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Frank Deford
September 03, 1973
Dennis Ralston never lived up to his early promise of becoming the next Budge, Kramer or Gonzales but, though less a player, he was more a man than anyone perceived
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September 03, 1973

Dennis, No Longer A Menace

Dennis Ralston never lived up to his early promise of becoming the next Budge, Kramer or Gonzales but, though less a player, he was more a man than anyone perceived

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In a very real way, though, places like Barcelona with their catastrophes became the playing fields of Eton for the present U.S. team. Ralston has served under so many captains and coaches in such trying circumstances that he has seen what works best. Bob Kelleher, for instance, was no tennis tactician during his reign as captain in 1962-63, but Ralston appreciates now how profound Kelleher was at handling variant personalities. Donald Dell was a master at organization and public relations.

"You can develop a team attitude if you have time enough," Ralston says. "In Rumania last year, after Tom Gorman lost the second match, we were really down. A couple guys said to hell with it, let's not play. They're gonna steal it anyway. Harold Solomon was the guy Gorman beat out, but he was the one who stood up and said, 'No, we got to go out there and win the cup for one guy, for Gorman.' "

By contrast, many U.S. teams in the past had no such rapport, or spirit. When Dave Freed was captain in 1960-61 he used to amuse the players with magic tricks. "Hey, Dave, make yourself disappear," they would hoot back at him. Pancho Gonzales was coach at a time when he was fading and insecure as a player, jealous of the very people he was supposed to be teaching. George MacCall was so tense as captain that he made his own players nervous and, ultimately, had to be physically restrained in the middle of a match from getting near a player and upsetting him further.

Ralston is surely no less emotional than Gonzales or MacCall, but precisely because he did play under them he knows he must keep the volcano capped. "He's probably tighter than all of us," Solomon says, "but he just puts on that fake little smile and then, if things are really tough during a match, he'll start shifting chairs too." Significantly, in the bedlam at Bucharest it was Ralston, the old scourge of the courts, who calmed Smith—a person Ralston lionizes for possessing "more faith and inner peace than any player in the world."

"To tell you the truth, I was going nuts," Smith says, "but whenever I'd cross over, Denny still had his cool."

Although Ralston took over as coach when he was only 25, he never experienced any difficulty in bossing his contemporaries. Dell, the captain who appointed him, was only a few years older than the players, and Dell made it clear that Ralston was in full command on the practice courts. In the first workout Ralston ordered wind sprints: Clark Graebner fell out after the first one, advising Dell that it was bad for his back. Dell told Graebnerto inform Ralston. He did. Ralston ordered Graebner to run double sprints. Since that day there has been no threat to his authority.

Ralston is a disciplinarian who nonetheless works hard for his team, squeezing blood out of the USLTA stone. With annoyance and even some bitterness, he recalls how regularly he was slighted as a player and mistreated by the brass when he was struggling to salvage the honor of America for $28 a day "expenses." At Cleveland in the Challenge Round of 1964 the Australians had a glorious bucket of ice and fresh oranges to use during the crossovers. For Ralston there was only "a warm Coke sitting in the dirt." Vic Seixas, the captain that year, invited the McKinleys and Ralstons out to dinner a few days before the matches put $50,000 in the USLTA coffers, then required the two stars to ante up, to a penny, their portions of the check. U.S. Davis Cuppers make more representative weekly salaries now, but still not so much as to ease the pain when a kid like Jimmy Connors turns down a probable backup role on the squad to rip off easy big prize money at depleted tournaments lacking the best players. Camaraderie is one consolation: Ralston features team dinners, parties, gifts of clothing, even team skits and team vacations. "They would have told me I spent too much money last year if we had lost," he says.

Ultimately, however, the captain is not judged so much by his ability to get on with the team at social events as by how well he performs at courtside. Even the most successful captain in history, Harry Hopman, has been twitted behind his back by some of his old Aussies, who report that often when the chips were down Hopman offered such scintillating technical advice as "Get your first one in" or "Hit for the alleys." But at least he never lost presence. And then there was that pep talk Ralston can remember getting from MacCall when, exhausted and down 4-1 to Gisbert in the final set at Barcelona, MacCall said: "You got him now." O.K., General Custer.

By contrast, Ralston has been remarkably keen in the clutch. When a player is going poorly, he is able to rationally examine every component in a stroke to divine what has gone awry. For instance, when Solomon was serving badly in his first cup match against Mexico in 1972 Ralston finally decided that a bad toss was the problem, and informed Solomon at a crossover to correct the motion. It sounds elementary, but in the heat of battle few captains are able to isolate such intricacies. Ralston claims that the U.S. gains a significant edge with careful preparation and is the only nation to employ sophisticated scouting techniques. Tennis players have always had lines on opponents—play to his backhand, lob him, those obvious basics—but Ralston and the Americans are making a science of tennis scouting for the first time. Nastase, for example, was played—and beaten—by Smith off a Ralston scouting report—he was made to do something he continued didn't want to do. And now Ralston can actually say things like: "Down love-30, Emerson will serve wide to the forehand 85% of the time." Seven years ago, when he stepped on the court before the finals of Wimbledon, he had not given a thought to how he would play for the championship of the world. "Zilch," he says, somewhat apologetically.

There is great irony that there was no one like Dennis Ralston to take care of Dennis Ralston when he needed it. Yet it was not only the mandarins of the game who failed him; he himself was a willing accomplice. Arthur Ashe recalls the early Ralston with mixed emotions. "People expected too much of Denny and me. It was for different reasons, but we had the same monkey on our backs. From 17 on, Dennis was to be the greatest, the next Gonzales, and when he couldn't live up to that, it frustrated him terribly. But Denny let himself get caught, too. There's a black expression: 'Know where he's coming from.' There was no question that Dennis was spoiled where he was coming from."

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