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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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Ralston was also unlucky. He took a bad rap as a troublemaker, and it stuck with him largely because he looked the part and because of the name Dennis the Menace. Guys named Chuck and Butch and Barry probably misbehaved just as badly on the Freed teams, but there was no cartoon character to rhyme them with. Besides, when Ralston concentrates, his soft blue eyes fade into his cliff forehead and his mouth does strange things, none of them attractive, and he appears to be scowling.

"He was such a perfectionist," Dell says. "If Denny made five great shots and the sixth nicked the tape, that would infuriate him. I picked him as coach because I hoped that he could take that perfectionism and channel it into improving other players."

While it startled many that Dell would want to ally himself with such a suspect temperament, he appreciated that Ralston's inordinate devotion to an ideal could manifest itself in positive ways: lasting loyalty and an abiding concern with fairness. Unfortunately, none of these things necessarily did much for Ralston when he was hustling around as a player in the superficial nowhere world of big-time tennis.

He is—as they say of horses—a bad shipper, possessing an obsessive, almost masochistic, relationship with airplanes. If he ever does go down, the worst part will be that he will not be able to say, "I told you so." This macabre preoccupation increased after Osuna was killed on a flight that slammed into the top of a mountain, missing clearance by a mere three feet.

Ralston never liked to travel anywhere in any way, and was invariably homesick. Since Wimbledon and Forest Hills are only rarely scheduled in Bakersfield, his game suffered. Bakersfield, at the base of the San Joaquin Valley, 100 miles northeast of Los Angeles, is a city of 70,000 but by the standards of an urban nation it resembles the small town of lore. We say nobody comes from small towns anymore, but they do; it is just that the small towns are larger. Bakersfield is at the confluence of many primary American strains: the cotton of the South; the oil of the Southwest; the oranges of the subtropics; the heat and the trucks of a Midwest summer; the grapes of wrath and Cesar Chavez. It is not surprising that Madison Avenue employs Bakersfield as a model pretest market town or that country music took hold there. Ralston won first prize, a red-white-and-blue guitar, in Buck Owens' golf invitational there last year.

All the players would always kid Ralston about how he could love this sere, plain place and so happily retreat to it. Ralston would even fly home from Texas when he had a day off in the middle of a tournament. The short stay would rejuvenate him, especially after he and Linda, a Bakersfield girl, were married in 1964.

Almost from the first, as they discuss it easily now, the marriage worked at cross-purposes to his career. Although the two have been devoted to each other, Linda had only a passing interest in tennis; and once the novelty wore off, she came to detest travel. "I know how selfish I was then," she says, "but I'm just the sort of person who needs her own things—my own house, my own family, my own room, you know, even my own bathtub." She stayed home to raise her family. He would phone her, interminably he would phone her, and talk of everything at home. Finally, he would have to say, "Aren't you going to ask me how I did?"

"Oh, yeah, how'd you do?"

"I won 6-0, 6-2."

"Oh, that's great." And no more. It would only make Ralston want to get back home faster. He is a fully domesticated animal. This spring, when the team played in Mexico, he took his oldest daughter Angela, who is seven, along for company.

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