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Former tennis star Dennis Ralston tackles painkiller addiction, doesn't let amputation hold him back

Pam LeBlanc, Fit City

Staff Writer
Austin 360

Rack up last year as the roughest in Dennis Ralston's life.

The one-time tennis phenom, owner of five Grand Slam doubles titles in the 1960s and coach to stars including Chris Evert and Gabriela Sabatini, underwent five surgeries, including the amputation of his left leg below the knee.

Just as rattling: After more than a decade of prescribed pain killer use, Ralston realized he was addicted.

The days of playing in the French Open, Wimbledon and the Davis Cup seemed impossibly long ago.

But Ralston, who coached the tennis team at Southern Methodist University in the 1980s and then worked as director of tennis at the Broadmoor hotel and resort in Colorado Springs, Colo., is back on the court, coaching at Austin's Circle C Tennis Club.

There, the advice he slings at budding players gets a lot more attention than the prosthetic leg he walks on.

Tennis takes its toll

Years of tennis chewed up Ralston's knees. Doctors replaced one knee in 1997; a year later, they replaced the other.

After the second surgery, Ralston was invited to play in the seniors tournament at Wimbledon. He wanted to become the first athlete with double knee replacements to get there.

To prepare, he pushed hard at the gym. To help him cope, doctors prescribed painkillers. The drugs made him feel invincible, and Ralston trained more. By the time he did play at Wimbledon again in 1999 , he was relying on a daily dose .

"Doctors had always told me, `You're going to have to take this stuff all your life,'" he says. "I was so stupid I didn't say `whoa.' "

He grew numb, mentally and emotionally. His physical problems didn't let up. Knee problems led to foot problems, and last year he needed surgery on his foot. He caught a staph infection, then a bacterial infection. He underwent another surgery. Even a daily infusion of drugs couldn't control the spiraling problems.

Ralston tried to flush out the pain with a handful of Oxycontin pills every day. And still, his foot wasn't healing.

Finally, one morning last June, he woke up to a left foot so red and tender he couldn't touch it to the ground. Doctors gave him a choice: Immobilize the foot in a metal halo and use a wheelchair for six months, with no guarantee of success, or amputation.

Ralston, now 69, never hesitated. "That was Monday," he says. "By Wednesday it was gone."

After the amputation, doctors told Ralston he'd made the right decision, calling his amputated leg "a cesspool" of infection. But his struggles weren't over.

He fell twice, herniating a disc in his back so badly he needed two surgeries to repair the injuries. He was still living in a fog of prescription painkillers, too.

His daughters finally confronted him. He needed to go to rehab. He knew they were right. A day later Ralston flew to California and checked into the Betty Ford Center.

"I hadn't done anything in two years but sit in a wheelchair," he says. "I didn't realize how messed up I really was."

During his month in rehab, Ralston dealt with grief he had never faced, including the loss of his leg. He even wrote a letter to his lost limb.

"Dear Leg," he wrote. "We fought the good fight. We battled hard and you took me places. And we lost. But I'm going to be fine."

That was a turning point.

After rehab, Ralston and his wife, Linda, returned to Houston, where one of his daughters lived. The future was uncertain.

"When I got out, I realized how close I'd been to not making it," Ralston says. "It's insidious what this stuff does. It makes you think you hurt when you don't. It kills everything in your system - your emotions, your bones, your teeth."

Return to tennis

This spring, they moved to Austin, where longtime friend Fernando Velasco, general manager and director of tennis at the Circle C Tennis Club, encouraged him to get back into coaching.

He was fitted for a prosthetic leg designed especially for tennis and golf. He returned to the gym, walking on a treadmill and lifting weights a few times a week. He's lost 25 pounds and wants to lose 25 more.

"He's been an incredible inspiration," Velasco says.

As pro emeritus at Circle C Tennis Club, Ralston teaches private lessons, clinics and camps for juniors and adults of all ability levels. He also works with a standout young wheelchair tennis player.

"When I was young, all the great players took an interest in me. I always felt I wanted to give back," he says. "It doesn't matter if you never played or you're Chris Evert - I want you to get better."

This hot summer day, he's lobbing balls at an attentive group of women on a sun-soaked court of the Circle C Tennis Club.

"And it's match point at the Wimbledon finals," he yells across the net at a student. When he says it, he knows how it feels to be there.

"He's going to get out there and show you what you need to do. (His prosthetic leg) doesn't stop him," says Meagan Maddux, 31, a fourth-grade teacher in Kyle who is taking a 90-minute skills clinic. "It's a little nerve-wracking at first because you want to impress him. I find myself working harder."

"He makes you think you can do anything," says Shelly Foreman, 45. "When he's out there, I forget he has an amputation. It doesn't limit him in his ability to coach. It's so inspiring because he has had a lot of struggles and he's landed on two feet."

"Sort of," laughs Linda Ralston, 68, Dennis' wife of 46 years, who is watching from the sidelines.

Foreman's not the only one who forgets Dennis Ralston has a prosthetic leg. Back on the court, Ralston corrects a student's stance.

"Look at my left foot," he says. "Well, my fake left foot."

The low moments still come.

Daily life is more complicated. Taking a shower is tricky. He gets ghost feelings from his missing limb. "The biggest annoyance is that I can't just get up and go," he says.

But he says he's lucky.

He can go to the gym. He can ride a bike. He speaks to groups about tennis, his amputation and his painkiller addiction. He even hints at a desire to return to coaching at the collegiate level.

Life is on an upswing again.

pleblanc@statesman.com; 445-3994

Bio: Dennis Ralston

Born: July 27, 1942, Bakersfield, Calif.

Grand Slam Record:

• French Open - Doubles champion 1966

• Wimbledon - Doubles champion 1960

• U.S. National Championship - Doubles champion 1961, 1963-64

Career Achievements:

• Davis Cup team member 1960-66

• Davis Cup team captain 1972-75

• Inducted into International Tennis Hall of Fame 1987

Source: International Tennis Hall of Fame