Sudsy Monchik loves freedom, hates tyranny. We know this because
his favorite film is Braveheart, the Oscar-winning kilt-fest
about 13th-century Scottish freedom fighter Sir William Wallace.
"If I'd lived in Wallace's time, I would have been pillaging
right at his side," says the 20th-century Staten Island
racquetball player. "William Wallace was the Man!"
Monchik preps for matches by watching Braveheart (he travels
with the video), has memorized long stretches of Braveheart
dialogue, has even installed a Braveheart screen saver on his
laptop. Boot up the computer, and out spews Wallace's rousing
pep talk before the Battle of Stirling Bridge. Shut it down and
you hear, "Every man dies; not every man really lives."
As Sudsy sees it, the reel-life Wallace is not so different from
the real-life Monchik. Both are brash charmers who display an
insouciant impudence. "In the movie Wallace combined cockiness
with confidence," Monchik says. "What he believed in, he fought
for." Monchik believes mostly in himself, and he fights to
maintain his place atop the pro racquetball tour. His diving,
vaulting, crowd-rousing rallies are Wallacian in their fury: He
has gouged, hacked and hewed his way to the No. 1 ranking in
three of the last four seasons. "My racket is my sword, my
slicer and dicer," he says. He tilts his head back and closes
his eyes, his posture for expounding at length. "I'm pals with
each opponent I face, but once the door closes, I want to rip
out his eyes and step on his trachea."
Monchik, 24, is 5'9", with a pale, rubbery face and large
staring eyes of a blazing fluorescent green. "Sudsy schmoozes
with everyone and never gets in a bad mood," says fellow pro
Jason Mannino, a friend since childhood. "Even at his most
obnoxious, he's totally lovable."
May 30, 1999
A totally lovable homeboy. Until this month he still lived with
his parents. "I just moved in with my fiancee, Lisa," he says.
"She's really understanding--even let me hang a Braveheart
poster on the refrigerator." They are getting married on July
10, in Bermuda. Does she know what she's in for? "Come on, she's
got the Messiah!," he says, incredulous. "She's seen me play! I
own 'em once they see me play. I'm where the action is."
He has been an action guy since he was a little Mon chick. "Even
as a baby they tell me I didn't crawl: I sprinted," he says.
"There was no walking involved."
Monchik's moniker was hung on him in utero. His father, a New
York City cop, came up with Sudsy while the boy was still
submerged in amniotic fluid. "I used to say my nickname came
from licking the foam off the tops of beers as a toddler," says
Sudsy, whose given name is Walter. "The truth is I don't drink
beer--can't stand the taste. But if Budweiser or Coors wants to
sponsor me, I'll drink all they want me to."
As it turns out, Monchik isn't his birth name, either. When
Sudsy was five his parents divorced, and he went to live with
his mother and her new husband, Allen Monchik. Sudsy's
stepfather had a stake in several local health clubs: At age
seven the tyke wandered into the racquetball courts and started
banging a ball around. Seeing the boy's interest, the elder
Monchik hired pro Ruben Gonzalez to give the younger Monchik
Racquetball came easy to Sudsy. "Too easy," says Gonzalez, who
was ranked No. 1 on the pro circuit in 1988. At practice
Gonzalez began asking the boy if he was tired. If Sudsy said
yes, he would have to pay Gonzalez a dollar. "I realized the
only way to keep my allowance was to keep saying no," says
Sudsy, "even if I was throwing up my guts. Ruben hoped that by
training me that way, stamina and consistency would develop."
They did develop, quickly. Sudsy became the greatest junior
player in the sport's history, winning national titles in every
age division from eight to 18. He also became the sport's
greatest junior prankster. If a hotel fountain started foaming
over or a bottle rocket blasted out a hotel window, Sudsy would
be the prime suspect. "I would always get blamed for
everything," he says. "Everyone knew I knew who was responsible,
but I would never rat."
At 19, in only his fifth pro event, Monchik unsettled his more
seasoned peers by winning the 1994 nationals. Gonzalez was
already unsettled--in an earlier tournament Monchik had beaten
him 2-11, 11-5, 11-8, 11-8 in their first pro match. (To this
day Gonzalez hasn't beaten his protege in the pros.) At the end
of the '94-95 season, Monchik joined the racquetball elite with
consecutive victories over Cliff Swain, whom Racquetball
Magazine had anointed the "best of the best."
For the last five years Swain and Monchik have been the foremost
players in the world, averaging $45,000 to $60,000 in winnings
on the tour. The mild, crafty Swain is a kind of court conjurer:
In moments of crisis he seems to pluck brilliant shots out of
his sleeves like silk scarves. Monchik is more of a
swashbuckler, slashing and adventurous. "Sudsy has great foot
speed--he gets every ball that fails to roll out," says tour
commissioner Hank Marcus. "But his hand speed makes him really
excel. No one ever hit the ball consistently harder."
Monchik's backhand is as fast as his forehand, which has been
clocked at more than 180 mph. The ball flies off his racket
explosively. "He's like a thug out there, an incredibly skilled
thug," says tour player Eric Muller. "As bullying as he can be
physically, mentally he's still only scratching the surface. If
Sudsy ever fully focused, he could do some scary things on the
Swain's reign as No. 1 ended when Monchik wrung the crown from
him in the final tournament of the '95-96 campaign. Monchik won
the title outright the next season, and Swain recaptured it in
'97-98. Swain's comeback was due partly to subtle adjustments in
his game--adding a lob serve, hanging back on the floor--and
partly to injuries suffered by Monchik: a separated shoulder, a
broken big toe and a badly sprained left ankle. "Sure, I was
hurt," says Monchik. "But being hurt is no excuse."
This season Swain and Monchik have met in the singles finals of
nine tournaments. Monchik has won eight of the matches,
including the last seven in a row. In two of them, he blanked
Swain in a game, denying him a single point. "Cliff is still
pounding everyone else," says Monchik. "Everyone else but me. He
just turned 33. Don't think I don't count the years."
Their last encounter--on April 25 at the nationals in Las
Vegas--was perhaps the most humbling for Swain. Monchik aced him
17 times in an 11-6, 11-3, 11-2 wipeout that brought his tour
winnings to about $60,000 for the year. Now, with only one event
left in the season, the No. 1 ranking is safely in Monchik's
pocket. "Actually, the passing of the torch happened a few years
ago," says Mannino. "Last year Cliff got in his last licks, but
the rivalry is over. Sudsy plays on a different planet than the
rest of us."
Yet Swain still bravely insists that he and Monchik are equal.
He pins his recent results on poor concentration.
"If that's what Cliff thinks, fine," Monchik says. "What else
can he say? He's constantly getting pounded by a guy who hits
the ball at Mach 5. I feel his pain. But you know why the
Yankees creamed the Padres in last year's World Series? They
Asked if he thinks the tour has marketed the more outgoing
Monchik at his expense, Swain gives a quick look of focused
contempt. "It makes me a little angry," he grumbles. "In the
eyes of those promoting the sport, if you're not cocky or flaky,
you're not worthy of promotion. When I win a tournament, it's
SWAIN WINS AGAIN. When Sudsy wins, it's HE'S UNSTOPPABLE!"
Monchik mulls this thought over breakfast in a Las Vegas coffee
shop. "I'm sure if I ever reach Cliff's age, I'll have some
24-year-old punk to worry about," he says, head tilted back,
eyes closed. "Cliff may be the greatest racquetball player ever,
but how long before Sudsy surpasses him?"
Without pausing, Sudsy provides the answer: "Not long at all."
"I'm pals with each opponent I face, but once the door closes I
want to step on his trachea."