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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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They come up every year, these kids with style and talent and the promise of doing things better than anyone has ever done them before. And then they disappoint us and we reject them, and the tag of "boy wonders" follows them like a smirk down the rest of their days. Perhaps it would be better if they kept a hitch in their swings and some baby fat on their legs until they are really ready to perform in the limelight of press and television.

So say a prayer for the next Nicklaus, the one christened Ben Crenshaw; hope that David Clyde never goes on waivers, like Von McDaniel did; root for Chrissy Evert and Evonne Goolagong, that they will always get better—or else they will spend their lives pursued by the same demons that Jim Ryun and John Thomas could never shake. "There just ain't no place for kids to be lousy anymore," George Burns once said, bemoaning the death of vaudeville, and he might have been speaking of Marty Fleckman or George Mira or Art Heyman or Terry Baker or all the others who turn out to be only so good, but never so great as we felt they should be. Of course, some of the comets at least got into the money before the truth burned them out. But Dennis Ralston went down smoking as an amateur.

Perhaps since so little of it had to do with money. Ralston's tragedy was purer—and that may also be why he could be so quickly redeemed. For now Dennis Ralston has proved the world wrong twice. He was not the next Budge (or Kramer, or Gonzales) as everyone claimed. But then neither was he Dennis the Menace, which seemed just as certain. Ralston was less a player and more a man than anyone perceived—and he knows who got the better of that misconception.

"I haven't any regrets," he says. "Who's to say I'd be where I am now if I'd won lots of Wimbledons and lots of money? Who's to say I'd have my family? Who's to say I'd be happy now? I am happy now, and I wasn't happy then, not even when I was No. 1 and getting all the publicity. But I didn't have any sense of direction then, and I have that now, and let me tell you, it is better than the big money."

Barely into his 30s, and while most of his contemporaries are still playing full time, the infamous Dennis the Menace, celebrated as bad sport, choke artist, malcontent, is concluding his second year in one of the most sensitive positions in American athletics: captain and coach of the Davis Cup team. To the players he is a combination of strategist, diplomat, teacher, boss, friend. Having led the U.S. past Chile and Rumania this month, Ralston now has only the finals against either Australia or Czechoslovakia ahead at Cleveland in December for another successful defense of the cup.

No one in modern times has ever held the dual job that Ralston was given when he was only 29, yet his predecessor as captain, Donald Dell, declares that Ralston is "the best," the best captain and the best coach that the U.S. has ever had. Under Ralston's leadership U.S. teams have won five straight cups. Stan Smith, the team's mainstay, the fellow who has achieved so many of the things on court that Dennis Ralston was supposed to, says, "Denny is so good because he knows exactly what to emphasize. He never goes through the motions. And for some reason he is able to tell others how to do what he was never able to do himself."

One sees him again, a decade ago, the kid from Bakersfield, early in the third act of his tragedy. He is still in college, freckle-faced and spike-haired, still so very vulnerable even after years of being the next Budge/Kramer/Gonzales. He had reached the semifinals at Forest Hills at 18; he had passed up his high school graduation to go to Wimbledon and, with another kid named Rafael Osuna, he had won the doubles championship of the world; with Chuck McKinley he had regained the Davis Cup. He was quick and tall, with a bagful of rich shots. "Mechanically, he had everything," Jack Kramer says now, reneging on none of the rave reviews of that time. "Oh, maybe not enough spin on his second serve, but outside of that—everything."

But it was not to be. In 1964 he lost both his singles matches and the cup. At Forest Hills he never exceeded what he had accomplished as an 18-year-old. At Wimbledon he did reach the finals once, but then fell in straight sets. His knees finally degenerated, to end all pretense to greatness. But even before that it was clear that he would never attain the eminence ordained for him. So the experts turned on him, infuriated that he had dared to cross their judgment. The monster they had created and the monster role that Ralston often assumed himself was destroyed one heavy August afternoon in Barcelona in 1965.

Here he is, at that moment, wandering across the back lawns of the Real Club. In the distance the crowds, roaring still. The No. 1 American has been beaten, routed by an unknown Spaniard named Juan Gisbert in the opening Davis Cup match. Ralston is in peak shape, but he looks drained and haggard. The face reflects more confusion than disappointment. He and his wife see each other and rush together and, though he is much taller, he appears to fall sheepishly into her arms. "It's all right, honey," Linda says, holding his head. "It's all right, it's all right." And there is no doubt, at last, that she is not holding the next anyone, only Dennis Ralston from Bakersfield, Calif.

"Everybody always figured I was so good, they can never understand why I lose," he said soon after. "Look, I'm just no Gonzales, no Kramer."

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