Jun

8

 The racquetball Big Game is drive serve and shoot, which I call blitz racquetball. The first blitz player in 1974 when we were housemates betting mile runs on the outcome of his blitz vs. my conservative game- the 'year of the pivot' when Marty Hogan, ridiculed for his deep cannon stroke that tended to loosely fly all over the court- was Smokin' Hogan after he honed the powerful stroke and grew facial hair.

The reason Hogan was the Big Game firstborn is he was the first with the physical power and grace to allow it; the previous champs Bill Schmidtke, Bud Muehleisen, Charley Brumfield and I were tennis shod string beans who 'pushed' the ball around the court and a tediously effective strategy of waiting in prey for the opponent to error in 3-10 shot rallies, and then the final stroke.

Hogan was the first to force the error with booming drive serves, or his 142mph service return while the rest of use were clocked in the mid-70's at 110mph.

A cascade of factors enlivened the Big Game in the ensuing decade.

The mid-70's ball got so fast that we judged one acceptable if a ceiling shot didn't bounce over the back wall into the gallery and they started netting the upper decks. It was like substituting a hardball for a softball without moving back the outfield fence, and the result was the fans descended into the courts to imitate the pros blasting serves and shots.

The late 70's fitness craze spawned court clubs with the back racquetball courts filled with gym equipment, and bruisers strutted out the gyms and onto the racquetball courts to explode the Small Game.

In a blink, Power Racquetball of serve and shoot evolved new players and play.

 The first Eketelon Contra big-head racquet in 1984 reinforced the power game, squatter players took to the courts, strokes abbreviated to rapid loops, and strong junior players started hitting the ball at 150mph.

It so happened that year the Big Game was locked in forever by a match rule change from 21-points to 15 per game, with an 11-point tiebreaker. This guaranteed national champs to eternity using a big head with serve and shoot strategy, to blitz anyone in streaks without fear of fatigue.

Racquetball as it was invented and intended by Joe Sobek in Connecticut, pioneered by Carl Loveday, Bud Muehleisen and Charley Brumfield at the Pacific Paddleball Association court, and developed at San Diego Mel Gorham's Mecca became a travesty in one season.

The sport shifted from aerobic to anaerobic.

The next alignment for the Big Game was the 1980's side glass and often front glass at tournament courts that guaranteed a seeded bltizer need only breeze through the early rounds on solid wall back courts to make the semi’s aquarium where his his Big Game had a 5-point advantage in games to 15 points.

The One-Serve Rule of 1994 tried to divert the cavalier ace… or did it? The elite players overnight ciphered and experimented in the next tournament to discover that the attacking serves when they were not fatigued was the only winning strategy.

The axe was lengthened by a 1997 USRA rule change to allow the oversized frames to extend to 22'' long.

What mutated sweaty chess to a blitz racquets? The associations and sponsors sped the sport to make it easier for youngsters, seniors and females to play the Big Game like pros. That is the racquetball evolution of ball and racquet, serve and return, forehand and backhand, player physique and psychology, and strategy in a nutshell.

 How did the ousted pioneer champs react? All-night hashes at private courts across the country and shared at tournaments produced countless variations of new strokes, serves and strategies, but nothing jibed. The greatest old-timer, Brumfield, hung on for two years with warmed over gamesmanship and a new crack ace. The aging champs' bodies and personalities couldn't bear the Big Game and they curtsied off the courts to the new champs Mike Yellen, Dave Peck, Jerry Hilecher and Bret Harnet.

The first operant serve and shooter I met after Hogan was John Foust, who as a kid had multiple corrective leg surgeries and retains a gimp. His attacking strategy in a match at the Denver Sporting Club, home of early big tourneys, was such a shock that I would have lost at the peak of my career had not a patented backhand wallpaper serve eked a win. Foust wrote to me later to reciprocate for the wallpaper that he added to the arsenal, and to explain his Big Game. I realized he had sketched the perfect instruction that applies to the modern blitz of serve and shoot for all players.

I had a foot in two racquetball worlds, so to speak. One was able-bodied that you’re used to playing, and the other in a wheelchair. In the early 80’s, the wheelchair game was coming on and though I was legally handicapped from polio in youth, I never dreamed of myself as that. I managed the Denver Sporting Club and was a consistent able-bodied winner in A division, and once won the 25+ Open Regional. Luke St. Onge, the USRA executive director, asked me to play in the wheelchair division alongside my normal event, and I replied, ‘I spent time in a wheel chair when young, and may again when I’m old, but I don’t want to in-between.’ However, Luke persevered.

 It was bizarre going from the regular events where I was perceived as the ‘good guy’ with the game leg who beat most the field, to the wheelchair division where I was the ‘villain’ because after the match I could rise and walk with a limp from the chair. I grimaced before each match at having to approach another player to beg his chair. I was third and fourth ranked in the world from about ‘85-87 by virtue of my able-bodied racquet skills, but always lost in the finals to one of the top two wheelchair champs (Chip Parmelly or Jim Leatherman) because of their familiarity with the chair- Understand that the chair is equipment, just like the glove, racquet and shoe.

After that, I entered only able bodies tournaments and walking into the court feeling as if I could win until proven otherwise. I practiced and taught myself how to kill the ball from everywhere. Defense wasn't my strong suit. The longer the ball was in play, the better chance I was going to lose the rally on a dope shot of which I simply could not get to. I relied on the drive serve to start the ball low into play to force the shooting game.

The blitzkrieg won the 1983 AARA regional championship in the 25+ division in going through three Open players to the finals. That was my biggest personal racquetball accomplishment- I beat three players who were very good. The closest I came after that to winning anything of substance was the Tournament of the America's in Santa Cruz, Bolivia in 1988. It was the first of five times I was part of the U.S. National Team. At that time, although not originally qualified as part of the team as a true player, I had the ability to score points for the team as a manager /photographer /low level coach. It was clear early on no one from the others teams were going to give me any credit- why should they? Not like anyone in Bolivia knew who I was, or had a resume to stand on. I completely understood. In the long run it worked to my advantage in getting to play. I made it to the semi's before getting beaten by a better player. The U.S. team was gracious enough to vote me to accept the Championship trophy.

Three parts to my game come to mind in any success I've had at racquetball. I felt I could serve with the best of them. That was my great equalizer and something I put a lot of effort into. I had the ball, I knew what I was going to do, and was a master of disguise about where. Drive serves were my forte. I used them on a first and second serve. It wasn't until later in my playing days I learned the value of a lob. I hated lobs.

In the event an opponent was able to retrieve my drive, I did the best I could to put it away quickly. If I couldn't serve 3-4 untouchable serves in a game I was toast. For the most part I did. My able-bodied style is to shoot the ball from everywhere, because the longer the rally the less chance I have to get to the opponent’s shot because of my game leg. I practiced hundreds of hours shooting from every conceivable court position, and to drive serve to earn weak returns.

In the rally anticipation was key. Unlike a Hogan I didn't have all the tools necessary to play a complete game. I was good at the bait and switch. If focused in, I knew before my opponent what he was going to do. They would say, 'You're a lot faster than I thought,' a kind compliment but not true. I was quick in a short space. It appeared I was fast- smoke and mirrors.

My forehead was strong if I had time to set up. However, with a weak left leg, it was difficult to transfer weight. Hogan, as it appeared to me the visual learner, hit a lot of forehands off his back foot. I had no choice but to do the same and was comforted by the fact that's what he did well. On the other hand, a backhand was my natural shot with a stronger than normal right leg, I could step in, transfer weight, hit, and do what needed to be done. And, because of the situation. I moved to the backhand side much more easily. My backhand was something I visualized as being a lot more like it happened in the real world as opposed to my mental world where I was moving like everyone else. I think they call that dreaming.

Based on how Hogan whipped me, Foust had lectured me, and how fresh players came on strong with the Big Game in the late 1980's, I revamped my teaching style. The traditional instruction learned from Bud Muehleisen and expanded in The Complete book of Racquetball taught to aim for the bulls-eye, and later add increments of power. Now I teach first the power killshots from any position on the court, then the drive serve, and slowly hone into the target. The learning curve of blitz is just one year given a strong young body and daily hour's practice and another hour of game time. As the errors are dropped out of the attack, and greased by confidence, by year two a dedicated athlete may become an open player, and in another a pro.

The greatest upsets throughout racquetball history have been blitz serves and shootouts beginning in 1977 with Davy Bledsoe over Hogan, in 1983 Mike Yellen using the big head Contra over Hogan with his contract autograph model, and topples by Sudsy, Cliff Swain and King Kane all owed to the Big Game school.

Today the Big Game is the only game in tournament town.


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