THE ALL-TIME BEST RACQUETBALL PLAYER AWARD
By Bo Keeley
When the racquetball day is done, the question of the century is who was and is the best player ever. The top seven contenders in my mind are Cliff Swain, Sudsy Monchik, Mike Ray, Marty Hogan, Mike Yellen, Charley Brumfield and Bud Muehleisen. Each world champion represents an era of sequential domination for a total of 28 world championships! I've vied against each in tournaments except Swain, Sudsy and Ray, whom I've recently practiced against and scrutinized in pro competition. I feel qualified in offering a dossier of each player's game - before opening the final envelope.
The finalists (chronologically)
Chronologically, the earliest great player was Bud Muehleisen whose twenty-year career amassed a record 69 national and international titles! His forehand simply boomed, and the best shot I ever saw was a deep court kill that split the ball in halves that neatly rolled off either front corner. He earns my personal vote as racquetball's best all-racquet players of the twentieth century. Mule's grave racquetball deficiency was a backhand that a top player could dissect to win. (One 'World Championship'.)
Charley Brumfield, the loveable scoundrel, admits his success came 50% by virtue of a deadly forehand, and 50% from a court presence that turned opponents gray in one evening. His generic game plan that wasn't topped for nearly a decade was to soft serve each time to initiate a ceiling return and, having the best ceiling game, to out-waited and brow-beating the rival until the set-up and put-away. He is the omnipresent 'villain' while pestering the foe, ramrodding the ref, and fomenting the crowd. He is chased around and out of courts and clubs, and I personally have leaped to his physical defense on two events. He has handed out more tournament 'donuts' (zero points) than any other player despite a junior's backhand, which speaks volumes for his other attributes. (Four 'World Championships'.)
Marty Hogan knocked racquetball on its butt, wrenching the crown from Brumfield and the talented field with an unprecedented power style that engendered the strokes of millions of players in the 80's. He is the missing link between early control ball and modern rip-and-snort. One sees fragments even in today's courts of his high backswing, pendulum stroke, and deep, mid-line contact. He invented the power drive serve, and was the first to conquer the alleys in making shots run the side walls for irretrievable 'wall-paper balls'. He is beaten on occasion when you sneak a slow ball or osmotic yawn into the court. Beyond this, he's dreadfully difficult to play. (Six World Championships.) Mike Yellen was the first player to embrace the oversized racquet in the early '80's and capitalize on its advantages to win five straight championships after Hogan's reign. This coup has theoretical interest since Hogan was thought to be 'the player of the century': Mike was the most consistent player in those years and never backslid in the season-long rankings, whereas Marty dropped infrequent matches to other players, or didn't play in events Yellen won. Mike had a complete, ferocious game, lacking only a volley backhand that could be 'picked and scratched' all match long by the right player, yet few realized it and called Yellen their most feared rival. (Five World Championships.)
The best control player in the sport has been Mike Ray. His dual kill and overhead attack resides in the most classic, picturesque strokes. He loses occasionally for lack of a spark of strong service. Anyone who enters the court against Ray the 'control' is a variable in a sweaty experiment where the outcome is always determined by the variable since Ray never beats himself. He's the recipient of the most Sportsmanship awards, and admits his style is 'pure execution, hair-tearing to play against, and utterly boring to watch.' (One World Championship.)
Screamin' Sudsy Monchik ".picked up the racquet at age five, and it seemed to call to me. It said, 'Hey Sudsy, hit screaming rubber balls at a wall...' It was destiny!'' His brand is 170 mph drive serves and shoot-em up rallies. Points are often punctuated by graceful dives. He claims to be everyone's worst nightmare on the court, but off-court he's gregarious and flocked by youths screamin' 'Sudsy! Monchik was hands down the best junior player ever in winning every junior age division from 8 - 18 in both singles and doubles. He is the most confident player to take racquet in hand, and offers no stirring deficiency. (Five World Championships.)
Cliff Swain is the only player aboard to recognize and utilize the drive serve as a one-weapon arsenal, yet he has all the other shots. He's the hardest hitter at 180 mph, and the best all-around athlete with accolades in hockey, baseball and tennis. A Clark Kent stoicism may verge on flying off-the-walls, so opponents nervously gauge. 'Early racquet preparation is my secret,' he says of every stroke and shot, as he resembles a giant insect in black hi-tops stalking the ball with his lefty wing in constant salute. There's not a teensy crack in his game, except the serves that streak three no-touch aces in a row. (Six World Championships.)
The final envelope please It's a photo finish between Marty Hogan and Cliff Swain, each with six world championships. Their parallel winning game style of power serve and shoot is something for young players to mimic.
Hogan has the best fast ball backhand ever, carries more power into the tiebreaker by virtue of being the greatest physical specimen the game's seen, and nearly always comes out on top in close matches by becoming maniacal. He's the comeback king who, like the mythological wrestler who grew stronger each time he was thrown to mother earth, you can count him down but never out. A tiny crevice that shown in his early game was a lack of patience on shoulder high backhands repeated in deep court, but this was smoothed over by the fastball advent in the late 70's.
Swain is Mr. drive, Drive DRIVE the serve and kill. He hits harder than anyone, and as accurately. There are no weaknesses. He focuses like a magnifying glass, and there are no comebacks. The final tip of the scale is that he's an intellectual trapped in an athlete's body. At their equal best, he could never out-blast or out-last Hogan, but he can out-think him. The winner of the 'All-time Best Racquetball Player Award' is Cliff Swain.
The champs, your game, and the future What does all this mean for your game and the future of the sport? The underlying intent is inspiration! Select and emulate the consistent traits through the march of champions. Remember, every world champ spends thousands of solo hours in practice. Some observed the maxim, 'You can't stay up with the owls at night and fly with the eagles in the daytime', and some refrained. Many have outdoor one-wall, squash and general athletic backgrounds. All are mighty individualists on and off-court who, in many cases, developed fresh personal strokes and strategies in defiance of the status quo. Most were gracious winners and, seldom, losers. After collecting their assets, focus on the infrequent weaknesses of even these greats, and strive to eliminate them through astute practice. Dream big, play hard, have fun, and hold dear that the only life constant is change.
Glimpse at the future of our sport through the glasses of retrospect. The game since Muehleisen hit the first winner's circle.. through Brumfield, Hogan, Yellen, Ray, Monchik, Sudsy and Swain.. has quickened with faster balls and bigger-headed racquets. I expect the near-future champs will own their predecessors' excellence with a continuing acceleration of pace of play to the possible oblivion of the sport, unless a speed 'governor' is established via equipment or rule limitations.
The elite best of the rest in order after Swain are:
Honorable mention: Ruben Gonzales, Dave Peck and Bill Schmidtke.
World champions all!
Conflicting opinions. This award ceremony is a personal speculation, and is not complete without qualified dissenters:
The best fastball player I ever saw was Marty Hogan, and the best slow-ball player I ever saw was Bud Muehleisen. However, the game today generally shows a dramatic improvement over yesteryear. (Charley Brumfield, 4-time national champion)
I refuse to answer. But the second question you ask is how Marty Hogan today would do against Hogan the young champ. With the modern equipment, Hogan today beats Hogan yesterday. But with the older, tiny racquets, the younger Hogan wins because there was a premium on shot selection and strategies. Marty Hogan, 6-time world champion I'm happy to have taken the game to a new level in the 90's. But remember, evolution is the rule of life and there were record breakers before me and there will be record breakers after me. (Sudsy Monchik, 5-time world champion)
I played for the full decades of the 80's and 90's, and saw the small racquets go to big, the two serves to one, the ball changes of speed and colors, and the accompanying strategy evolutions. Given the breadth of variables, it's hard to judge the best player in the entire history. (Mike Ray, 1-time world champion)
I've seen all the champs play since nearly day one, and in my opinion the all-time best is Mike Yellen. Mike was a combination of the hardest playing and smartest with natural talent. (Jim Hiser, Executive-director USRA)
The best player in the history of the game is Cliff Swain. Today's Legends players, given health and fitness, without a doubt can compete with the top pros of today or yesteryear. (Corey Brysman, Legend's pro)
I saw the all-time best play a long time ago. To me, he flat rolled out shots all over the court with both strokes, and that was Marty Hogan. (Jeff Leon, Best Coach Ever)
Cliff Swain is the greatest by virtue of athletic excellence, persistence, and an unbeatable drive serve. (Scott Hirsch, Co-founder Legends Pro Tour)
The years they won world titles:
Cliff Swain '90, '93, '94, '95, '99, '02
Marty Hogan '77, '78, '79, '80, '81, '89
Sudsy Monchik '96, '97, '98, '00, '01
Charley Brumfield '71, '72, '75, '76
Mike Yellen '83, '84, '85, '86' '87
Bud Muehleisen '69
Mike Ray '91