In the spring of 1980 women professional racquetball players split off from the men's tour. Until then, the women had been little more than a sideshow. To assert their own identity, they formed the Women's Professional Racquetball Association, and it is apparent that the bold move has paid off.
While the men's tour, peppered with charges of mismanagement, is floundering, the WPRA is showing signs of prosperity—if only for one, albeit very good, reason. As WPRA tour director Sandy Genelius says, "It's the popularity of the Lynn and Heather show."
Lynn Adams, 27, is an energetic, engaging Southern Californian. Heather McKay, 43, is a subdued, superbly talented Australian. Fire vs. Ice. In the past four years their rivalry has provided women's racquetball with an element it long lacked: theater. In the process the sport itself has gained public attention.
Adams vs. McKay (pronounced ma-KAI) is absorbing because although in one respect it resembles Martina vs. Chris, there's a big difference: sheer competitiveness. In the 23 regular WPRA pro tournaments in which they've both played since 1981, either McKay or Adams has competed in every final. In the 19 finals they've both appeared in, McKay holds a 10-9 edge. Lifetime, McKay leads 15-11. They've won all five WPRA national titles—McKay in 1980, '81 and '84, Adams in '82 and '83. Moreover, they have lost to someone other than each other only five times in the last three years. McKay's record for that period is 87-12. Adams's is 101-12.
October 29, 1984
This scenario has benefited the WPRA off the court, too: Membership is up from 50 to about 400 since 1980; the number of tournaments has doubled, as has prize money. True, 10 events a year (scheduled from October to June) and $125,000 in total prize money (about $10,000 a city) aren't much compared with what's available to women on the tennis circuit, but, as Genelius says, "Lynn's and Heather's success has given younger players something to shoot for. It's offered everyone hope."
It's also given Genelius, who works for International Management Group, the sports marketing conglomerate that runs the WPRA tour, something to promote in WPRA strongholds like Atlanta, Seattle and Anaheim, Calif., as well as in smaller cities. As she puts it, "A club looking to host an event knows there's a very good chance they'll have the two best women in the world in their finals."
McKay, born in Queanbeyan, New South Wales and now teaching racquet sports in Toronto, is a middle-aged marvel. But then, she's been a marvel most of her life. Twice named All-Australian in field hockey, she later became a squash legend (SI, April 14, 1980). From 1960 to '77 she won 14 Australian championships, 16 British titles and the first two women's world championships. In 20 years of play she lost only two singles matches; none from 1962 to '79.
The slightly built, self-effacing McKay switched rackets, so to speak, at age 38, weary, she says, of "maintaining the standard" she'd set for herself in squash. "I made the decision to get out, and I was lucky," she says. "All of a sudden there was racquetball."
She won the U.S. women's amateur title in 1979, her first year out, but then stumbled early in her rookie pro season, losing six matches. But her mastery of court play and angles, her passing shots and her iron will helped her rebound. McKay won the WPRA's first national championship that year and has been ranked first or second ever since.
But there was a potential problem: McKay's dominance of the sport. Without any real challenge, the WPRA would suffer from the same ennui that's now affecting women's tennis. Fortunately, Adams arrived on the scene, having taken an equally circuitous route to the top.
Adams had starred in three sports (track, volleyball, softball) in high school in Costa Mesa, and discovered racquetball only after an Orange Coast Junior College classmate suggested a court date. She beat him first time out. "Funny, never saw him again after that," she says.
A natural athlete, she developed quickly as she gained experience: Rookie of the Year and ranked No. 6 in '79; No. 3 in '81, losing to McKay in the national finals; No. 1 and national champion in '82. Today, with seven national indoor and outdoor titles to her credit, she's regarded as the quickest, deadliest shotmaker in the game.
Adams has suffered from rheumatoid arthritis in her knuckles, knees and various other joints since her teens. The condition flares up after climate changes or when she is under stress. The arthritis doesn't often affect her game, although one morning four years ago she woke up and found she couldn't straighten out her fingers. "Lynn wrapped her hand around the racquet and played anyway," said Jim Carson, who holds a dual role as husband/coach. "She didn't play like her usual self, but she won. Most of the time, it's a controllable condition." Today, Adams speaks on behalf of the Arthritis Foundation at fund-raisers.
To be competitive with McKay, Adams had to overcome a different challenge: fear. "It seemed every time I played Heather in a big match my game would fall apart," she says.
When her won-lost record against McKay dipped to a dismal 2-6 in February 1982, Adams and Carson took a trip to the San Bernardino Mountains. They checked into a cabin and began a long, hard examination of the player and her game. "We were there for about a week," says Adams. "We got into everything. We ended up screaming a lot, and I did a lot of crying."
"Lynn just couldn't bring herself to overcome Heather as a role model," says Carson. "I told her, 'You have to stop saying, "nice shot." You have to kick her butt.' "
Adams heeded the advice and won four of her next five finals with McKay. She finished '82 with a 36-2 record, attaining both the national championship and the No. 1 ranking.
But as it happens in this friendly punch-counterpunch relationship, McKay got mad—and even. Last season she put together a 25-2 record, beating Adams in four of six matches and reclaiming both the title and the No. 1 ranking.
"I wanted to win the WPRA National very badly," says McKay, who defeated—who else?—Adams in a tense, five-game tiebreaker in the nationals, becoming No. 1 in the process. "Usually I only work out three times a week, but I practiced a great deal before the nationals."
Not surprisingly, McKay is back this year to defend her honors. "I've been a competitor all my life," she says. "I've got a couple of years left."
Adams hopes so. "I love to play Heather," she says. "She definitely pushes me like no one else."