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April 7, 2000, Friday


WEEKEND WARRIOR; Taking On the Tough Offspring of Handball and Squash

By CHRIS BALLARD (NYT) 1835 words

Sweat was everywhere. It dripped from my chin and fell to the glossy wood floor. I was a Gatorade poster boy, a one-man powerhouse of perspiration.

On the other hand, Jason D'esVerney, my racquetball opponent during a recent outing, wasn't even breathing hard. His goggles were clear, his shirt was dry and he was smiling.

Dropping the ball, he cocked his racket and sent another serve screaming off the front wall. The ball ricocheted off a side wall and rocketed toward the back of the court. I hopped and lunged to my left, feebly backhanding the serve. Mr. D'esVerney (pronounced duh-VEHR-nee) sized up my return and then crushed it low and hard, ending the point. He hadn't moved more than three feet the entire time.

I remember the first time I played racquetball, almost 10 years ago, when I was a freshman in college. My initial reaction was amazement. ''You mean to tell me that no matter how hard I hit the ball, it's never out of bounds?'' I asked my friend Mike. He nodded.

This, I remember thinking, was my kind of game. My quickness and endurance would allow me to track down any shot. My firm belief in the merits of hitting the ball very, very hard would allow me to punish my weak-armed opponents. Better yet, in racquetball -- unlike tennis, where I seemed to hit as many home runs as base-line winners -- my shots would never be out.

Against a recreational player like Mike, this mindless strategy -- whack and run, essentially -- had worked. But against Mr. D'esVerney, the racquetball instructor at the New York Health and Racquet Club in Manhattan, it was woefully inadequate. Mr. D'esVerney yanked me around the 20-by-40-foot shoe box of a court with strategic shots, running me ragged before finishing me off with unreturnable ''kill shots'' that dribbled onto the floor.

For players at Mr. D'esVerney's level, racquetball is as much a cerebral exercise as a physical one, a ''mental chess game,'' as he puts it. The ball moves with such pace, and flies off the four walls and the ceiling at such wacky angles, that pure hustle alone won't keep a player in the game. Think of it as Ping-Pong plus the Pythagorean theorem. Better yet, think of it as handball mixed with squash, which is exactly what racquetball is.

In 1949, Joe Sobek, a Connecticut tennis pro, combined the two sports to create a fast-paced racket sport easy to learn and play. The rules were fairly simple: hit the ball off the front wall before it bounces twice, and games are scored the way volleyball games are scored: you notch a point only on a serve. Mr. Sobek called his creation ''paddle rackets'' (he was obviously an athlete, not a wordsmith) and designed a prototype racket. Racquetball, as the sport was fortunately renamed, caught on at Y.M.C.A.'s and Jewish Community Centers, which already had handball courts perfect for the game.

The sport gained in popularity in the 1960's and 70's, fueled by America's fitness craze. But just as Pet Rocks gave way to Cabbage Patch Kids, racquetball was dethroned in the 1980's by aerobics. The decline continued in the 1990's as clubs converted courts to make space for dancercize, jazzercise and other fanciful aerobics hybrids. Racquetball participation, measured at over 10 million players in 1987, had dipped to 6 million by the end of the 90's, according to the Sporting Goods Manufacturers Association in North Palm Beach, Fla.

Today, that slide has halted. A professional tour started in 1996 has added legitimacy to the sport; ESPN has begun televising occasional tournaments; and young stars like the No. 1-ranked Sudsy Monchik, a player with dyed blond hair who looks like a Backstreet Boy, have injected attitude into the game. The sport is also catching on overseas; it is now played in 91 nations on five continents.

I have fond memories of playing racquetball in my college days, and this winter I decided to get back into the game.

My first move was to call my friend Nick Bundy, who plays regularly. Mr. Bundy, a graduate student at Columbia University, kindly volunteered to whip me into shape. He brought two rackets, and we met at Columbia's gym on a recent afternoon.

The first game was ugly. Mr. Bundy, a smooth hitter with good reflexes, repeatedly fooled me on his serve, a low shot he bounced off two walls. Like a Golden Retriever who bites on the fake tennis ball throw every time, I would start heading one way and then end up out of position after the second carom. By the second game, I was using Mr. Bundy's weapon against him -- in the time-honored tradition of imitation equaling flattery -- and serving low to the corner. By the third game, which I managed to win, I felt as if I were back in the groove.

Inspired, I set a goal for myself: to be able to hit competitively against a good racquetball player. I had heard the New York Health and Racquet Club was where the city's best played, so I made plans to visit. But first, I wanted to watch and learn. The next weekend, I took a train out to Long Island, visiting the Rockville Centre Sportset health club, which was holding a weekend tournament. Included in the draw were two of the top 50 players in the world: Ruben Gonzalez, who was once ranked No. 1 by the International Racquetball Tour, and Mitch Posner, another tour veteran.

When I arrived, around noon, the tourney was already in full swing. Clusters of waiting players, mainly sweaty, serious men over 30, sat and watched the games on the four glass-walled main courts near the gym entrance. Posted charts showed the brackets and divisions, which ranged from mixed doubles to over-55 to Men's Open.

The top-level games were fast and almost violent in their intensity. Players dove, pirouetted to scoop the ball off the back wall, slammed into the plexiglass while chasing down drives and hit between-the-legs shots.

I stayed and watched for a few hours, picking up tips -- stay low, attack your opponent's serve, use high shots to play defense -- and talking with the players. Pumped from what I'd seen, I was eager to play. The time had come to test my game. I called the New York Health and Racquet Club and signed up for a lesson with Mr. D'esVerney, a former competitive volleyball player who has been playing racquetball for 15 years. Though I hoped to learn from the session, I told Mr. D'esVerney what I really wanted to do was play.

The first day was pathetic. He torched me, winning all three games by lopsided scores. A United States Olympic Training Center study reports that players run an average of two miles during an hour of racquetball, but I must have covered at least four. For his part, Mr. D'esVerney probably ran at least three or four hundred yards.

Determined to do better, I came back for more the next week. Once again, Mr. D'esVerney smoked me in the first two games. Again, I was hustling like crazy and hitting the ball with plenty of velocity. What I wasn't doing was playing with any strategy.

''You've got to get me out of the middle,'' Mr. D'esVerney told me when I asked why he was able to dictate the game so easily. ''I'm able to control the action from here and cat-and-mouse you to death.''

He was right. I needed to supplant him, and I wasn't having any luck trying to hit winners from the back of the court. Acting on his advice, I began lobbing to the corners and forcing him to move from the center of the court. This gave me a chance to step up and knock down his returns.

I began hitting kill shots, lobbing to the corners, and, most importantly, thinking, not just reacting. Granted, Mr. D'esVerney was probably taking it easy on me, but I was encouraged that he actually got upset after a couple of the points that he lost. I somehow found myself with 14 against his 13, and I had the serve.

Golden opportunity in hand, I promptly dropped it, misjudging a backhand and losing the point. Mr. D'esVerney went on to win 16 to 14, but I was excited that I had kept it competitive. Even better, as we walked off the court I could swear I saw a couple of drops of sweat on his brow.

Off the Walls

Here are some places in the metropolitan area that offer racquetball courts:

THE NEW YORK HEALTH AND RACQUET CLUB. A high-quality health club chain, New York Health has two Manhattan sites offering racquetball. Each has a pair of courts: 110 West 56th Street, (212) 541-7200, and 39 Whitehall Street, between Pearl and Water Streets, lower Manhattan, (212) 269-9800. A day pass is $50, $20 if you go with a member; there is also a court fee, which ranges from free to $20 weekdays and $10 weekends, depending on the time of day. On Fridays from 5:30 to 11 p.m., a dozen of the best players in town gather at the 56th Street club for the Friday Challenge, an informal round robin tournament (new players are welcome); on Thursdays, from 5 to 9:30 p.m., players gather at the Whitehall Street Club; there is no court fee. Lessons with Jason D'esVerney are $75 an hour.

WEST SIDE Y.M.C.A., 5 West 63rd Street, Manhattan. The Y.M.C.A. has three courts and also racquetball leagues. The day-use fee is $15; $10 if you go with a member. Information: (212) 875-4100.

DOWNTOWN ATHLETIC CLUB, 19 West Street, lower Manhattan. This deluxe club has two courts. The guest fee is $21.65 a day; guests must know a member. Information: 425-7000.

COLUMBIA UNIVERSITY, 116th Street and Broadway, Morningside Heights. Four small courts. The guest fee is $10 a day; guests must be accompanied by a student or faculty member. Information: (212) 854-7149 and ask for the athletic department.

SPORTSET, 40 Maple Avenue, Rockville Centre, N.Y. This spacious Long Island club has nine beautiful courts. Nonmembers can pay a day-use fee of $15 a day at nonpeak hours; lessons, $25 an hour. The club is the site of a few annual tournaments; the next is the Long Island Open this fall. Information: (516) 536-8700. Sportset can be reached via the Long Island Rail Road to the Rockville Centre stop. The club is adjacent to the station. CHRIS BALLARD

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