Racquetball is not to be confused with tennis, squash, badminton, handball, paddleball, paddle tennis, court tennis, platform tennis, shuffleboard, quoits or kick-the-can.
While it is not the sport of kings, it is not exactly a run-of-the-mill hoodlum pastime. The game requires strength, stamina, agility, quickness, brains, guts and a pain threshold somewhere in the vicinity of George Chuvalo's.
Racquetball players wear T shirts and headbands, and little red welts on their legs where the hard, hollow rubber ball has gone whistling into their skin. The welts go away after a few hours, or years, depending on when the racquetball player elects to discontinue crawling his way to oblivion.
"The neat thing about racquetball players," says a girl wearing a HI, I'M ANN DFLANEY name tag, "is that they wipe the floor with their towel and then they wipe their face."
The speaker is a racquetball player herself, so this may be taken as a tribute. At the time Ann Delaney was standing in George Brown's handball and racquetball palladium hard by Filippi's Fine Italian Food and Rocco's tavern and grill in San Diego, where the International Racquetball Association championships were under way last week.
Though the IRA tournament had nowhere near the allure of some of the sport's other spectacular events—namely, the St. Louis Chanukah Festival of Eights, the Fifth Air Force-Kanto Plains Classic in Tachikawa, Japan, or the Quickie Outhouse Open, sponsored by Art Redford's septic tank service in Tacoma—it did include competition in seven different classes. They did involve the best players in the world. And they were, as Luther J. Bernstein, the proprietor of Josey Skateland in Farmers Branch, Texas, said in stentorian twang, "For aaawwwllll the marbles."
Having succumbed in the first round, Bernstein, who identified himself as a former national champion in the field of speed skating on roller skates and who was fondly referred to by his fellow competitors as "Fruit Fly," did win some of the marbles in the consolation bracket. It was left for the game's famous names to vie for the rest.
They included the two-time defending champion in the open division, Charlie Brumfield, a bearded, bespectacled, silver-tongued San Diego attorney whose belief it was that nobody would beat him "unless they pulled down my pants"; Steve Serot, the 18-year-old wonder boy of the game playing for, as he said, "all left-handed Jews everywhere"; blond and beautiful Steve Keeley, a lapsed veterinarian who lives alternately in a garage with tie-dyed sheets for walls and in a van with "worse freaked-out grubs than me, by far"; and, finally, the women's titleholder, Peggy Steding, who is attempting to bring back monogrammed shirts and the Fabian haircut.
These contestants were accompanied in San Diego by doctors, lawyers, wallpaperers, wrestlers, YMCA guys, a former pro football player, an organizer of Synanon, a graduate of West Point, The Man from U.N.C.L.E.'s stuntman, Elvis Presley's doctor and a young fellow with buzzards on his shirt, which were depicted as saying, in unison, "Patience, my fanny. I want to kill something."
Any sport that attracts a contingent of this ilk must have something joyously wonderful about it. Racquetball does.
The game is played on a handball court (enclosed, 40 feet long by 20 by 20) with basic handball rules and scoring. The ball is slightly larger and softer than a handball, and the players hit it with a stringed racket about 18 inches in length. This saves wear and tear on the palms at the expense of the face, which is sometimes struck flush by an opponent's racket—accidentally, of course. To be battered this way is to be "waffle-faced."
Since being invented by a Connecticut man in the early 1950s, racquetball has enjoyed enormous growth, especially in the last five years when, the IRA estimates, sales of balls increased 15-fold and the racquetball-playing public expanded to half a million.
Many have converted from handball and paddleball, and several have come straight to it from the kitchen. The game is the easiest of all racket sports to pick up quickly; women flock to it in droves.
The best of these is the tiny bundle of energy named Peggy Steding, who came out of Odessa, Texas a year ago at the age of 37 to startle the racquetball world. The sport's talent pockets had always been in San Diego, St. Louis, Memphis and Minneapolis, and two college girls, Jan Campbell and Jan Pasternak, were recognized as the best. But Steding upset them both at the championships and walked away with the tournament.
During the past year she has traveled the land, giving clinics and playing tournaments, beating and embarrassing men as well as women. Chauvinists among the former say Steding looks like "the substitute waitress at a truck stop." Against the latter she has never lost a match.
Other competitors marvel at Steding's speed and endurance. After being taken apart by her explosive serves in the semifinals last week, even Jan Campbell admitted the obvious. "Not only does she kill us, she doesn't even sweat. I tried to aim for her stomach, but I was so nervous. The humiliating thing is she's old enough to be my mother."
Steding, who was stung by the press' favoring a local girl with color pictures, seemed resigned after her 21-10, 21-13 victory. "I can't piddle around," she said. "These girlies are settin' down there around 20 years old. I wish I could go back to 30."
On the men's side, the tournament was more wide open. Defending champion Brumfield, though only 26, has dominated the sport for several years with a controlled passing-shot style (in contrast to the bold, flailing, shooting game practiced by most of the leading players) combined with unique gamesmanship. He has been known to intimidate opponents and referees with rackets, balls, words, gestures and interminable delaying routines when he needs rest.
In the past his behavior has served Brumfield well against racquetball's most talented shooter and diver, the infant Serot, who had lost 10 straight times to the champion even while sweeping the floor with everyone else. Brumfield was picked to win the title again, if only because of such psychic powers.
In the semifinals, however, Brumfield did not have enough tricks or shots for 32-year-old Bill Schmidtke of Minneapolis, a former international champion himself who is a shooter and comeback artist of repute. Killing and passing with abandon, Schmidtke ran through Brumfield in their opening game 21-10, only to lose a thrilling second, 21-20, in which the serve changed hands six times on match point. Midway through the final game, however, Schmidtke took command again, and Brumfield could not come back. After his championship was lost, 21-18, Brumfield spouted philosophically, "It's tough to go for it all with the world against you."
Meanwhile Serot, a native of St. Louis who recently moved to San Diego and whose left arm is embellished with a grotesque muscle from his constant flailing, drilled his way into the semis, where he met Keeley. While Serot resembles something otherworldly with his berserk diving and manic rages, the muscular Keeley is racquetball's Mr. Polite. Though he has not exactly over-used his veterinarian degree, having "spayed a cat once," Keeley has found time to collect people-type strays (including an Italian friend known as "mini-hippie" who, Keeley says with a straight face, "missed the caboose on the gravy train of life") and several racquetball titles, including the Second Daffy Open in Tacoma.
However, Keeley is said to have problems in the big tournaments. Something about his throat. Sure enough, though he edged Serot in the first game by a point, the younger player came from behind in the second to tie the match. Then, screaming at himself, "Shoot it, you dog" like a. madman, Serot destroyed Keeley 21-4 to earn the final.
On Sunday it was the classic confrontation of youth vs. age, with Schmidtke given little chance against the onslaughts of Serot, but the former YMCA director, of whom his friends say, "He has never let success go to his clothes," came out shooting and surprised the youngster, 21-16, in the first game.
Then Serot settled down. The gangly lefthander, who, Schmidtke insisted, has "splinters on his chest where the hair should be" from throwing himself on the floor so often, whipped through the second game with the loss of only eight points, and in the third began another rush that seemed certain to take the steam out of his older adversary.
But Schmidtke rallied to 13-all and, as they walked back to take positions, mumbled to Serot, "Now it gets crucial, kid." Right then the youngster must have recalled all those matches in which Brumfield had psyched him so easily. He skipped a few balls, lost confidence, stopped shooting altogether and was done. Relentlessly, Schmidtke pulled away, 15-13, 18-13 and finally 21-13, game, match and championship.
Afterward Schmidtke waved his racket and a painter's hat and said he would most likely "get me a case of Coors and pass out." He might have shared some with Peggy Steding, who beat Jan Pasternak 21-8, 21-6 for the women's title in what racquetball players call "a routine crush."