March 2011 -- Dennis Ralston faced a tough decision at the age of 17. He could join his friends at his high school graduation or travel to England and compete in doubles at the Wimbledon Championships.
While the boy from Bakersfield, Calif., was an indomitable junior player, he was not so sure he was ready to step onto the "hallowed grounds" of the All-England Club - alongside his first-time partner.
But with encouragement from his parents and realizing how valuable an experience it would be, Ralston took the challenge. And he's glad he did. Although he missed walking across the stage at his high school graduation, he and his partner, Raphael Osuna of Mexico, stepped up into the Royal Box at Wimbledon to receive their trophies from the Duchess of Kent.
That dream-come-true - and the first of five Grand Slam doubles titles - was only the beginning of a celebrated career. Ralston went on to play NCAA championship tennis at the University of Southern California; lead U.S. Davis Cup teams to victory as both a player and captain; tour with his hero, Pancho Gonzales, and become one of the top players in the world; coach Southern Methodist University teams, as well as players such as Chris Evert, Yannick Noah and Gabriela Sabatini; and earn induction into the International Tennis Hall of Fame.
In stark contrast to those glory days, 2010 was a rough year for this Life Member of USPTA. He developed a bad staph infection after surgery for an old foot injury, and later a bacterial infection that threatened to infiltrate his artificial knee (his playing days left him with bilateral knee implants).
In June he had his left leg amputated below the knee. Yet that wasn't the end of his ordeal. In addition to a couple more surgeries and temporarily using a wheelchair, Ralston, along with family and friends, decided it was time to get off the pain pills he had been taking. So he attended the Betty Ford Center last December.
Ralston came out of rehab both drug-free and "on a mission." He's prepared to talk about the dangers of prescription-drug addiction. He's also ready to help other amputees find inspiration through tennis.
He said he never had any doubt he would return to tennis. In fact, he was recently fitted with a "really cool" prosthetic leg designed especially for tennis and golf by Orthotics and Prosthetic Technologies of Austin, Texas. He's still struggling to regain his own mobility, but feels fortunate to be able to walk.
The former champ said he might eventually try to play some doubles, but right now he is concentrating on learning to get around again - and getting ready to resume teaching.
Ralston and his wife, Linda, who are currently living with their daughter in Houston, will be moving to Austin as soon as they can find housing so Dennis can start working with Fernando Velasco, his longtime friend and a USPTA Master Professional.
Ralston will serve as a "pro emeritus" at Velasco's Circle C Tennis Club in Austin, Texas, conducting private lessons and special events, such as clinics and camps for juniors and adults.
He already has a jump on his new role. Last October, he accepted Velasco's invitation to conduct several clinics at Circle C, including a "First Volley Clinic" for players who have prosthetics or use wheelchairs.
He has also started helping Velasco coach a promising 14-year-old wheelchair player named Dustin Strelsky, who has been named the Children's Miracle Network Champion Child for Texas. Ralston is looking forward to getting back on court with Dustin to help offer tips and encouragement. He said the teen "is really improving and his smile says everything."
Ralston, who was unable to work for two years, says his own saving grace has been his wife, three children and grandchildren, as well as some good friends, including Velasco, Charlie Pasarell and Tommy Tucker, who have initiated fund-raising on his behalf through the International Tennis Hall of Fame.
"The people in tennis are special; it's a family kind of thing, really," Ralston said. "That's the amazing thing about the game."
In that family frame of mind, he speaks of his current progress as a team effort: "I'm thankful that we're where we are and I look to forward to what the next chapter has."
Tax-deductible contributions to the Dennis Ralston fund may be made payable to the International Tennis Hall of Fame - Dennis Ralston Trust Fund., c/o Nancy Cardoza - 194 Bellevue Ave., Newport, RI 02840. An account also has been opened in Austin. Anyone interested in contributing should e-mail Fernando Velasco at email@example.com or call him at 512-301-8685.
Spoken like a true champion (A few words from Dennis Ralston)
"My mom always told me, "Don't get a big head just because you can play tennis better than somebody else. I always remembered that. . Everybody went out of their way to help me when I was coming up. I always felt that was what you do - help the younger players coming up. It's paying back."
"When I was growing up, anybody could teach; there were no standards, really. I think it's very important that tennis professionals are together, that they have goals to grow the game and help promote it. That's what the USPTA has done, and I'm proud to be a member."
"I am proud of my individual accomplishments, coaching and being with Chrissie (Chris Evert) and things like that. I don't have any regrets really, but I would have liked to win a Grand Slam singles event; it's sort of like a missing mark in my career. I know now what I should have done when I played in the finals of Wimbledon (against Manuel Santana in 1966). But it's a little late now (he laughs)."
"The two biggest things for me were winning the Davis Cup in 1963 as a player and winning in 1972 as the captain. You're representing the United States and that's the highest honor that you could ever have. When they play the Star Spangled Banner in a foreign country it's amazing how you feel."
"I've been in the game six decades - that's a long time. I've seen the game change and I've seen the game stay the same. There were no tiebreakers and you didn't sit down for three minutes; you didn't sit down at all, just changed sides. You didn't have someone to rub your body if you were injured. If anybody touched you, you were done. .Today's players hit the ball harder and don't go to the net very much, but it's still one against one. It revolves around the mental toughness, the quickness and the choice of shots. It's still about the battle, the same as when I played in the '50s and '60s. My gosh, (Pancho) Gonzales hit a serve 125 miles an hour with a wooden racquet; just image what he would do with one of today's racquets .."
Profile of Dennis Ralston - from the International Tennis Hall of Fame website (tennisfame.com):
Born: July 27, 1942
Place of Birth: Bakersfield, Calif.
Citizenship: United States
Induction Category: Recent Player
Year of Induction: 1987
Highest World Singles Ranking: 5
Highest U.S. Singles Ranking: 1
No one in his time played the game of tennis with more polish, precision or fluidity than Dennis Ralston. When he was at the height of his powers in the 1960s - finishing three consecutive years as the No. 1-ranked man in the United States - he made the game look as if it was invented for him, developing a masterful forehand volley that was his signature shot. Ralston later established himself as an estimable American Davis Cup captain and as the esteemed coach of Chris Evert.
Grand Slam Record
- French Open - Doubles champion 1966
- Wimbledon - Doubles champion 1960
- U.S. National Championship - Doubles champion 1961, 1963-64
- Davis Cup Team Member 1960-66
- Davis Cup Team Captain 1972-75