The Education and History of the Racquetball Swing

by Bo Keeley and Bo Champagne

Let’s begin with individuality. There are no exact championship motions for everyone. Ax-wielding Abraham Lincoln has the first and last word on strokes, ‘You can please some of the people all of the time, and all of the people some of the time, but you can not please all of the people all of the time.’

There are no model strokes, only model players.

The more you watch racquetball — especially the pros — the more you come to realize that no two players strike the ball exactly alike. The conclusion should be that there is no single correct way to hit a racquetball. You will limit yourself unless examining the history of Model Strokes from day one to present.

In the beginning, 1949, Joe Sobek invented racquetball, called Paddle Rackets, with a sawed off tennis racket in a winter handball court, and the handful of players used a stiff wrist Tennis Stroke for a control game of passes, kills and lobs.

The Handball Swing supplanted and was superior to the tennis allowing a low contact and wristy underhand or three-quarter underhand for an attacking game, and this remained the style throughout the ‘50’s.

 By the end of the ‘60’s the Paddle Racket Stroke per the sport name prevailed using a more sidearm pitch, contact off the lead foot, and natural followthrough. The first national champs Bill Schultz, whom I watched, and Bill Schmidtke, whom I played often, offered two of the best forehands and worst backhands the game has known for national champs. This ‘sword and shield’ was typical of the era and there were few ceiling shots.

The San Diego Stroke from 1969-’71 was pioneered by Carl Loveday, Bud Muehleisen and Charley Brumfield, all cross-over champs from badminton and paddleball, that improved on the old Paddle Racket Stroke with the first studied and controlled swing that became the standard. The stroke they taught themselves on the first ever private Pacific Paddleball Association court was dissected frame-by-frame and puttered with each. Muehleisen taught me to teach in clinics to transfer to the ball two raw sources of energy: the weight transfer from rear to front foot, and the wrist snap. He demonstrated each, and in synergy, by hitting initial shots with only the weight transfer at 50mph, only the wrist snap at 30mph, and combined them for 90mph.

The Michigan Stroke evolved parallel to the San Diego one, and was dubbed the ‘farm implement stroke’ to honor the state inventors and champions, and describes a powerful plowed flat and tireless action with an abbreviated backswing that geared at the back with a wrist cock, short down stroke, with enhanced wrist snap for in-spin. This is the stroke I used with one secret tinker to win multiple paddleball and racquetball championships. Finding myself on crutches one month after an accident, I took one into the court and learned to kill the ball from everywhere on the court from an absolute upright position. The contact was between the knee cast and chest to defy the sacred principal of contacting killshots as low and close to the floor as possible. I threw away the crutches and retained that trademark upright disguise of kills that appeared off the racquet as passes. The Michigan Stroke overwhelmed the San Diego classic because as the ball livened in the early ‘70’s it offered a quicker set with the shortened backswing, and a faster downswing to rewind for the next shot.

The St. Louis Stroke at once replaced the Michigan in the hands of a mid-west contingent who invaded San Diego from 1971-4. The spearhead was 15-year old Steve Serot who made the semi’s of the inaugural 1971 National Singles Invitational that was the first true national tournament because all the top players participated via previously unheard of comped plane fares. The free-wheeling swings of Serot, then Marty Hogan, Jerry Hilecher, Ben Colton, Jerry Zuckerman and a few others who played summers at the St. Louis JCC before relocating in San Diego, put the first bang in the game. Their look-alike strokes surpassed all previous with a wider arc backswing and follow-through, strong wrist snap, and for the first time pounded rather than pushed the ball. These were the first players to hit the ball in the 120mph range as clocked on radar.

The stage was set in ’74 for the most unorthodox and influential Marty Hogan Power Stroke that was so superior in a deep contact, with an amplified force via body coil albeit less accuracy, that it engendered Power Racquetball and no instruction could sell during the remainder of the decade without the phrase. The reform beside a deep contact was a shift from the pioneer weight transfer from rear to front foot, to instead a body coil like a golfer, and in fact the analogy of a golf swing was applied to the backhand. Yet a key element was missing. Marty and I were housemates and competitors that allowed a study that technically he didn’t know how he hit what no one else could. It was finally exacted as a ‘bullwhip crack’ like a towel snap that may double head-speed at the instant of contact. In the end, everyone hit it.

 The Hogan stroke prevailed through 1983 when the incumbent champs with new big head racquets and often one-grip forehand and backhand started a Fairgrounds’ Hammer Swing. By tournament osmosis nearly every pro tweaked Hogan’s power swing of deep coil and contact to a compact version for more swing control to hit the target. This stroke was the utility through the mid-90’s.

The Bow-and-Arrow Stroke was first seen in the mid-90’s that is utilized by many present elite. It was perfectly described by Dave Peck who credits Bud Muehleisen to almost come full circle in the history. Peck draws the hitting arm back as if drawing an arrow in a bow, the arm is parallel with the floor, it rests a split second at the top with a crooked elbow, descending with a short loop to pound the ball very hard and accurately. The beauty is an absolute flat backswing to ensure with a tiny loop a mirror downswing that propels the ball accuracy to a bottom board across the front wall. If the ball is hit too early, it’s a flat rollout to the left corner for a righty, and if it’s hit late it’s a flat rollout to the right. If ever there is a model power stroke to start a beginning player with fast progress in strength and accuracy, this is it. That’s why it’s the sport standard.

Metaphorically then, the model racquetball stroke has gone from a tennis swing, to roundhouse handball, baseball pitch, farm implement, push broom, wristy flyswatter, fairgrounds’ hammer, bullwhip, to bow-and-arrow… and who knows what’s next?

The point is that the Model Stroke throughout history is a symbiosis of strokes. It depends on the equipment, and in part on the player’s physiotype and personality. I would say to stand on the shoulders of the champs one-at-a-time who designed the Model Stroke for an epoch that hundreds of thousands copied, and create your own.





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