Flat Out Fast

By Ed Staskus

   I started playing racquetball in my mid-20s, at Cleveland State University, while taking my mandatory physical education class. I got good enough to play on an intramural team, then the school team, and finally small tournaments around town. By the time I had played enough and worked my way up to the Open division, I was too old to play in the Open division. It took a year-or-so of beating my head against the wall, but when the headache finally went away, I started playing in the 30-plus division.

   Racquetball is played with a hollow blue ball on an indoor 20-foot-wide by 40-foot-long court. The walls, floor, and ceiling are legal playing surfaces, with the exception that the ball off the racquet must not hit the floor first. Hinders are out-of-bounds. It happens when somebody gets in the way. Unlike tennis, there is no net to hit the ball over, and, unlike squash, there is not an out of bounds tin at the bottom of front wall to hit the ball above. 

   It is similar to handball and Squash 57, a British game often called racketball. Joe Sobek invented the modern sport in the USA in 1950, adding a stringed racquet to the game of paddleball in order to increase velocity and control. He called his new idea Paddle Rackets. He was the first person to ever be inducted into the Racquetball Hall of Fame.

   When I started playing, the school supplied racquets, warped wood frame antiques that generated no velocity and could barely be controlled. Playing a game took forever because nobody could score points, unless it was by accident. Fortunately, Ektelon was on the way.

   Founded by Frank “Bud” Held, it was one of the first companies to go big in a still small sport. Working from his garage in San Diego, he is credited for a clever patented design for a racquet stringing machine. In 1970, Ektelon introduced their first experimental racquetball racquet. The next year they made the first racquet of high-strength aluminum. Six years later they pioneered hand-laid composite racquets, and six years after that the first oversized racquets. They were first in the hearts of racquetball players for a long time.

   Ektelon racquets made a fast game even faster. The leading amateurs and top pros regularly hit drive serves in the 130 to 150 MPH range. Even less-renowned players hit serves and set-up shots at 120 MPH and better.

   Not only is it a flat out fast game it works every muscle group known to man. The arms and upper body are involved in hitting the ball, legs involved in getting to faraway spots on the floor where the opponent is spreading the ball around, and the core for balance and stability. The more I played the better my balance became as my hip and leg strength improved. I became more flexible, too, stretching before and after matches so I could contort and lunge for difficult shots. My hand-eye coordination got better and better.

   They weren’t classic life skills like reading writing and arithmetic, but they were classic skills for staying relevant on the racquetball court. The game is tops for staying trim, too, since it is aerobic involving constant movement, burning up to 800 calories an hour. Burning a boatload of calories isn’t so terrific at tournaments, which require not only playmaking to get to Sunday’s semi-finals and finals, but stamina to endure the Friday and Saturday matches and make it to payday.

   I asked Danny Clifford, an Open player from Cincinnati, how he did it weekend after weekend working his way to Sundays. He was about the same age as me. He didn’t look the worse for wear. Whenever I made it to Sundays, I looked worn down and out for the next few days.

   “You don’t want to see me Monday mornings,” he said. “I usually have to fall out of bed and crawl to the bathroom, where I run a hot bath and soak for as long as I can before I go to work. If I didn’t have a cushy enough job, I wouldn’t be playing in tournaments.” 

   Playing in an age division was the best thing I could have done. It wasn’t that anyone’s shot making was any the worse, but they were slowly and surely becoming slower like me and got sore and achy just as fast as me. They recovered slower, too. They didn’t party hardy Saturday nights anymore, opting for a good night’s sleep.

   Dave Scott was the undergraduate at Cleveland State University with whom I started playing racquetball. I was an English and film major, and he was in the accounting program, not that anybody could tell by looking at him. He wore his clothes disheveled and his hair long and smoked pot like he owned stock in the farm. By the time we started playing doubles together racquetball was the fastest-growing sport in America. Entrepreneurs around the country were busy building courts. Back Wall clubs popped up like mushrooms around northeast Ohio. The sport expanded internationally thanks to its fast pace and high intensity. The first world championship was held in 1981.

   “It’s the hottest recreational sport in America, spearheading the whole fitness craze,” said Marty Hogan, the world’s top-ranked player.

   We didn’t know it was happening, but something happened to the sport of the 1980s in the 1980s. Even though there were more than 12 million participants in 1982, the boom was over.  Aerobics and body building “had a definite impact” on racquetball, says Chuck Leve, editor of National Racquetball Magazine. “You have to understand that a lot of people do things that are ‘in.’ There was a time when racquetball was the thing to do. But the people who played racquetball because it was a fad are gone.”

   The springtime Sunday Dave Scott and I were scheduled to play a semi-finals doubles match at the Hall of Fame club in Canton, it was a men’s Open match. I parked on the street and knocked on his back door. By the time we got into his big blue Buick it was 9 o’clock. The match was scheduled for 10 o’clock. The club in Canton was an hour from Cleveland Heights.

   “Don’t worry, we’ll be there with time to spare,” Dave said. When we pulled onto the highway, I found out what he meant to do. First, he lit a Jamaican-style joint. “No thanks,” I said. I had enough trouble hitting shots straight without getting looped. Second, he pressed his foot down on the accelerator and sped to Akron at 90 MPH. He slowed down going through Akron, but once we were just south of it, he picked it up a notch, hitting 100 MPH an hour. Even though there were few cars on the road that early in the morning I gnashed my teeth and hung on to the Oh God! handle above the door. We walked into the club with time to spare.

   The Hall of Fame was a big club with 25 racquetball courts, among other things, like tennis courts, basketball courts, and a swimming pool. We were at one of the glass back walled courts ringing the lobby, putting on our headbands and gloves, when Kelvin Vantrease strolled in. He had two blondes with him, one on each arm. Heads swiveled as he walked towards the locker room. Only Kevin Deighan, a cold sober Open player who hit line drives and nothing but line drives, kept himself to himself. He was getting married soon.

    Kelvin Vantrease looked like he had been up all night. He was scheduled to play on one of the two center courts at the same time as us in an Open semi-final singles match. He looked ready for a long nap. He didn’t look like he was going to unleash his vaunted forehand firepower anytime soon. I couldn’t have been more wrong. There was bliss in his shot-making that morning and it was all over before anybody broke a sweat.

   I played Kelvin once in an Open quarter-final match. He crushed me in the first game. I eked out the second game, partly because he was horsing around. I scored the first point of the tie breaker, feeling my oats. I served again, we rallied, with Kelvin hitting the ball harder and harder. I don’t know what got into me, but I started diving for the ball whenever I couldn’t save it and stay on my feet. I finally left a weak floater that hung around the front of the court. He attacked it, taking it out of the air hip-high, hitting a splat shot, screaming, “Get that!”

   I didn’t get it and didn’t score another point.

   A couple of years later the four-time Ohio junior racquetball state champion and 1984 national doubles champ needed surgery. “When I had back surgery for a ruptured disc, the doctor told me I`d never play sports again,” Kelvin said. ”I had never planned to go pro or even play much on the amateur open level, but when someone tells you that you can`t do something, it makes you want to do it more.”

   He bought a motor home and supported himself giving lessons, churning out up to 40 of them a week. ”I`m like a rat,” he said. ”I can adapt. If I can live in a motor home for three years, I can live anywhere.” Half-Dutch, half-Cherokee Indian, and a full-time beer drinker, he trimmed his Samson locks and cut down on the cornpone, like playing with a frying pan instead of a racquet and wearing swimming flippers instead of sneakers. He started playing tournaments again and by 1986 stood second in the men’s Open national rankings.

   Our doubles match turned out to be the match of the day. The men’s and women’s finals were scheduled for the early afternoon. Other matches were going on, but ours went on and on and finally drew a crowd, in part because of the shouting.

   Our opponents were a lefty righty team, making it tough on us. We played from behind from the start, and from the start Dave did not like the lefty, who was a walking rule book. Hinders are inevitable when playing doubles, and the rule book and his partner were no exception to the rule. They were worse. They were both hefty men and phlegmatic. They had no problem with never giving way. There were hinders galore. At first Dave seethed and smoldered. Then he went off. He argued with them and started harping on the referee about blown calls. The referee put up with it for a while but finally ripped up the score sheet and tossed the crumbs down on the court, walking away. Another referee was rustled up.

   Refereeing was voluntary although the losers of the previous match on the same court were required to referee the next match. The second referee did the best he could but wasn’t able to control or put up with the repeated flare ups, by now involving all four of us on the court. The crowd grew when a third referee had to be recruited. It was standing room only. There was cheering and jeering, huzzahs and catcalls.

   We went to a tiebreaker, playing some exciting racquetball, finally losing by two points. The rule book was smug about it. Dave was gracious except on the ride home when he vented spleen for a half-hour before lighting up again and calming down. I drank a bottle of Gatorade to keep from cramping up and even took a toke to be companiable.

   I continued to practice and play and got a job at a club as an Activities Director so I could practice and play for free. I met others around town who were willing to play practice matches with me. The three brothers Dieghan and Gaylon Finch played in Mentor. Bobby Sanders and Jerry Davis played in Cleveland Heights. Steve Schade and Dominic Palmieri played in Middleburg Heights. I drove to Solon to get my ass kicked by Doug Ganim, who was half my age and twice the playmaker. His t-shirts were emblazoned with “Eye of the Tiger” on the back. His backhand was a rally killer. The only time I ever scored any points was when he committed a youthful indiscretion. 

   That didn’t go on for long. Moving forward, over the years he reached the finals of the U.S. National Doubles Championships eight times with four different partners, winning the national title four times. He is considered one of the best right-handed left-side players to ever have played the sport, all the while promoting the ballgame as an executive for HEAD/Penn racquetball for 28 years and as the President of the Ohio Racquetball Association for almost as long.

   I played racquetball through most of the 1980s, although not as much and not as many tournaments as I had earlier in the decade. I was riding bikes and thinking of trying yoga. I started playing squash and one day put my racquetball gear away for good.

   I got married, bought a house in Lakewood, and put my nose to the grindstone. I played squash at the 13th Street Racquet Club in downtown Cleveland and found all the competition I wanted because many of the better players in the city played there. It was only a 10-minute drive instead of driving all over town looking for a tug-of-war. They had a Nautilus circuit and a running track. They had a sauna. They had food and drink at the bar. 

   The only thing squash didn’t have was a kill shot or rollout. A racquetball kill shot is hit low and bounces twice in the blink of an eye coming off the front wall. It is nearly impossible for an opponent to return. The perfect kill shot is a rollout because the ball is hit so super-duper low that it rolls back flat after hitting the front wall, never bouncing at all.

   Although gentlemen with squash racquets can be crude at the drop of a top hat, squash is a gentleman’s game. Some quiet gentlemen are patient wolves, the most dangerous in the animal world. The game has its own pleasures but nothing like the pleasure of ending a hotly contested rally with a perfect kill shot, going Foghorn Leghorn.

   “Try and get that, son!”

Ed Staskus posts feature stories on Paperback Yoga http://www.paperbackyoga.com 147 Stanley Street http://www.147stanleystreet.com and Lithuanian Journal http://www.lithuanianjournal.com. To get the site’s monthly feature in your in-box click on “Follow.”

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