Feb

28

Sports equipment evolves the player…movement… and final strategy.

In the beginning, 1971, the racquetball was mush, and the strokes slow to push it around the old courts in winning rallies. The pros, like me, were string beans wielding tiny racquets.

Then in the 80s, the ball quickened and the strokes changed to power, with deeper contact and a bullwhip crack.

In the 90s, the pace of play was frightfully heightened by the superball with big-head racquets, crisper strokes, and squat players.

There have been three epochs. The early, lanky champs with push strokes were Bill Schmidtke, Bud Muehleisen, and Charley Brumfield. The intermediary fireplugs with power swings on a relatively fast ball were Mike Yellen, Dave Peck and Marty Hogan. The current bulldog elite are Sudsy Monchik, Jason Manino and the better of the rest who explode on shots like weightlifters at a bar. The power serve increasingly dominates over time, and the rally length and millisecond to ponder between shots decrease in proportion to ball speed.

The ball begot the stroke begot the player, and that's the history of racquetball. And, likely, any sport, military or industry evolves with equipment.

What can you do about this trend to improve your game? My play girdles all the game eras, so these solutions are from observations of ball, racquet and champ body developments, and matching my molasses stroke against the diverge of three swings of the 'Big Three' players in successive eras– Marty Hogan, Sudsy Monchik and Cliff Swain.

Each champ adapted with a stroke to meet the speedier ball, yet with commonalities. These shared elements are: 1) Fast set-up on the shot; 2) Quick swing, tending from linear toward circular; 3) Deep contact to allow the speeding ball; 4) Stroke power for ball velocity; 5) A closed racquet face to counteract the approaching topspin ball scooting along the hardwood.

The three model strokes by yesterday's and today's 'Big Three' players embrace all these requisites, with a gripping consistency near the butt low on the handle. This gives leverage a la holding a hammer handle bottom, 'closes' the racquet face to off-set an oncoming topspin, and allows a deeper contact where the face automatically squares to meet the ball.

 The trade-off of power boost for loss of accuracy is no longer debatable: the name of the new game is power, not bulls eye. To the contrary, I first honed accuracy as a novice, and gradually increased power, as portrayed in a daily practice Heads Up! drill with the Michigan State University hockey, wrestling and football teams. One player sat with his back against the front wall facing the service line, as the other dropped and killed the shot to a halo region around his head. The idea was to simulate tournament pressure and not blink. Eventually someone got bonked and the roles were reversed.

Now look at the three almighty unalike strokes of the Big Three, and match the salient points of quick set-up, quick swing, deep contact and power. These stroke variations in biological evolution (don't blink) are called adaptive radiation, so let's briefly look at each.

Marty Hogan's young stroke was ridiculed by the era's masters as an awkward use of raw power, even as they ate crow. Hogan's fulfills the requirements for a modern stroke by using a pendulum swing that contacts the ball deeper heretofore than anyone. 'The pendulum starts way up, 'as high as I can reach on the back swing,' he says. The mechanics are the more an arc uplift of, say, a clock pendulum, the greater the swing power. Marty boosts this force by suppinating (laying back so the palm is up) the wrist at the top of the forehand, and pronating (flexing the wrist approximately the opposite direction) at the top of the backhand back swing. It allows a very deep hitting zone -an extreme off the rear foot- that translates into a split-second extra set-up time with a stronger report. At his level, shades make the difference in brilliance.

Sudsy Monchik takes a new swing that, like predecessor Hogan, engendered a new crop of strokes across the country. 'Compact, close to the body and explosive, like a bull tossing its head,' he describes his swing. The grip for his forehand and backhand, as noted, is low on the handle with an extremely closed face. The swing is best described as classical explosive with precise timing. The odd thing is Sudsy may run the court in a crouched position as if in a horizontal mine shaft, chasing and hitting faster than most uprights.

Cliff Swain's success with a dissimilar stroke relies on early racquet preparation. His teaching clinic preamble and conclusion is, 'I hate to harp, but get your racquet up and back early'. Cliff is a praying mantis on the court, stalking prey, ball, and leaping to score. Where Hogan gains a precious instant with a deep contact, and Sudsy by scampering in a squat, Swain has already made a back swing- low, wrist cocked- like a gunslinger who replies without flinch, 'That was my draw, do you want to see it again?'

When the smoke clears on equipment, stroke and body type evolution, adaptive radiation is the driving force. This is the process in which one species gives rise to multiple species that exploit different niches, in a relatively short period of time. The changing ball has produced new anatomical champs exploiting forced new strategies.

Who's responsible for the speeded ball? The answer is the reason baseball prevailed over softball, sponge ping-pong paddles won out, and basketballs are highly pressurized. The ball manufacturers ultimately control a sport's evolution, racket makers fall in step… and it's all due to public capability and culpability The manufacturers hype action in sport to convince participants it's more fun, pressurized balls wear out and break sooner, and a fast game is easier for beginners, youngsters, elderly, and particularly ladies whom the males follow buying more balls.

The tendency in recent decades in all sports is away from analysis toward frenzy. The process is rapid and ongoing. My fellow animals, swing with the champs, and win!


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