Women's pro racquetball could be smashing success on TV

John Steadman

May 08, 1991|By John Steadman

Struggling for a place on the already crowded sports stage is the national championship of the Women's Professional Racquetball Association. It's part of the proliferation of games that used to be played on the amateur level for the benefit of exercise and the chance to win a trophy. Now there's a major commercial involvement -- which doesn't detract from the competitive aspect nor does it demean in any way the inherent American desire to make money.

The overall standings and the titleholder for 1991 will be decided this week, starting today and concluding on Sunday, at the Merritt Athletic Club's Security facility. It's the last major event of the tour and 18 of the 20 leading players in the country are entered.

Compared to other professional presentations, the total purse is a modest $15,000, with an expected check of $4,500 going to the winner. The professional division includes 32 of the best in the nation. From an amateur standpoint, the field will be in excess of 250.

"They're classic athletes," says Ron Jones, a former Western Maryland College football halfback and later a coach. "Women's racquetball has a place in America and if it ever has the opportunity to get a network television contract I believe its popularity will eventually challenge women's tennis and golf."

With that testimonial recorded for posterity, up steps the well-spoken Molly O'Brien, the tour publicist, who points out Baltimore is the culmination of a season that has seen previous tournaments in Atlanta, Los Angeles, San Francisco, St. Louis, Philadelphia and Anchorage. "This is the second year in Baltimore, with Diet Pepsi as our national sponsor, in what is one of the outstanding forums for racquetball in the country, meaning what Leroy Merritt has created here and operates with such efficiency."

The 1-2 players in the national rankings, namely Lynn Adams of Chicago and Michelle Gilman, of Ontario, Ore., the defending

champion, will be here for an anticipated confrontation that will resolve the spoils for 1991, providing the elimination process doesn't introduce an upset. California products predominate but that doesn't mean it will necessarily offer the overall winner, a point of reference that is reflected in the current standings.

How can women possibly earn enough in tournament payoffs to justify the travel expenses that are incurred in being on the tour? "They make appearances and put on clinics, which provides some income," answers O'Brien. "For the most part, they are playing for the love of the game.

"A number of players started in tennis and moved to racquetball. We believe the growth is going to continue. As an example of how quickly you can progress, check what Lynne Colburn of Lutherville, Md., has been able to do. In just about a year, she climbed from nowhere to ninth ranked in the country. And she can go all the way to the top."

Amateur competition is a major part of the tour stops. And this week, more than 250 area players will be participating in their own divisions with all the finals scheduled Sunday afternoon. The program begins tonight at 6 when Caryn McKinney, of Atlanta, tied for No. 3 in the rating system, will put on a free clinic.

Then the courts will be crowded for the next four days as play continues. "Here at Merritt, we signed a five-year contract to host the national event," comments Jones. "This is our second time and enthusiasm is high. We have visibility and acceptability.

"A portion of the proceeds will benefit the Children's Cancer Foundation Inc. Admission is free on Thursday and Friday. Then it's $2 per fan on Saturday and Sunday. We believe the Merritt facilities offer the finest courts and viewing areas as anywhere in the country. The players tell us they are elated to come here and we, in turn, are pleased to have them."

Racquetball is a game where power is an important ingredient, as it is in most physical tests. But quickness, style and shot-making generally supersede the sheer application of strength. The women have been organized as a professionall association since 1979, when Janelle Marriott became the group's first president.

It hasn't been an easy climb but they have, indeed, come a long way--a tribute to tenacity and a belief that the game only needs to be properly showcased to be accepted.

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