Racquetball is a sport played on a court with four walls, usually indoors, that requires a racquet and a small blue ball that is hollow and made of rubber. It can be played by two, three, or four players.
In racquetball, the object of the game is to score points, which a player can only do when serving, similar to the game of tennis. To do so, the player must win a serve or rally (back-and-forth hitting of the ball). If the returning player wins the rally, it is called a “sideout” and the returner now becomes the server. If the serving player (or team) wins a rally, he or she scores the point and the opportunity to serve again. The rally ends when one of the players is unable to reach the ball for their shot before it touches the floor twice or is unable to hit the ball so that it touches the front wall of the court before it touches the floor. A player also loses a rally if he or she is called for hindering another player.
According to the International Racquetball Federation (IRF), 5.6 million Americans play racquetball each year, and the game is enjoyed in 90 countries by 14 million players. The U.S. Racquetball Association has at least 3 million members. Most are in the 25- to 44-year-old age group; the average age of an association member is about 30 years old. About 60% are men and 40% are women. The IRF holds junior and senior world championships each year for its member countries around the world. Junior championships are for girls and boys ages 10 to 18. Senior championship events are held for women and men ages 35 through 85 and over.
According to historical accounts, racquetball began in the 1800s when British men who could not pay their debts had to go to special prisons. Most of these men came from well-to-do backgrounds and had played tennis in their younger years. They began hitting balls against the prison walls with their tennis racquets and called the game “rackets.” In no time, the game also was being played by schoolchildren against brick walls of school buildings.
Soon the game traveled to Canada with British Army soldiers, then to the United States. It once was an Olympic event. A man named Joe Sobek, who was a tennis pro, played handball but found that it hurt his hands. Handball is similar to racquetball in purpose, but not in equipment. In handball, the ball is slightly smaller and harder, and the players use no racquets. Sobek combined rules from squash and handball to create a new game and designed racquets that were smaller than tennis racquets, introducing about 25 samples in 1950 at his local Young Mens Christian Association (YMCA). It turns out that the YMCA had just added thousands of handball courts in their gyms all around the country. He worked with a company to design the perfect ball to work with his racquets and the American sport of racquetball was born. Sobek now is referred to as “The Father of Racquetball.”
Sobek began promoting his sport and eventually worked with Robert Kendler, head of the U.S. Handball Association, to start the International Racquetball Association in the late 1960s. The first tournament was held in Connecticut in 1963. Gut string was added to the rackets and throughout the 1970s, the racquet changed designs and materials. Aluminum alloy frames were introduced in 1971, and fiberglass frames the following year. By 1979, graphite frames were made, and the biggest change came in 1984, when large, oversized racquets became standard for most players. The handles still were shorter than those of tennis racquets, but the heads were much larger.
Some amateur and professional players have grown in popularity and helped better position the sport for growth. By the mid-1980s, popularity of the sport declined and many sports clubs closed some of their courts. The IRF says that the decline leveled off and the game is more popular again. There have been world championships in racquetball held twice a year since 1981 and the game was accepted as a sport in the Pan American Games in 1995. A U.S. Open championship is held yearly; it offers prize money for professional players. Supporters and players are trying to position racquetball as an Olympic sport in the future.
Racquetball is a competitive sport that involves returning a rubber ball with a strung racquet. When two players play, it is called a singles game (one player against the other). Doubles play involves two teams, with two players each; doubles can be men's, women's, or mixed (a player of each sex on each team). Another version of the game that can be played for fun but not in official competitions involves three players. It is called cutthroat. The serving side scores points when the server hits a serve that can't be returned at all (an ace) or wins a rally. There are four walls on a racquetball court. The ball can touch any of these walls in a rally, as long as it does not touch the floor twice before the player returns it or touch the floor before it touches the front wall. A serve must hit the front wall before touching the floor or another wall or it is deemed a sideout for the server. If the players are in a doubles match, loss of serve is called “handout” and the other player on the team serves.
There are many rules regarding serves, but in general, the serve must hit the front wall first and be longer than a line marked as the service line, but shorter than the back wall. It also cannot hit the ceiling without first touching a side wall or hit three walls before touching the floor. In every division except the most advanced (open division), players get two chances to serve the ball correctly. In the open division, they get only one chance. The receiver cannot hit the ball before it passes a plane marked by a line on the court, but can hit a ball in the air as soon as it passes that point. He or she must hit the ball before it touches the floor a second time. The returned ball can hit any wall first, but must hit the front wall before touching the floor. Failing to return the serve or any ball in a rally is a point for the server. Players also must observe rules about making sure the opponent is ready and that each do not block the other or hinder play.
These rallies continue, with the player who wins the rally either scoring a point if he or she is server, or switching to the serving side if he or she is receiver. The match is not over until one player or team wins two games. The first two games are played to 15 points. If each side wins a game, they play a tiebreaker to 11 points.
Doubles play offers other rules about where players stand during serves and how the players exchange serving. Racquetball played for recreation usually does not have referees. Players should become familiar with all rules and etiquette of the game, such as definitions of technical fouls, hinders, and equipment requirements. Tournament play may involve referees, but players must closely follow rules set forth by the IRF and USAR. Tournament play is based on skill levels; a doubles team plays at the level of the more highly skilled player.
Learning the official rules of racquetball is part of preparation for the sport. Another way to prepare is to watch a match in action. Many clubs have competition courts with clear glass walls for spectators, and others can be viewed from above. Referees call matches from above the court, and there are walkways that spectators also can view matches from. Once hooked, a future racquetball player only needs to purchase or borrow the appropriate equipment and be sure he or she is in condition to play this high-intensity sport.
Racquets vary widely in price, but new players can purchase starter racquets for as little as US$20. Some clubs also loan racquets when players reserve courts. Advanced players spend up to US$200 on their racquets. Balls usually come in cans of two; they're typically blue, but can be other colors, and only cost a few dollars. A special glove is important to help maintain grip on the racquet handle, especially when sweating. It's not required, but is a good idea. Any type of court shoe (tennis shoe) helps players move around the wooden floor of the racquetball court quickly and safely. Finally, eyewear is essential. Tournament play requires special goggles that help protect the eyes from injury if a racquet or ball hits the player. The racquetball court generally is located at a private gym, but may be found at community college or recreational facilities. It has four walls, a ceiling that opens at the back, and a door in the back wall where players enter. Lines mark the service box and service line. Standard court size is about 20 feet wide and 40 feet deep.
Racquetball is a highly aerobic sport, equivalent to about running three 10-minute miles or 30 minutes of martial arts training. Preparing for competitive play means good anaerobic conditioning, healthy muscles and joints, and good reflexes. Strength training, stretching, and programs that help condition athletes for quick, short bursts of activity can help prepare them for racquetball. The muscles used most include the forearms, rotator cuffs, upper back, shoulders, quadriceps, triceps, hamstrings, chest, and calf muscles.
According to the California State Racquetball Association, players can burn more than 600 calories an hour. That's also the average time it takes to play a three-game match. Playing the game increases coordination and flexibility. A study from the Netherlands that lasted two years showed that regular intensive exercise from sports such as racquetball helped improve joints in people who had rheumatoid arthritis. The study also found psychological benefits; people felt more optimistic and better able to cope with their conditions.
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Teresa G. Odle, B.A., ELS