In today’s superfast shoot, shoot, shoot game it seems that even the top players in the world on the International Racquetball Tour (IRT) have a philosophy of playing the ball, not their opponent. They have practiced for hours all their shots repeatedly and play what can be called ‘situational racquetball’. They select shots exclusively based on where the ball bounces in the court paying little attention to how that shot plays into the strengths or weakness of the opponent. While this brand of racquetball has advantages and clearly has a place in your repertoire, it’s not the only strategy to play and in some cases is not the best. By Bo Keeley
When I was a young player of all sports there was a sports comic book in which a superhero team visited the home court of a super-villains with a nefarious referee and little chance of winning- sounds like old time racquetball- until one of the good guys instructed his teammates to stop at certain X´s around the court and take the same shots repeatedly. This is where I learned situational strategy.
If you encounter an opponent you’ve never played before in a league match or tournament, and you’ve heard no scouting report, and observe no weaknesses during his warmup, then situational racquetball of playing the ball and not your adversary is definitely the way to start the match. As the games progress and you pick up a flaw or tendency in the your opponent´s game, you can switch to a modified strategy of taking your best shots, while looking to expose your rival´s weakness, and take advantage of his tendencies and patterns. Then in the course of the match the shot selection technique often evolves entirely to picking the challenger’s weaknesses like an old scab while avoiding his strengths.
Do all contestants have at least one weakness? The answer is yes, in that there is the weakest link in any chain. But it’s not always that easy to spot and exploit it. For a decade in the 70´s I played the best of the best and the best of the rest in the world of racquetball and virtually all had weaknesses. This is how at one time or another I was able to beat all of the national champs of an era. They were stellar, better and quicker and greater stamina athletes than I, but in fact most had more than one weakness. I was able to spot and catalogue flaws like a baseball pitcher knows the areas to pitch to of all the power hitters in the majors. In virtually every good to great player I ever played there was either a chink in the armor or weakest link in the chain, and you can learn to spot and exploit them too. It´s usually worth three points in an eleven point game and five in a fifteen pointer to target a flaw. Can you afford to give those points away? If your name is not Kane Waselenchuk, the answer is probably no.
One of the most feared and revered champions of the 1970’s was Bill Schmidtke. He was feared for his unmatched forehand kill shot and revered as not only a two-time national champ but as a great sportsman who was liked and admired by all including the elevator and garbage men whom he solicited for their autographs. Schmidtke did what nobody else could do from 1971 to 1976 in usurping Charlie Brumfield as national champion. Bill and Charlie won every major national title for six straight years. Charlie reports that he won when Bill forgot to send him chocolates the night before a finals, and Bill that he lost when Charlie ate the chocolates and forgot to send him beer. Brumfield won the 1972 and 1973 IRA Nationals as well as the 1975 and 1976 NRC Nationals. The only titles Brum didn’t win were taken by Schmidtke who won the 1971 and 1974 IRA National Championships with Brum and the rest of the top players in the draw. Bill’s ability to relax and play well on big points was legendary, and his endurance to run hard and play all day was amazing.
I had the honor of drawing the defending national champion Schmidtke in the first round of the first National Invitational Championship in 1971. While I was the new National Paddleball Champion, my experience with strung racquets was a few months paling next to Bill who had been a finalist in 1968 at the first ever National Strung Paddlerackets Tournament- that´s what it was called way back then. I noticed immediately that Bill’s backhand posed no offensive threat, and that even though he never missed a forehand he struggled with my backhand down the line ceiling shots, pass drives and kill shots. I could beat Bill on all levels as long as I kept the ball along the left side wall and away from the vaunted forehand. I turned the 40´x20´ court to 40´x1´ isolating the entire match along the left side wall. While it required control and concentration exposing Schmidtke’s vulnerability led to a 21-8, 21-4 victory over the multiple national champ. I would continue with that same strategy for the rest of my career against Bill beating him nineteen out of twenty games, only losing a 21-20 tiebreaker coming off mononucleosis that I still can’t remember a point of to this day. Even the great Schmidtke could be neutralized by recurrently exposing his weakness.
In the next round, which was the quarters of the sixteen man Invitational, I played New York State Champion Charlie Garfinkle. Never having played each other before we each entered the match with the same situational shots of hitting forehands kills into the forehand corner and backhand kills into the backhand corner, and when in question drive or ceiling to the other guy´s backhand. This played right in to my sweet spot as I had the best backhand killshot and the second best backhand ceiling game after, Charlie Brumfield. My backhand was stronger than my forehand, which was highly unusual in the early 70’s. The Great Gar’s forehand was solid as oak but his backhand didn’t hold up as I picked at it like a woodpecker until I won the first game 21-1, an unheard of score against a star player. Yet Gar was also a keen strategist and reversed the second game with his never-before-seen patented Garfinkle Serve to my forehand. (A shoulder height Z medium paced serve that would bounce a foot behind the short line, strike the right side wall and die in the right rear corner.) By keeping the ball away from my trusty backhand he turned the direction of the match and won the second game 21-18. I regrouped in game three, stepped up and cut off the Garfinkle Serve with a forehand volley (before the short hop service return rule) and was able to expose his backhand again in game three for a competitive 21-12 tiebreaker to move to the semis.
As an aside and in the gallery that day Carl Loveday who begat Bud Muehleisen who begat Charlie Brumfield together developed most of the shots of pioneer racquetball. However, as Brum is apt to say, ´Even a blind squirrel finds an acorn´, and against Gar I had invented the definitive fly return that sealed his doom on the tournament circuit as other players picked it up, which is too bad because I really liked him.
After losing in the semis to my often nemesis, Charlie Brumfield with Brums Bleacher Bums hoisting signs that said and singing, ´Brum #1, God #2, Keeley #3´, I had to play teenage phenom Steve Serot in the third place match. At the age of fifteen Serot already had the best combination of a power backhand, power forehand and unmatched diving and court coverage of any player on the hardwood. To make matters worse, he was a lefty. Thankfully even Serot had one Achilles heel. He hadn’t yet developed the ceiling game that Brumfield and I had mastered and some say invented. While Serot was the most dangerous player in the world from the front wall to thirty-five feet back, I managed with consistent ceiling shots mixed with a few Around the World and high Z balls that he also had not seen, to keep Steve 36´or deeper throughout the match. From there even young ‘Splinter Chest’ couldn’t dive and retrieve my kill shots. By finding his single flaw chest high in deep court I was able to take the match 21-11, 21-11 against the player who turned out to be my toughest opponent and best rival for a decade.
Even the best players over the years have had some part of their game that left them exposed or at least neutralized their strengths.
Cliff Swain, the player I consider the best ever, and Mike Ray his southpaw rival dominated in the early and mid 90’s but shared the same weakness. Ray is well over six feet tall, thin and had long arms and legs. While Swain was an inch or so under six feet, he had the wingspan of a player much taller, allowing him like Ray to get to balls that seemed to be well out reach. Both players liked to camp out at center court just behind the short line. This position was exploitable. Marty Hogan and Sudsy Monchik were more successful against Swain and Ray than any other players in history because they attacked that little known defect. Both Cliff and Mike who could cover the whole 20 foot width of the court in a bound were vulnerable against a hard ball hit just to the right of their bodies. Instead of hitting away from the two storks, Marty and Sudsy pounded body shots causing the lefties to flick the ball back with their backhands because even with perfect swing preparation their front court position and long arms left them open to the direct attack. Swain and Ray conquered all challengers for an era except Hogan and Monchik who discovered their little known weakness.
Marty and Sudsy shared a common vulnerability as well, but it took nerves of steel to expose it. Marty hit the ball over 140 MPH with a small racquet and Sudsy hit it well over 180 MPH with the big racquet, and the pair were the two hardest hitters of their generation. Both owned explosive power off the backhand and forehand wings but both players were prone to making infrequent mistakes with their ultra-powerful forehands. On the professional level this is a foible. So, if you overcame the fear of their pace and kept the ball deep to the forehand both Hogan and Monchik would eventually yield a ball slightly up, or skip a few forehands and hand you the game if you worked hard. Most players avoided their thunderous power and hit the ball to their powerful backhands that were more consistent, and of course most players lost that way.
Ruben Gonzalez and Jason Mannino both hailed from Staten Island and are two of the fastest players to play the game and two of the best front court players you’ll ever see. The only way to neutralize these two diving machines is to keep them deep in the back court while you take center court position. While keeping them deep is no cakewalk to victory, letting them stay in the front court is their walk in the park. You must force them into the improbable odds of beating you from 36´ to 40´ deep. In the early years of the slow ball before these guys were born to the court, I did it with the ceiling shot, high Z and Around the World ball. Later in the 80´s squash legend Victor Neiderhoffer kept Ruben deep in the back with precise wide angle and down the rail passes. And in the 90´s Sudsy beat both Ruben and Jason with crushing cross-court power passes to either side. No matter how you do it, you had better keep the two New Yorkers really deep or sign the ball´s death warrant.
We just dissected the vulnerabilities of ten of the best players in the history of the sport. With keen observation and a refined strategy, you too can expose the weakness in anybody’s game.
This article was written by Bo Keeley the author of the Complete Book of Racquetball and a 1970’s top pro. Bo collaborated with Randy Stafford, a past president of USA racquetball and founder of the Court Company and www.RacquetballMuseum.com and Brett Elkins who is the Chairman of the World Outdoor Racquetball Hall of Fame (WORHOF), founder of SportsChampionship.com and co-author of the newly-released book “Teach Your Teen to Drive…and stay alive (#3 best-selling book in its class on Amazon)