Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Racquetball: A Cautionary Tale of a Sports Boom

Posted By on Tue, Sep 8, 2009 at 6:43 PM

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In the mid-1970s, racquetball was one of the hottest sports on the planet, and Memphis was its epicenter. Today it's one of those sports, like jumping rope and baseball, that lots of us used to play and few of us still play. It didn't quite go the way of tube socks and afros, but it was definitely headed that way. How and why does a sport with such appeal to both men and women bloom, fade and perhaps bloom again in popularity?

In 1976, Elvis Presley had a basement court at Graceland, where he played Dr. George Nichopoulos and other members of his Memphis Mafia. Memphis had a half dozen racquetball professionals and a young phenom named Andy Roberts who would later win a world championship. One of the city's most prominent businessmen, William B. Tanner, was a racquetball fanatic and promoter who built a court on top of his office building on Union Avenue Extended. Memphis State University, as it was then called, and Coach Larry Lyles started a club team that dominated college racquetball for two decades. Baseball legend Don Kessinger took up the sport and built a court complex. In all, there were more than 150 courts in the city.

Today, racquetball isn't dead, by any means. Memphis still hosts the U.S. Nationals and pro tournament at The Racquet Club of Memphis in October, and there are probably 100 courts scattered throughout the city and suburbs at schools, churches, fitness clubs, and U of M. But they don't get as much play as they used to, and nobody is building new centers dedicated first and foremost to racquetball.

What happened to the hottest sport of the Seventies? Memphian Randy Stafford, owner of The Court Company and a former professional, has played the sport at a high level for 40 years and is also the sport's unofficial historian. The game, he says, was invented in 1954 and first flourished in Louisville alongside handball. The first generation of Memphis players included Giles "Bull" Coors, DeWitt Shy, Jack Doyle, and Ronnie Leon.

The game was slower than the modern version but easier to play than tennis because the racquet was shorter, the court smaller, and the ball bouncier. You banged it off the front wall, side walls, or ceiling and it came back to you. It quickly replaced handball because it was easier on the hands and women could learn it quickly. The sport exploded in the early 1970s as hundreds of colleges built multiple courts and made it a physical education elective. The game appealed to businessmen like Tanner as a way to get an intense indoor workout in an hour or less. In a Match for the Ages, a champion handball player, Paul Haber, played a champion racquetball player using a racquet but playing with a handball. Haber won the match. But racquetball won the war. At its peak, the sport claimed 14 million players, half of them women, and set an architectural standard for the modern fitness club.

Today, Stafford says there are about 5.5 million players, only 20 percent of whom are women. Aerobics, cycling, jogging, and weightlifting all took a piece of the pie.

"Pure racquetball didn't work so clubs had to add other things," said Stafford.

Racquets got bigger and balls faster. Stafford calls today's game "bullet ball."

"I don't know that the speed of the game hurt its popularity," he said. "Young people like the speed. It's older players that complain."

Stafford's own career reflects the sport's changes. He started playing when he was 14 years old and a freshman at White Station High School. His parents moved to Alberta, Canada and he began dividing his time between racquetball and hunting. At a national tournament, he caught the eye of the sport's grand master, Bud Meuhleisen of San Diego, who invited him to come to California for the summer to train. Stafford took him up on it. Almost broke, he paid him in bear meat and moose meat.

With a long, graceful stride and rangy body, Stafford was a natural for the slow-paced game of the early Seventies, but the game outgrew him as it got faster. He was a second-tier pro, wrote books about the game, and began building courts all over the world. Until last year he still competed nationally at the highest level in his age group.

His nemesis is Ruben Gonzalez, one of the hardest hitters on the tour when he was in his prime. Stafford is 55, which is usually the best ago to play a new division. Unfortunately, Gonzales is older, so Stafford has caught up with him, not left him behind.

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