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Steve Flink: Conversation with Dennis Ralston

12/24/2007 9:31:00 PM

by Steve Flink 

        As a player who climbed to the top of the American tennis mountain in the 1960’s---, winning the Wimbledon doubles title at 17 in 1960, leading the U.S. to victory in the Davis Cup in 1963, garnering the No. 1 U.S. ranking from 1964-66—he made it all look so easy. His strokes were absolutely pure, his game remarkably well rounded, his tactical instincts excellent. Moreover, he had a picture book forehand volley that was as exquisite as anyone has ever produced. After knee injuries shortened his playing career, he became coach and then captain of the U.S. Davis Cup team. Thereafter, he established himself as one of the leading coaches of the modern era, working with the likes of Dick Stockton, Roscoe Tanner, and Harold Solomon in the 1970’s, guiding Chris Evert in the 1980’s, helping Yannick Noah and Gabriela Sabatini in the 1990’s.

Dennis Ralston has been a pivotal figure in his country and around the world for a long time. At 65, he remains at the top of his game, teaching and doing clinics for nine months a year at the Mission Hills Country Club in Rancho Mirage, California and working an additional eight weeks at the Broadmoor resort in Colorado Springs. I spoke with Ralston over the phone recently, and was reminded that his understanding of the game knows no bounds. He has always recognized that simplicity is the essence of effective teaching. 

                Asked to describe the most significant contribution of his lifetime in tennis, Ralston responds, “I have been blessed to have been part of the game for more than five decades. I have always loved the game.  I give one hundred percent to my work. I really enjoy teaching and feel my strength is to help people at every level of the game, from the 3.0 player to the top level pro. I honestly think there aren’t many teachers that can handle that kind of a range with players. I am proud of that.”

                As well he should be. Ralston’s vast experience has enabled him to continuously hone his craft. It started with his days on the court, and it was in the 1963 Davis Cup Final against Australia on grass in Adelaide that Ralston defined who he was. On opening day of that Challenge Round, the 21-year-old Ralston upended John Newcombe 6-4, 6-1, 3-6, 4-6, 7-5. The next day he joined Chuck McKinley to win the doubles over Roy Emerson and Neale Fraser in four sets, and then McKinley clinched the triumph for the Americans by ousting Newcombe on the final day. Ralston’s victory over Newcombe was perhaps the most celebrated moment of his career.

                As he recollects, “It was an exciting time for all of us to win the Davis Cup because we had worked so hard as a team. I liken that six month campaign that our captain Bob Kelleher put together for us to our 1972 campaign when I was captain. I will never forget my match point against Newcombe. He hit a big first serve to my backhand and I just drilled it down the line. He never even moved. I found out later that Newcombe told people that he felt he should have won that match but I disagree. At the time I was a better player than he was.”

                As if Ralston had not already been sufficiently motivated to help his country capture the Cup, he was even more keyed up because of some derogatory remarks made about him by the renowned Australian Davis Cup captain Harry Hopman. As Ralston points out now, “I always remember Hopman saying in a newspaper column that I wasn’t any good. He was just playing mind games, trying to make me think I couldn’t play. That made me more determined. When I walked on the court for the presentation ceremony, I looked over at Hopman and was thinking , ‘So, you still think I can’t play?’. And he didn’t say a word to me.”

                Three years later, Ralston reached his only Wimbledon singles final against Spain’s Manuel Santana, who had won the U.S. Championships the previous September at Forest Hills. Nevertheless, Ralston, having toppled Santana 6-4, 6-3 at Queen’s Club only three weeks earlier, was the clear favorite to win on the Centre Court. But Santana stopped Ralston in straight sets.

                What went wrong? “Looking back,” he answers, “I wasn’t fired up the way I needed to be. I was thinking a lot about how I had to stay calm and not give people a reason to say I was a bad sport, rather than just getting out there and putting everything I had into it. I had no intensity. The only time I got mad was after the match when all of the photographers were running over my bag at courtside and practically running over me to get pictures of Santana. I thought I would have another chance to win Wimbledon but I was never again one hundred percent physically when I played there.”

                Four years later, in 1970, Ralston played perhaps the best match of his career at the U.S. Open, bringing down the great Rod Laver in a five set, round of 16 collision. “Riding the subway back into New York City after that win over Laver, I am thinking, ‘This is pretty cool.’ I felt like I had won the tournament. In my next match, I fell apart against Cliff Richey. I just wasn’t jacked up. So when I got into coaching, the losses to Santana at Wimbledon and Richey at the Open always stuck out to me because I was flatter than a pancake for both. I tried to use those experiences to make sure that did not happen to the players I was coaching.”

                By 1968, however, Ralston was already shifting into the coaching realm. He took over that year as U.S. Davis Cup coach alongside Captain Donald Dell, and stayed in that job through 1971, becoming captain himself the following season. In that capacity Ralston shined, displaying outstanding leadership qualities. He remembers, “It was a good transition for me from playing. I got to run the practices for Arthur Ashe, Stan Smith, Bob Lutz and others. We really worked hard and had good team camaraderie.”

                 And yet, as well as he wore the robe of coach, the captaincy was an even better fit for Ralston. His rookie year in that post was an extraordinary journey not just for the team, but for the man himself. Ralston knew he had been labeled a “hothead” as a player because he was such a tough and often unforgiving critic of himself. As captain, he was the model of self restraint and dignity, giving the players the benefit of his considerable wisdom while setting a superb example. When the U.S. took on Romania in Bucharest in the 1972 Davis Cup Final, Ralston was exemplary.

                 His players were subjected to one flagrantly bad call after another by linesmen who clearly were cheating for the Romanian stars Ilie Nastase and Ion Tiriac, and the American team had been largely sequestered at their hotel after a threat from the Black September terrorist organization. On top of that, the Americans were competing on clay, which made the challenge all the more difficult. As Ralston recalls, “We played every match that year away and I think we are the only team to ever win the Cup without playing a match on our home court. When they [the USTA] told us at Forest Hills during the U.S. Open that we were going to play [the final] in Romania because they wanted us to be nice guys and play them over there, even though we did not have to do that, I said, ’Are you kidding?’ We had heard the horror stories of Australia playing in Rumania in the semis and Mal Anderson being reduced to tears on the court. Our guys wanted to protest and not go. It was ridiculous to throw away our home ground but we accepted the challenge.”

                On the opening afternoon that October, Stan Smith, who had only narrowly escaped defeat in the Wimbledon final against Nastase on grass before prevailing 7-5 in the fifth set, took apart his jittery rival in straight sets to put the U.S. ahead 1-0. Then Tom Gorman built a two set to love lead over Tiriac, but the burly Rumanian, stalling all the way, orchestrating the crowd to buy extra time between points, exploiting countless bad calls against the American, came back for a five set win. Gorman and the U.S. had the match stolen from them right before their eyes. And yet, Ralston had been almost unbelievably stable in the midst of the Romanian chaos.

                “Gorman and I were stunned when we walked off the court,” says Ralston. “We were like deer in the headlights. We were really mad that the match was stolen from us. The only time I almost lost it was one time Tiriac was walking by my chair by the side of the court and he looked at me, making this gesture with his hands, as if he was trying to say that all of the bad calls were not his fault. I said some not very nice things to Tiriac as he was changing sides, called him every name in the book. I had Gorman’s racket sitting there beside me. I was mad at what was going on and twice as mad at Tiriac for pulling his shenanigans. I was thinking if Tiriac makes one move toward me I am going to deck him with that racket. And he looked at me like he wanted to say, ’Are you out of your mind?’ But then he just walked away. There would have been a riot and we would have all been pummeled or worse. That was as close as I came to losing my cool during the whole tie. I am glad I was able to keep calm.”

 The next day, Smith and Erik van Dillen demolished a bickering Nastase and Tiriac in straight sets. The U.S. was ahead 2-1. When Smith took on Tiriac the final day, Tiriac and the linesmen were back to their deviousness. Smith took a two sets to one lead despite the blatant cheating that was taking place, but during the ten minute locker room break, Ralston was worried.“Stan looked ashen and white and worn out,” Ralston reflects. “I told him we could do this,  that he needed only one more set and we could win the Davis Cup. But then Stan lost the fourth set and went down 0-40 on his serve early in the fifth. I thought that was it, we were going to lose, Stan was too tired. But he served three aces and two unreturnables and won that game. From then on he was like Superman. He won 6-0 in the fifth. What a feeling that was.”

                It was undoubtedly Ralston’s finest hour, a triumph of the spirit, and every bit as much a victory for him as for his players. After he left the captaincy in 1975, he went out on the tour and did great things for the likes of Stockton and Tanner, who reached the Wimbledon final and lost to Borg in five sets in 1979. “I was one of the first guys out there travelling with players,” recalls Ralston. “The important thing I came to understand is that everybody is different and all of the players don’t have the same personalities or games, so you can’t make everybody do the same thing on and off the court. It broadened my understanding of the players.”

                It was in 1981 that Ralston began his enormously successful seven year run with Evert. She had already secured 11 Grand Slam singles championships before Ralston became her coach, but the Floridian took seven more majors while the savvy Ralston was working with her and adding dimensions to her game. “What I saw in Chrissie was that she was maybe more dedicated than anybody I have ever been associated with as a coach. Her commitment to being excellent and being the best was incredible. I remember she went through a phase of wondering whether she would ever be competitive with Martina Navratilova after Martina beat her 13 times in a row [from 1982-85]. I just tried to keep telling her that she needed come in as often as she could on Martina’s backhand, to learn the forehand topspin lob, and to improve her second serve. Chrissie did all of those things. Finally she beat Martina in an exhibition in Portland and she called me up and said, ‘I came in on every short ball and you are right. It works.’ And from that time on she held her own with Martina. Chrissie showed that to be a good athlete you don’t have to be hugely strong. Those were great years.”

                In the 1990’s, Ralston devoted some time to coaching Yannick Noah and Gabriela Sabatini, but neither pupil had the all consuming desire and immense professionalism of Evert. Of Noah, he says, “I think I had the most fun with Yannick, who is such a character. He had fallen in the rankings when I started with him in 1989 but he worked really hard for six months. He started off 1990 really well, beating Ivan Lendl in the finals of Sydney. Then he made it to the semifinals of the Australian Open. If he had won that match he would have cracked the top ten in the world and I would have received a bonus that would have been huge for me. But Yannick got a bad call on the third point of the match and he was furious. From then on he basically didn’t even try and Lendl beat him in straight sets. I found out later that he had a fight the night before with his girlfriend and had been up all night arguing with her.”

                As Ralston remembers, Noah went on a losing streak, dropping seven first round matches in a row. “I started to sense he was losing interest. Later that year he took five weeks off in a row and he never came back even close to caring the way he had. But he was such a good guy and so pleasant to be around. “

                As for Sabatini, “That was short and sweet,” he says. “I worked with her in 1993 and helped her with her serve the most. She got to the finals of Rome and then the finals over in Germany, losing 6-4 in the third to Graf. Then she goes to the French Open and has a 6-1, 5-1 lead against Mary Joe Fernandez in the quarters and loses. Gabby was inconsolable. She couldn’t recover from that match.”

                These days, Ralston has some special students he works with, in some cases periodically, in other instances more regularly. One player he has coached in recent years is the Serbian Dusan Vemic, a 31-year-old with one of the biggest serves in the world. “I started with him when he was 27,” says Ralston, “and I said from the beginning he should be a top 50 player. He moved this past year from No. 400 up to No. 150. He should have a good chance to break into the top 100. I have never gotten a dime from him but I knew he could not afford to pay me. He was taking ten hour bus rides to get to tournaments. I look back at people who helped me and didn’t have to, so this is a way I can repay the game.”

                He also assists identical twins Alex and Ian Van Cott from New York. “They have only been playing for three-and-a-half years but they are doing well. This is their first year in the 14s. They ended up in the top 50 in the country in the 12s. They want to be like the Bryan brothers but they are not going to be as physically dominating. I spend six to eight weeks a year working with them.”

                Meanwhile, Ralston understandably wishes the USTA would stop turning almost exclusively to former tour players as they build for the future in player development. He laments, “Just because you have played the tour doesn’t mean you are adept at teaching or that you have the skills. The USTA should not look at this as a ‘Good Old Boys’ shop. Guys like me have been doing it for quite a while and know a lot about the game.  One of the knocks I have heard about me is that ‘Ralston is old school and is not up to the current stuff.’ Well, I watch the current stuff and I know what is going on. I know we don’t need to have our kids using these weird grips, extreme westerns with the hand totally underneath the racket. Topspin is necessary but you have got to teach the kids how to put the ball away too.”

                Ralston finishes that thought, then steps right in for another well directed opinion. “I hear it said that they have to get these kids when they are really young and if they are not great at eight or nine they are not going to be any good. That is baloney. A lot of players develop later. The USTA is not emphasizing college tennis, telling these guys to turn pro instead of playing at least a couple of years of college tennis. College tennis may not be for everybody but it is good for some. If you can’t be the best college player, how are you going to make it on the pro tour? I have never been asked in the last 25 years to be a part of anything helping the USTA other than local stuff. I could still help a lot.”

                Of that there can be no doubt. As a clinician and tactician, as a master of strokes and a man who instills good habits in all of his players, Dennis Ralston has a great deal to offer the USTA or any young players who have the good sense to seek out his help. I have a strong hunch that one of these days he is going to reemerge in a serious way and prove that his enduring and valuable talent must not be ignored any longer.    

Editor’s Note: For those interested in Dennis Ralston’s clinics at Mission Hills, please call 760-992-8137 for more information.

Steve Flink is a weekly contributor to TennisChannel.com

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