One day last year when Ralston was away, Linda and the three kids got caught a few miles from home in a massive thunderstorm that loosed a mud slide upon the road. She feels that the family was saved only because they were in the station wagon instead of the small runabout. Although she had always been a Presbyterian (and Dennis an Episcopalian) religion had played no role in her life, but the near tragedy compromised her California-comfortable assurances of existence, and when she saw a sign at a nearby church inviting attendance at a Bible study, she went in.
The church is Mennonite Brethren—an obscure denomination, to be sure—but Linda was immediately affected by what she heard. "I could tell something was different with her the day I got home," Dennis says. Soon he was attending services himself; they both were baptized again (by immersion), and Ralston has subsequently delivered speeches of witness. Bible verses are tacked up about the house, and religious books and tracts dominate the coffee tables. Yet there is nothing to suggest that this is some flashy Pharisean display. The Ralstons' whole life seems to be genuinely defined in terms of their new faith.
"I did not really love Dennis or help him as I should have," Linda says candidly. "I was interested only in myself and in my children."
"But understand, this doesn't bother me," Dennis says, "because perhaps if it had been otherwise I would not have found Christ. I still have a long way to go, but it makes a great difference to at last be out there when you are not alone."
So Dennis Ralston has found his peace, and his niche and, after a knee operation, maybe even 70% of his old mobility too. He will take his tight knee bandages and his Arthur Ashe racket and his scowl to Forest Hills where he will try both the singles and the doubles, in a nostalgic pairing with McKinley. If he plays well there, he will make some additional tournament appearances and, despite all his protests, it is hard not to look a little further ahead and see him sending himself in to play doubles sometime for Uncle Sam. Redemption is fine, but comeback can pay more bills.
"You know, I was so dissatisfied with my life that for a time my position with the Davis Cup team was the one thing that kept me from thinking I had become useless in tennis," he says. He was then only a couple of years removed from the very top of the world game—and still so young—but he stood hurt and forgotten, unseeded on tour, a has-been.
"The last time I played at Forest Hills I lost to a guy named Holecek," Ralston says. "I couldn't bend my knees to hit a low volley, but the most miserable thing was that this was the first time in my life that I had ever entered a tournament knowing that I could not win it. All right, there I was, a hack."
They razz him now, the kids on his team. Tom Gorman said he would not agree to play doubles with him in the Pacific Southwest "until I see how your knees hold up." Erik van Dillen cackles and issues new long-shot odds on any doubles team that Ralston joins in practice. They call him "Vince"—for Lombardi—and he seems wise and old, from another generation, and yet younger and happier than he ever was when he was supposed to be young and happy but had to spend all his time being the next Kramer.
None of us will ever know how good he almost was. He probably knows that least of all himself. "You got to be yourself, Solly," he told Harold Solomon one day before the matches in Little Rock against Chile. Solomon had not been playing well and was down. "You can adapt your style differently to each particular match, but you got to keep playing your game."
"The funny thing is," Solomon said, "I'm playing my best on grass now." He is recognized strictly as a clay-court player.