Prince Philip. He is kind to old ladies and little children (not in the literary sense but in the actual: at buffet dinners he is to be seen helping elderly women carry away their delicacies, and he devotes two days a week, when he is in California, to instructing children under the direction of the Youth Tennis Foundation). He drinks Coke by the quart and eats ice cream by the gallon. He does not smoke, and he confines his serious drinking to an occasional bottle of imported beer, a taste which he acquired at one of his tournaments abroad. He has a dread of flying. A University of Southern California teammate, Bill Bond, says: "He sits by the window so he won't miss any details of the crash. He clenches the seat, he grabs me, he says nervous things, he asks me to feel how his heart is pounding."

But Ralston's busiest hours, in a sense, are from midnight to dawn, when he talks to himself and fights furious battles in his sleep. Says his mother: "Dennis bangs into the wall. All night long it's crash, crash." When he drives, he keeps up a running commentary of annoyance at rotten drivers (rotten drivers are drivers of other cars). And he will cuss out a stoplight for taking too long to change to a shade pleasing to R. Dennis Ralston. His internal life is a symphony of shoulds: "I should get a good night's sleep." "I should concentrate more." "I shouldn't let little things get me down."

Ralston stalks out on the tennis court with a scowl, as if something near by smells bad. He looks mean. It is his normal countenance when he plays. Even his walk is aggressive, like a farm boy who is on his way to town and, by gum, he is not going to be detoured. It is a plodding, functional, pick-'em-up-lay-'em-down walk. The effect is accentuated by the fact that he is a big strong kid with solid legs, heavily muscled thighs and a powerful shoulder development.

When he starts playing, everything is silence until he misses a shot—any shot. Then he begins talking loudly to himself: "Oh, you idiot!" "Gosh, that's just the worst!" "You're so bad it's unbelievable!" "Isn't that just lovely." "God bless it!" When the wind blows one of his lobs out, he will shout: "Thanks, wind, thanks a lot!"

Now, none of this behavior is in the Boy Scout Handbook or the gentleman's code of tennis. And pretty soon Ralston finds the crowd against him. "My attitude on the court," says Ralston ruefully, "is not the crowd-pleasing type, I guess." And although he knows he should not let the crowd bother him, it does. Sometimes his cornucopia of strokes pulls him out; sometimes his annoyance costs him a match he should have won. He has a rationalization for all this: he says he needs to goad himself to raise his game to the necessary pitch. So he cusses himself out when he misses.

Ralston is not, by a long shot, the first tennis player with this attitude. "I've known plenty of great players who looked around for ways to get mad, people to get mad at: their opponents, umpires, anybody or anything," says his USC coach, George Toley. " Bill Tilden would select a line judge and convince himself that the fellow was doing him dirt. Pancho Gonzalez developed his 'hatred' by refusing to travel in the same car with his pro-tour opponents. Even smooth-tempered Ellsworth Vines once acted like a sorehead on the court in a deliberate attempt to build up his temper, until one year he saw George Lott doing the same thing and realized how bad it looked."

The prime difference between Ralston and the others is that his anger is directed only at himself. But tennis fans, like USLTA officials, are not mind readers, and when they see Ralston kick his racket, thump the net or slam a ball over the officials' stand, they are entitled to believe that he is acting like a poor sport and, in effect, insulting his opponent. For this misapprehension, Ralston has had to pay dearly. In fact, his rise to the heights of U.S. amateur tennis was, at one point, seriously jeopardized. Three years ago, playing in a tournament in Australia, Ralston behaved badly. He stomped off the court after losing a singles match, he drove a ball over the stands, because, as usual, he was fed up with his own play and he asked to have a roving photographer removed from the sidelines because the man was impairing his concentration. For these offenses, against the Commonwealth and for other offenses at home, he was placed on a year's probation.

In August 1961 at the American Zone Davis Cup finals in Cleveland, there was more trouble. The referee charged that Ralston smacked the tape so hard it was feared he would break the net; that he used vulgar language; that he was rude to the Mexican captain; that he flung his racket four times and made menacing gestures at the crowd. Others, including Ralston, did not see the incident exactly as the referee. "I did say 'God damn it' when I slipped and fell on my face, and I'm sorry," said Ralston, "but that's about all I did." The USLTA suspended Ralston for four months, or just long enough to keep him from playing in several important tournaments. A fuss went up from all quarters, and for weeks nearly every ranking tennis player in the world was busy signing petitions beseeching the USLTA to change its bureaucratic mind. Included in the signers: the Mexican Davis Cup captain whom Ralston supposedly had insulted.

Ralston went home to Bakersfield and brooded. At one point he decided, childishly, never to represent the U.S. again in a Davis Cup match. At another, he made up his mind to quit tennis altogether. He tried a few half-hearted attempts to explain to the hometown press that he had not really acted so horribly at Cleveland. Then old Perry Jones, who had known him since he was 9 years old, called Ralston to Los Angeles and sat him down in his office at the Los Angeles Tennis Club. "I told him something," says Jones, "that Helen Wills once said right in this office: 'Nobody is interested in how you lose. They're only interested in how you win.' I said, 'Now you've been suspended, and you think it was unfair. And you're right. But you are suspended, and I recommend that you say nothing. Take your punishment! You've been called out at first base. You're out!' After that, and to this very day, he has never complained about that suspension. Not a blessed word. I say people shouldn't call him a poor sport. I say he should get a good sportsmanship award for keeping his mouth shut!"

But keeping his mouth shut did not stop Ralston from brooding, and it was almost two months before his tennis-playing father was able to lure Dennis out on the courts again. The suspension lasted until the beginning of 1962, and then the next affaire Ralston happened. Representing the United States in the Davis Cup doubles in Mexico City, with Chuck McKinley as his partner, Ralston double-faulted 15 times in the first three sets, including five times in a row. The U.S. team lost the doubles to Palafox and Osuna, with Ralston chalking up a grand total of 18 double faults in the five sets. Three or four would have been par. "Ever since then," Ralston says dryly, "all you hear is how I lost the Davis Cup with my double faults. Well, we won two of the first three sets where I double-faulted 15 times. We lost the last two sets where I double-faulted only two or three times." Ralston had a legitimate excuse; a cartilage in his left knee was damaged. (He was operated on shortly thereafter.) But instead of alibiing, he went home. His mother recalled: "Those articles that came out in the papers saying how he lost the Davis Cup, they just about tore him to bits. He was in awful shape. He goes to pieces over something like that. He was talking in his sleep all night. He went over that whole match. He would say, 'I'm gonna get this next point, I've got to get this next point!' I would lie awake and listen to him. He'd say, 'We've got to win this, I've got to get this one back.' He relived the whole thing in his dreams. In the mornings, I would be practically in tears."

Continue Story
1 2 3 4 5