My Losses, from Bo Keely

April 4, 2011 |

 I can't believe I have amnesia of a mononucleosis loss against the two-time national racquetball champion Bill Schmidtle. He swung a merciless forehand and impotent backhand that given a stronger backhand and patience was licked in every previous and subsequent match. I could scrape a (slow ball) ceiling shot along the left wall all day to his backhand until he miss-hit to yield a plum setup. I could hit a baseball cap in the left front corner 50% of the time from deep court, and went to a cigarette pack as a target. I had learned to 'float' the ball along the air mass hugging the floor depending on the court temperature so it virtually could not skip into the floor.

The mono month was nutty. It started when I fell on my face running on the Pacific beach one day, got up and went to the racquetball Doc Hannah. He returned the next day with a lab report, 'You have the 2nd worst case of mono in the history of San Diego County. I writhed in a bed kindly provided by multiple-national champ Bud Muehleisen's mother for one month listening to the top song 'There's got to be a morning after', till one morning I felt well and got up.Doc Hannah prescribed one month of ceiling balls hit to myself to prevent a relapse, that I did daily in increasing blocks of half-hour sessions until I owned the second best ceiling game in the world, behind Charlie Brumfield. I entered the first tournament with muscle memory for no more than the ceiling stroke, as spectators' heads bobbed up and down counting upwards of 40-shot streaks against lefty Dave Charleston. I won in three, but lost the tournament famished from the exercise.

It must have been after that that I dropped the match to Schmidtke; I don't remember. He never beat me again, though others did.

The practical game strategy with the slow ball of the early 70's was to soft serve to initiate a ceiling rally followed by an error that the rival killed. This was the tedious method of the sport's early greats- Muehleisen, Charlie Brumfield, Steve Serot and less so Jerry Hilecher, Rich Wagner, Steve Strandemo, Benny Colton, a young Marty Hogan, Steve Mondry, Trey Sayes and the rest of the top 32 in the nation who sooner or later travelled to San Diego to graduate with the best. It's a rare person who climbs ranks without personal exposure via viewing or playing against the experts.

Victor Niederhoffer was an exception in taking his first racquetball into the court after winning a world squash championship, bouncing the ball once for study, and proclaimed to a witness, 'Now I'm the national racquetball champ.' He nearly was, soon beating Hogan in a Las Vegas thriller, and most of the field, before losing to Harlem Globetrotter Ron Rubenstein.

When the ball speeded up in the mid 70s, so did the players' mentalities. They became squat and grovelling close to the hardwood for repeated passes and killshots, and new champions like Hogan, Peck and Yellen emerged. The big sponsors- Leach and Ektelon- deftly grasped that a livelier ball meant females, grandpas and youngsters could play making it a sport for the masses, but it ruined it at the pro level.The athletes got meatier and meaner in a competitive way, and racquetball evolved into what you see today: blazing serves, driving returns, average 2-shot rallies, and you could put a table across the court 4'off the floor that the ball rarely rises above.

We lanky, meditative champs nonetheless passed the trophies and money purses with tooth and claw defeats. When the fast ball guys with big serves and shoots that required a fast game to win soaked the tournament balls in hot water before entering the court, or enticed the tournament director to store the whole batch in the sauna until plucking one-at-time for each match… we slow gamers retaliated in ingenious ways. Strandemo switched balls during timeouts with a molasses batch in his gym bag. Steve Mondry secreted a razor blade in the tongue of his hi-cuts and bent over to tie his shoe in the service box, and sliced the ball. And I used a hypodermic needle from vet school to deflate to even things out.

Losses with determination are the stepping stones to victory.





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