My First Racquetball Tournament
by Justin Johnson
My first racquetball tournament experience came on the weekend of March 4-6, 2011 in Fargo, North Dakota. It was a life-changing moment, one that left a permanent impression in my mind. Known as the March Madness racquetball tournament, it has consistently been the biggest event in North Dakota with players from North Dakota, Minnesota, South Dakota, and Canada participating.
Heading into the tournament I felt anxious, not knowing what to expect and wanting to play as soon as possible to relieve the stress that goes hand-in-hand with competition. But as I laid eyes on the first opponent I would face, I began to wonder if all the worrying was for nothing. The 12-year-old little kid making his way toward my court at the Fargo YMCA didn’t look like much at all, and I was certain our match would be done in no time.
Had Ordean Knudson, my first coach and racquetball mentor, misjudged my talent and competitive drive when he advised me to enter the B division? He was certain that I was too good to play in the C division, where racquetball newbies and less than stellar competitors played at slower speeds as they learned the game. Was it a mistake that I hadn’t entered the A division?
My young Canadian opponent, a kid from Brandon, Manitoba named Connor Madill, promptly answered those questions and gave me my first lesson in racquetball humility.
When I first saw Connor, the tension and anxiety I felt leading up to that point disappeared and was replaced with a calm certainty that I would have no problems getting a win in my first-ever racquetball match... That’s not exactly the way things turned out…
Upon entering the court, the kid began his warmup routine by unleashing crisp forehands and backhands that sent a spike of adrenaline through my body. Oh crap, I thought. This kid’s good. And when his father volunteered to referee the match, I started worrying about getting homered with bad calls. Turns out my concerns were completely off the mark. You couldn’t ask for a better guy than Pat Madill, and I soon discovered that this racquetball family was one of the coolest groups of people I could have possibly met in my first racquetball outing. I visited at length with Pat, his wife Laureen, and Connor following the match and talked to them several times during the tournament. They are true ambassadors of the sport and made me feel at home, checking in on my progress throughout the weekend and giving me encouragement along the way.
The roller coaster of emotions I had experienced leading up to my first match was amazing. One moment I was anxious, the next totally at ease, and now here I was moments before my first match thinking: I’m about to get my ass kicked by a little kid.
That’s essentially what happened. Connor, who had just finished playing for a junior national championship in Canada, had me scrambling around the court in a frenzy of nervous energy. He took game number one 15-12, and had he not been so frustrated in game number two I would have been completely embarrassed. I squeaked out a 15-4 win in the second game thanks to a series of lob serves to Connor’s forehand, but it was mainly his young temper that caused him to skip too many service returns. He was hard on himself during that game and he gave away too many points trying to overpower his shots.
Unfortunately for me, he managed to control his anger and use it as fuel during an 11-1 ass-kicking in the tiebreaker. My first tournament match was over.
It was a humbling loss and taught me my first racquetball lesson, one that mediocre players get reminded of time and time again until they reach a certain understanding of the game – it doesn’t matter what your opponent looks like. What matters is what they bring onto the court.
After that first loss against Connor I made my way over to tournament headquarters at a club called Courts Plus. The trip across town would allow me to stew in my disappointment for another 15 minutes.
My spirits were lifted as I accepted a hooded sweatshirt from the tournament director and I was immediately drawn to the activity surrounding me as I checked in. There was a buzz in the hallway outside the courts, and the walking track that served as a buffer between the hallway and the court entrances added to the atmosphere. There were racquetball bags lined up on both sides of the hallway, and I remember thinking how cool all the gloves looked hanging down from the shoulder straps.
Man… I need to get a bag and a bunch of gloves, I thought. Right from the jump I wanted to fit in and look the part. The shoes were just as intriguing, and I began making a mental list of everything that looked cool to me.
As I pondered my upcoming racquetball purchases I started to think about my first consolation match early the next morning. I better get back home, I told myself. I need to get some sleep.
But hearing the whaps and bangs of racquetballs slamming against concrete walls provided an orchestra of intriguing sounds to my young racquetball ears, and I was beckoned upstairs into the viewing area where you could watch matches from 20 feet above the court.
Prior to the tournament Ordean told me to watch some Open division matches when I was done playing, certain I would enjoy and appreciate watching the intense play and high skill level. Boy oh boy, was he right on the money. I will never forget seeing a young Kurtis Cullen cracking blistering forehands down the line on court number one as he prepared to take on Dave Gordon, a tough competitor who would quickly become another favorite of mine. I couldn’t believe how hard Cullen hit the ball. When he swung, his racquet cut through the air so fast that it produce a whipping sound.
Damn, that’s cool, I thought. I want to be able to hit it like that.
I took out my cell phone to call Ordean, raving about how hard this guy was hitting the ball. After providing him with a brief description, Ordean knew who I was watching.
“That must be Kurtis Cullen,” he said.
He gave me names of other players to look for, and after making a few mental notes I walked down the line of courts, peeking over the rail to get a look. I felt like a kid in a candy store. As I walked by each court there were shots that I wanted to hit, power that I wanted to possess, and control of shots that made me envious.
At that moment, the essence of the game became a part of my soul. I was officially hooked – a racquetball junkie after just one fix.
Eventually I made my way back to watch the Kurtis Cullen and Dave Gordon match. Cullen, serving high lob Zs to Gordon’s forehand, was more than a little bit frustrated as the veteran cut off serve after serve for winners. Cullen eventually gave the referee an earful, insisting that Gordon was encroaching. It was the first time I had witnessed a racquetball player yelling at a ref – not something I was particularly fond of then or now, but it was pretty entertaining. It added to the drama of a young buck getting fired up about a wily vet pulling out all the stops to stay in the match. Gordon eventually pulled out an 11-10 upset win in the tiebreaker.
What an unbelievable match, I thought.
Before thinking it through, I ran downstairs to congratulate Gordon on his win. He must have thought that I was some kind of weirdo, approaching him as he sat outside the court sweating and panting after a hard-fought battle. I introduced myself as a friend of Ordean Knudson to break the ice and then found myself going on and on about how much I enjoyed watching him play. It must have been awkward for him I’m sure, but I was on cloud nine from all the excitement. I was in awe of how they played. I wanted to be that good.
As I looked up at the clock on the wall I realized time had flown by. It was late now, and I didn’t want to drive an hour to get home and get up early in the morning to drive an hour back. I wanted to be well-rested and ready to go, especially after witnessing such a great match. My enthusiasm was high and I was eager to stay alive in the tournament, so I drove a mile down the road and checked into a hotel.
In the lonesome confines of my room that night I thought about my first tournament experience. My humiliating defeat to a 12-year-old was now long forgotten, and all I could think about was the intense racquetball action I had witnessed at Courts Plus. I was impressed by how many people took such an interest in the match between Gordon and Cullen and the appreciation they had for their abilities. I loved the atmosphere.
I want to play in a match like that, I thought to myself.
Just before falling asleep I reflected on how watching the best players warm up could be an experience in and of itself. Prior to the start of the Cullen-Gordon matchup, people from all around the club wandered over to watch Kurtis Cullen pound the ball into submission during warmups. There was an energy you could feel coming from the gallery of people watching in their perch above the court. There was an anticipation you could feel in the air – you knew people were waiting to see just how good this kid was.
So as I entered the court early in the morning to warm up for my B consolation match, I tried to do my best impression of Kurtis Cullen. I started swinging out of my shoes in an effort to send the ball screaming into the front wall with all the energy I could muster. I swung over and over as hard as I could, waiting to see if anybody would come over to watch me hit. Shockingly, a crowd never formed. I do, however, recall one person coming over for a minute to watch and asking me what my name was. Cool… This guy must think I’m pretty good! Turns out it was the ref making sure I was on the court in time.
I went on to beat a young kid by the name of Branden Anderson in my early morning consolation match for my first tournament victory. I was nervous and I could tell he was too, because he knew this was my first tournament and he had been playing for quite a while. The 15-5, 15-12 victory meant the world to me.
I would go on to beat an older gentleman named Brian Bogart in my second consolation match, a fun-loving guy with a beer belly and a unique perspective on life. I still remember how amped up I was for that match. After getting my first taste of victory I wanted to keep going. My hands were shaking so bad after winning the first game 15-10 that I couldn’t open the door to get out of the court. I’m sure they were shaking just as much following a nail-biter in game number two, which I won 15-14.
My nerves weren’t the only reason my hands were shaking. Contributing to my physical state was with a healthy dose of adrenaline and me trying to emulate the Open players competing in the tournament. In between matches I was watching plenty of racquetball and was now trying to reproduce the intensity I saw being displayed. I was trying to play like Open guys, and in the process my adrenaline was skyrocketing.
I finally lost out in the consolation semifinal to end my run – an amazing experience for me and one that changed my entire outlook on the game of racquetball. A Fargo player named Michael Jahnl did me in, a bigger guy who hit the ball hard and brought an intimidating presence onto the court.
Despite the loss, I was in high spirits. I couldn’t wait to try it again. I was looking forward to getting back onto the court as soon as possible to try playing like some of my new racquetball idols. When I got back home I was drive serving like Dave Gordon, attempting to produce the racquet speed of Kurtis Cullen, and trying to finesse high-arcing lob serves like Curt Huot.
I didn't leave that first tournament with a trophy or any prize, but I definitely felt like I had won something. Throughout the weekend I quickly discovered how many nice people were involved with the sport. Brad Johnson, a guy from Grand Forks, North Dakota who would later become a good friend, was one of the first to introduce himself and visit with me at the tournament. Kent Osland, another one of Ordean Knudson's students of the game, was friendly and welcoming when I introduced myself in the hallway of Courts Plus. I even got the chance to visit with Kurtis Cullen, who was friends with the Madill family. Cullen provided more evidence to a theory I developed soon after that Canadians are some of the coolest and nicest people on earth. At a tournament the next season, Cullen was gracious enough to spend more than 30 minutes visiting with me about swing mechanics and other racquetball concepts. I was so impressed that somebody so good would spend that kind of time giving advice to a lowly B player like myself. It made a lasting impression on me.
You can find great people like this everywhere when you attend a racquetball tournament, and it's another big contributing factor to the success of the sport. If we can get more racquetball newcomers to try out a tournament for the first time, we can definitely keep the sport growing and thriving.