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A SOFT APPROACH TO TEACHING HARD HITS : Steve Strandemo Has a Nice Racquet

July 01, 1988|BILL WALKER | Times Staff Writer

Other pros with even greater reputations than Strandemo have attempted similar teaching formats--either during or at the close of their careers, none with much success. Says Strandemo: "The name players have never studied the game. They've learned to play on the highest level but they don't really understand what they do and they don't know how to convey it."

Racquetball was born on a YMCA handball court in Greenwich, Conn., in 1950, but learned to walk at the opposite end of the country. It was in San Diego where the name players congregated--Charlie Brumfield, Bud Muehleisen and Steve Keeley.

Among the first wave of amateur players who hit San Diego in the early 1970s to challenge the incumbent heavyweights was the 24-year-old Strandemo, who had run out of competition in Minnesota.

"I saw Brumfield when I played in the nationals in St. Louis in 1973," he recalled. "I got my butt kicked but I didn't mind. It was great, seeing the game the way it should be played, and I was cocky enough to think I could play with these good guys if I figured out how they did it."

Strandemo served out his high school contract and left the Midwest for Southern California. A cousin in San Diego provided living quarters, and Strandemo got around to the various clubs on a bicycle.

"I was getting by on $100 a month," he said. "That was great but I wouldn't have cared where I went. If the players were in Portland, I'd have gone to Portland. And I don't have a cousin there."

Strandemo learned quickly, and with the improvement came subsidization by an equipment manufacturer--entry and travel money to the tournaments. Buoyed by a surge in racquetball's popularity, a professional tour started later in the year and Strandemo's star rose with it. San Diego, in turn, acquired one more permanent resident.

Racquetball's trendiness faded in the late 1970s and many clubs were forced to close, but the game's captains of today are optimistic.

Luke St. Onge, executive director of the American Amateur Racquetball Assn., claims an increase in membership of more than 30% in 1987, up to almost 40,000. And if the sport can shake loose some funding from the United States Olympic Committee, St. Onge believes that racquetball can easily regain the 2 million American players it lost from a high of 10 million in the early 1980s.

St. Onge said that the third racquetball World Championships, held in Orlando, Fla., in 1986, had more countries competing, 20, than the 13 that competed in the second in 1984, which in turn had more than the 6 that were at the first in 1981. The fourth such tournament will be played in Hamburg, West Germany, in August.

"At least 30 countries will be represented," said St. Onge. "Many international sports federations will be looking at that number. There's been great worldwide growth of the sport."

The Pan American Sports Organization will meet in November in Puerto Rico, and it is there, St. Onge believes, that the door to the USOC cache will be unlocked. "We'll be seeking inclusion into the Pan American Games (Miami in 1990) and we feel we've got an excellent chance," he said. "Once we get in, we'll be classified as a Group A sport by the USOC."

That would mean dollars--millions of unrestricted dollars, about 15 times what racquetball is receiving now from the USOC as a Class B sport. The quadrennial USOC budget is $200 million--"It could be a whole lot higher, maybe double, in 1992," said St. Onge--and 46% of the amount is distributed equally among 38 sports.

Should racquetball become the 39th, the AARA is looking at between $2 million and $3 million to promote itself with youth programs, televising of matches, instructors' workshops and the like.

"And that's all we need--to get the exposure, to make it fashionable again to play the game," said St. Onge. "The elements that attracted so many people in the '70s are still there, and this time we've got the organization to handle it. Even now, without the big money, we're getting people back into the game who left it, plus younger players whose primary sport is racquetball and who'll never leave it."

It has been theorized that aerobics and weight machines, each of which can put a couple of dozen people on a racquetball-sized floor, were mainly responsible for the sport's decline. Many club owners covered the courts with carpeting and turned to those activities.

Strandemo doesn't concur. "Racquetball did it to itself," he said. "The owners just opened the doors and took the money. Nobody covered the bases. Most racquetball clubs still don't have a pro. Amazing!

"I don't think there's a golf or a tennis club in the whole country without a qualified teaching pro. And that's just part of it. There was no single nationwide organization to pool efforts and set up things like pro tours and junior programs. Everybody was looking out for himself.

"You know, some things, some sports, never get momentum. Racquetball had it--and lost it. It's a shame."

If racquetball is going the way some of its leaders believe it is going, Strandemo may be just around the corner from a commercial, the one for a credit card company in which the name is more familiar than the face.

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