Rediscovering Racquetball

Perris Richter

If you have 50 cents for a rent-a-racquet and one semi-coordinated friend, there’s really no excuse to not give racquetball a go. Book a court and burn approximately 684 calories an hour, according to an online calorie calculator.

When I laid eyes on my very first racquetball court while exploring SPAC freshman year, I fell in love. But for most students at Northwestern, elliptical trainers and muscle-making machines are more attractive options.

Margot Shorey, a Weinberg sophomore, plays squash regularly but has never played racquetball (or even really thought about it). While squash and racquetball are both in the family of racquet sports, Shorey was not convinced. “I always thought of squash as more of a sport, and racquetball as more of a game,” Shorey says.

At many colleges and universities across the country there are racquetball clubs that play in intercollegiate tournaments, including most of our Big 10 brethren. But Northwestern has not had a racquetball club since 2003, when the Osterman Open racquetball enthusiasts lost their passion for blue balls and close calls.

The Osterman Open was the brainchild of Northwestern alumnus Lucas Michelini, who played racquetball regularly with his freshman year roommate and co-president Tyler Mark. The club was named after a “semi-insane RA” (anonymous), and Michelini designed a Web site which showcased fake merchandise and witty player profiles. They pioneered the Dodgeball-esque mock-seriousness, and it appealed to a very diverse group of students.

Former member Birju “The Bird” Shah describes the members as “all southies, non-frat, engineering/history/econ/women’s studies majors.” Although it was knowingly started as a joke, the Osterman Open had around 10 die-hard members that formed a regular rotation three to four times a week. The season culminated in an annual tournament, the Osterman Open Finals. Today, all that remains of the Osterman Open are the names of the graduated executive board members listed on the ASG site and a lonely link to a “Not Found” URL.

Racquetball fan and Northwestern graduate student Nikhil Khicha has had fantasies about founding a racquetball club on campus. “At (University of) Virginia we had a racquetball club with a coach, (and) practice four times a week. It was very organized,” Khicha says. At NU, Khicha is a regular but plays mostly to stay in shape.

There’s no way to deny sweat-soaked hair, but McCormick sophomore Greg Martens plays racquetball “definitely not to workout.” Winter Quarter he was playing three times a week with fellow Fijis just for fun. While there are many motivations for playing racquetball, it’s hard to tell whether the racquetball club could be successfully reincarnated at NU.

Kaitlyn Williams, a Weinberg freshman, also works at SPAC and is in charge of court reservations. “(Racquetball courts) are usually pretty crowded in the evenings and on weekends. There are definitely the same groups of names calling in to reserve a court,” Williams says.

As one of the regulars, I have witnessed this phenomenon firsthand while pacing in between games, comparing my skills to those of fellow players. And while the courts are almost always booked, it is, for the most part, the same groups of guy friends, old-timers and co-ed crushes that play all the time.

“Rock and Roll It Out with the Pros”

This was the theme of the second annual Motorola IRT Pro Nationals, a five-day event hosted by Schaumburg Tennis Plus in Schaumburg, Ill. Starting April 26, only the superstars were left standing by the semi-finals Saturday.

Racquet sports traditionally attract a polite, popped-collar crowd, but racquetball is the rebel child in this sports family. The stands that surrounded the glass-walled racquetball court were filled with a beer-buzzed family of fanatics. When the overhead lights dimmed, and a light show accompanied by AC/DC’s “Back in Black” besieged the court, the crowd was silenced in excitement. Rocky Carson, 26, racquetball’s pretty boy (subjectively speaking), who is ranked fifth in the pro tour was facing Kane Waselenchuk, 24, the cocky Canadian playing to reclaim the No. 1 ranking of which he was recently robbed.

Greg Benjamin, 36, a business manager for Alexian Brothers Hospital, is sponsored by Wilson Sporting Goods. The company provides Benajmin with free racquetball equipment. After being eliminated in the first round, he took a seat in the stands and we chatted before the start of the match.

“There’s always beer with racquetball, and there’s usually some trash talking,” he says. I witnessed the latter within a minute of play. The players wore microphones on their uniforms so the crowd could hear the players contest questionable calls and assault each other’s egos with relatively PC trash-talking.

“You didn’t call a skid ball on that? Wow,” Waselenchuk says. (That’s racquetball lingo for a ball that skids on the floor before hitting the front wall.) Jason Thoerner, a referee and racquet-baller ranked eighth in the pro tour, is sympathetic to the players’ contentions. “I am just as good of a player as they are,” Thoerner says. He is also rumored to have quite the temper on court himself.

Waselenchuk’s anticipated victory ended with a “donut,” which is a perfect game (11,0) – not a pastry – in the racquetball world. “When it happens (the loser) buys everyone in the bar a drink,” Benjamin says. “It gets expensive.”

After the match Waselenchuk lifted up his sweats to expose a raised bull’s-eye shaped welt that tattooed the back of his calf in the first point of play. With balls hit at reported speeds nearing 200 mph, safety, sanity and vanity are forced to take the back seat.

With $40,000 at stake, the welts are well worth it and diving face-first for a ball is commonplace. Granted, the prize money is a little scant given the six-figure winnings today’s A-list athletes are accustomed to, but, for the top players, it’s a living and a lifestyle.

Waselenchuk defeated off-court friend and on-court foe Jack Huczek, 23, in the finals, finishing the event without having lost one game and reclaiming his third consecutive No. 1 title. Waselenchuk’s title was transiently taken from him after missing several tournaments, and he expressed resentment for Huczek’s “steal.” “There’s no pressure on me,” Waselenchuk says. “I feel like I’m No.1.” But despite the cost of competition, Waselenchuk and the other men on the pro tour have what he describes as “a brotherly bond.”

Ronda Rajsich, the No. 2 ranked player in the women’s pro tour, expressed similar sentiments. “I am an only child, but I have a hundred brothers and sisters from growing up with this game,” Rajsich says.

There is a rather hardcore subculture surrounding racquetball that is inherent in the “no pain, no gain” nature of the sport. However, it appears the struggle these incredible athletes endure to keep the sport alive fosters a strong bond between them.

From ‘Been There, Done That’ to Comeback!

Racquetball, the hybrid of tennis and handball, was introduced as a sport in 1968. The popularity skyrocketed in the ’70s with the help of the “fitness boom.” In the late ’80s it began its decline as courts were converted into aerobics classrooms and weight rooms.

“In the ’80s (racquetball) was huge,” Thoerner says. “Once the aerobics craze came on, it faded, because you could fit 16 to 20 people on a court.”

If you’ve ever smacked your head on the entrance to the stretching room in SPAC, you may have noticed it’s strikingly similar to the racquetball courts. Once upon a time, the stretching room in SPAC was a racquetball court – so blame your minor concussions on the aerobics craze.

It may seem as though racquetball has seen its heyday, but Dave Negrete, Commissioner of the International Racquetball Tour, is optimistic about its future. “Really, racquetball is on the rise again,” Negrete says. “There was a 19 percent increase in participation last year.”

Negrete credits this apparent
revival to the return of the baby-boomers and college-aged interest. Sometimes I don’t know whether to be embarrassed to be seen parading around Bobb Hall with a racquetball racquet in hand (since it is such an outdated accessory). But after seeing the pros return 200 mph balls with impeccable placement, I realize how proud I am to be trying. If you’ve never tried racquetball, put it on your “Things to do Before I Leave Northwestern” list, and contribute to its comeback.

Medill sophomore Perris Richter is a PLAY writer. She can be reached at [email protected]