“Can you picture in today’s world,” asked senior standout Jimmy Parker, “winning a Wimbledon doubles trophy even before you’ve had a single day in college? That’s just unheard of. You can’t even imagine.”
Well, imagine again.
The singular Denny Ralston, noted Parker, “won the 1960 Wimbledon doubles title, and then trundled off to USC.” Ralston, who passed on December 6 at age 78 from brain cancer in Texas, was a singular figure in American tennis. Known for his will and intensity, he was dubbed “Dennis the Menace,” yet in the locker room he was always known as a man of integrity. Few devoted more to tennis.
A member of the International Tennis Hall of Fame, he reached No. 3 in the world, was the 1966 Wimbledon finalist and for three years in the early 60s was No. 1 in America. The first man to win US doubles titles on four surfaces, he was a member of the WCT’s “Handsome Eight” who were pioneers in pro tennis and his 1970 quarterfinal win over John Newcombe, 19-17, 20-18, 4-6, 21-19, set an Australian record for the longest singles match. And don’t forget, he was the leader of USC’s team from 1962-64, which Inside Tennis ranked No. 1 in history.
Reared in Bakersfield California, Denny was an attacking serve-and-volley player, and even though he was trained by one of the best servers in tennis history, Pancho Gonzales, his own serve was not that imposing. But, says Parker, “No one hit a backhand volley like his, and his forehand volley was not that bad. I played him in the quarters of the NCAA Championships and was lucky to get four games. He was just in another stratosphere. He had a no-nonsense mindset and was very demanding of himself. He was impatient, but not offensive to his opponents.”
Early in his career he was plagued by leg problems. After the first of his eight knee surgeries, he was in a cast for six weeks, and was never the same. He eventually lost the lower half of his leg, and taught tennis with a prosthetic.
He was amazing. His attitude inspired. Ralston who taught at the Broadmoor Hotel and coached SMU, recently reflected on his journey. “In tennis, sometimes you get a few bad calls– you’ve got to keep on. In life, it’s the same thing – you get some knockdowns and you’ve got to get up. It’s a battle. You’ve got to have the right attitude.
“I just have to keep saying, I’’m relearning.’…I’m so thankful that I’m still here because I could have been gone real easy. I feel like I can help people…no matter what level they are.
“A lot of people who have something debilitating to their arm or leg, it’s real easy to withdraw and say, ‘That’s it.’ I faced that, too. But I said, ‘I don’t want to live this way. I want to be active…I like to teach and help.’ And that’s really helped me a lot.”
It’s hard to imagine Roger Federer and Rafa Nadal playing on the same college team. But that’s sort of what happened in the early 60s at USC. The team’s best singles players – roommates Dennis Ralston and Rafael Osuna – played each other in the US Nationals for three straight years, and together won the ’60 Wimbledon doubles crown. He led the US to Davis Cup glory and was the only player to win the NCAA singles and doubles titles back-to-back.
During his playing days, the USTA and other national federations were used to ruling with an iron fist. Ralston was one of many who got sick of their control. Still Denny called it like it was and openly disagreed with the establishment. Not surprisingly, the USTA looked askance at his intense ways, and some dubbed him “the bad boy of tennis.” But his fellow players believed in him and knew he was sincere. Ralston went on to have a highly successful career as a Davis Cup captain. The late Bud Collins recalled, “His coolness and calming manner in the face of an uproarious crowd and patriotic line judges in Bucharest was a highlight of the 1972 Davis Cup victory over Romania.”
But inexplicably, years later a USTA president had Denny’s name removed from the USTA Yearbook. No shrinking violet, Ralston sued and promptly prevailed. He went on to have a storied career in coaching. When Chris Evert was faltering against the newly imposing Martina Navratilova, she asked Ralston to be her coach. Dennis promptly came up with some inventive new attacking tactics which, at least for a while, turned the tide. Ralston was her coach for six years.
Upon his death, Chrissie told Inside Tennis, “Dennis was devoted to his faith, his family, and his tennis…He had a passion and fierce commitment to all three. He was very wise about life, as he didn’t always have an easy path, and very knowledgeable about tennis; particularly in coaching…where he had sharp instincts and a good eye for every aspect of the game. What struck me the most was his love and loyalty to his wife Linda and his children. I often stayed in his home in Dallas while training, and they treated me like family. I saw the respect, love, and commitment they had as a family. I will miss him!”
Late in his life Ralston fought his addiction to painkillers. Still, to the end, he taught tennis players of every stripe. Parker noted, “He had a way of engaging people, and managed to make them better. Dennis put everything he had into the game of tennis.”
One of his students, Amira Cranor, noted, “I took lessons from him every time I visited my daughter…Such a decent man, he treated me, a 70-year-old 3.5 player, like he was preparing me for a Slam. I have such respect for him. RIP coach.”