January - February 1999 | Vol. 10, No. 1
Photos by Mike Boatman & Vicki Hughes
Exclusive Coverage of the 1998 Promus Hotel Corporation U.S. OPEN, Presented by American Express and NationsBank.
Its racquetball like youve never
seen it before ... unless youve been to Memphis to experience the
Promus Hotel Corporation U.S. OPEN for yourself. Since its debut in
1996, this event has just gotten bigger and better each year.
This past November the sold-out stadium court for the mens and womens pro finals was once again flanked by ESPN cameramen positioned next to the made-for-TV portable court like storm troopers of the airwaves. Spectators and players witnessed surprising runs by Eric Muller and Caryn McKinney to the reach the semifinals of their respective pro draws, and a host of other surprises were also in store.
With that said, one can only imagine how impressive the Promus 4th U.S. OPEN might prove to be in 1999. One thing's for sure better get your tickets early! From the looks of this crowd, they wont be around for long.
One Up, One Down
But their highly-touted rematch at the 3rd Promus Hotel Corporation U.S. OPEN Racquetball Championships only mirrored its 97 counterpart. Last year, Monchik had entered the event as the top seed and limped his way through the draw. This year, Swain became the hobbled defending champion.
A year ago, it was a hungry Swain who dismantled an ailing Monchik in a three-game final. This go-round, it was a red-hot Monchik who made Swain look like first-round fodder with a humbling 11-2, 11-8, 11-4 championship win.
Why cant these two just get it on in Memphis? After five days of build-up, crowds were ready for a marathon. But the fact remains, the Promus U.S. OPEN has yet to see anything longer than a three-game finale (men or women) since its inception. Exciting, to be sure, but just too brief!
Early-round upsets included U.S. Junior Team member Josh Tuckers 12-10, 10-12, 11-9, 9-11, 11-9 victory in the round of 64 over 13th seed Doug Eagle. In the second round, no one was more shocked than hometown hero and fourth seed Andy Roberts who was put in the deep freeze by Minnesotas Mike Locker 14-12, 11-7, 11-9.
Andy Roberts is the king, Locker told the crowd after his stunning upset. I dont care what anybody says, hes the king of racquetball and someone Ive always looked up to.
Later, Locker continued,I play a lot of junk, I play a medium-paced game, if you will, and that tended to throw him off a little. I dont think Andy was on his game, but Ill take that and run with it.
Roberts, who has stated this will be his final season on the tour full-time, said, I missed some shots in the second and third games that were crucial. I just could not get anything goin. Normally when I dont play well, its a physical ailment, but I had no excuses.
Perhaps the most entertaining match of the 32s was between rocket-launcher Rob DeJesus and elder statesman, Ruben Gonzalez. The two split the first four games with DeJesus taking one and two (11-8, 11-6) and Gonzalez the next two (11-6, 11-7). DeJesus eventually won the fifth 11-9.
Referee Todd ONeil described the match: DeJesus came out with his noise and funk and Ruben was off-balance. Like the cagey veteran he is, Ruben found a weakness and exploited it for the third and fourth games and most of the fifth. Then, DeJesus made a little quick-fix, got some first serves in and turned the momentum of the match. DeJesus short served in the range of 13-16 times in the match. Ruben only faulted once.
After storming past Rocky Carson 11-3, 11-3, 11-8 in his 16s match, third-seeded John Ellis was quoted as saying, If Cliff is in the finals, I guarantee his arm feels fine.
Surprises in the Quarters
In Fridays first quarterfinal action, Muller continued his Cinderella trip to the semifinals with an impressive 8-11, 11-8, 11-5, 11-9 upset of Ray.
Next up was expected to be the high-flying circus acts of Ellis and sixth-seeded Mike Guidry. But neither was on their game and Ellis eventually emerged victorious, 7-11, 11-0, 11-2, 11-7.
I felt somewhat flat and lacked a little motivation, if you can believe it, Ellis said after the match. Im thankful that he didnt play his best racquetball either. Together, we kind of stunk it up a little bit, but you gotta do what you gotta do to win the tournament.
The top two seeds, Monchik and Swain, finished the evening with wins over 10th seed Tim Doyle (13-11, 11-6, 11-9) and eighth seed Derek Robinson (11-2, 12-10, 11-7), respectively.
Thats as tough as youll see a three-game match, Monchik said of his match up with friend Doyle. Out there it felt like it could have been four or five games, easily.
About his current injury status, Swain said, As I go on, the strength is coming back in my hand. But, Ive been compensating for the injury, so other things have been going on in that hand. I felt better today than I did all week . . . by far.
In the semifinals, no one in the world would have beaten Suds Monchik. After losing game one 11-6 to Ellis, the Staten Island, N.Y., native was relentless. Serve, return, cram it into the left corner. Again and again. The match appeared to flow with Monchiks every will and desire. Ellis was finished. The final three games read: 11-1, 11-1, 11-3.
I wanted to really make a statement, Monchik said. Johns beaten me the last couple of times out. That was a big match for me mentally. I really wanted to send a message. Im hoping that I sent it. Like Bose speakers ... loud and clear.
Swain overcame a stubborn Muller in the evenings final semi 11-9, 11-5, 11-6 for his second straight U.S. OPEN finals appearance. Id like to just take my hat off to Cliff Swain, Muller told the crowd after the match. I think hes the greatest player of all-time. Swain responded by saying, With all of the practice that Eric and I have done, weve become friends. Since hes going to become a billionaire lawyer in about six months and this is my real job, I think he was just being nice to me today.
So, hows the arm? The strengths coming back, Swain said. I havent really tested it on the (drive) serve yet, but it feels pretty good.
Everything was going well for the five-time tour champion until the finals against Monchik. The most shocking aspect of Monchiks 11-2, 11-8, 11-4 win was the fact that he seemed to play even more powerfully than he did in the semifinals . . . his serve in particular.
I went out there and was definitely thinking about last year thinking about the beating I took and I wanted to change that, Monchik said. I got my ass kicked and thats not gonna happen again. Play the numbers. Im not gonna get beat three straight again.
After the match last year, I knew he (Monchik) was gonna be more hungry, Swain said. He was going to be focused and wanting to show all of those people that he could do better and he did.
Monchik finished by saying, Cliff was maybe banged up a little bit this year, I was banged up last year. Maybe you havent got us both at our best yet. But, I know last year he played his best and, today, I think I played my best. If you would have combined my play this year and his play last year, we would have been out there for another three hours. Maybe next year ...
Who said that its better to be on top? Not in this years Promus U.S. OPEN WIRT draw. Among the 16 players in the top-half of the 1998 bracket were: former pro tour champ and top seed Jackie Paraiso, consistent top finisher and 96 world silver medalist Cheryl Gudinas, current U.S. national singles titleholder Robin Levine and 98 world singles silver medalist Kersten Hallander.
Although the bottom bracket featured current world champ and winner of the past two WIRT stops, Christie Van Hees, along with former pro tour winner Caryn McKinney, this U.S. OPEN ladies draw was most definitely top heavy. One reason for the imbalance was the incredible weight placed on the points per event, combined with only a handful of tournaments on the WIRT schedule.
I dont think the way we do our rankings is right, fourth-seeded Gudinas said after dealing Sadie Gross a quick 11-3, 11-6, 11-2 defeat in the round of 32. We have players shooting from being in the 20s up to No. 4 when they do well in one tournament.
One player that fit such a mold was two-time defending Canadian national champ Van Hees. Winner of last years season-ending Tournament of Champions (with no point earnings), and this years opener in Baltimore, Van Hees jumped from 19th to 4th on the WIRT ladder.
Van Hees, the tournaments second seed, began her trek toward a third consecutive pro crown by disposing of an impressive Kristen Walsh 11-0, 11-5, 11-1.
She (Walsh) was getting to every single ball, Van Hees said of the youngster from Utah. No matter if it was a rollout or whatever, she was goin for it. That kind of made it tough. Shes an up-and-comer for sure.
The womens opening round passed with very few upsets. Nebraskas Linda Moore shocked eighth-seeded Lorraine Galloway (7-11, 11-13, 11-7, 12-10, 11-2), while the pride of Allentown, Pa., Aimee Roehler, upset tour commissioner and sixth seed Molly OBrien (11-4, 4-11, 11-9, 17-19, 11-6).
Most of the top seeds found the Sweet 16 to be rather tasty. Paraiso put away Mexicos Susana Acosta 11-3, 11-2, 11-2 after chipping Acostas front tooth with her backswing early in the first game.
I think it was the first shot, unfortunately, Paraiso said. I took my backswing and there she was. If there was any face I didnt want to hit, it was hers.
Van Hees moved past 15th seed Lisa Hjelm (11-2, 11-3, 11-2), while third-seeded Laura Fenton overcame early struggles with veteran Janet Myers to win, 5-11, 12-10, 15-13, 11-6. The only unseeded player to reach the quarterfinals was McKinney. The Georgia natives experience proved to be too much for Roehler, 7-11, 11-8, 11- 3, 11-4.
With the final eight in place, most fans in Memphis were observing how both Paraiso and Van Hees looked solid. Some felt that the experience and savvy of McKinney could lead her to the title. Also mentioned in the title chase was Levine, who shut down Chris Evon (11-3, 11-4, 11-4) for her invitation to the quarters. Nobody seemed to list the third and fourth seeds, Fenton and Gudinas, respectively.
Its annoying that nobody gives me any credit, Gudinas said after her round of 16 win over Michelle Wiragh, 11-3, 11-2, 11-1. Its been that way for years.
To earn that credit, Gudinas would need to beat her next opponent, Levine. After falling behind the current U.S. national singles champ 11-2, 11-8, Gudinas shots began to roll. The Chicago native captured games three and four with identical 11-8 scores to tie the match, 2-2. However, Gudinas couldnt completely shut Levine down and eventually fell in the fifth, 11-9.
Later that same Saturday, a rematch of this past Mays USRA national title playoff between Levine and Paraiso would pack the house, after Paraisos 11-7, 11-6, 11-4 quarterfinal victory over Hallander.
When asked about her upcoming rematch with the Sacramento, Calif., native, Paraiso said, Im trying to keep an even keel, stay in the now and not get too excited.
On the bottom-half of the bracket, seventh-seeded Lydia Hammock ran into a Canadian that finally got the best of her. After beating Canadian national team members Lori-Jane Powell and Josee GrandMaitre in the first two rounds, respectively, Hammock was handled by Van Hees in three straight, 11-5, 11-4, 11-7.
McKinney, who boasts of one semifinal (1996) and one quarterfinal (1997) appearance at previous U.S. OPENs, stuck with her game and recovered from a 2-1 game deficit to upset Fenton and move into the semis with an 11-0, 9-11, 9-11, 11-5, 11-4 win.
That match with Laura was good enough that I caught myself thinking things that I hadnt thought of in years, McKinney said after the match.
When asked what she thought of her next opponent (Van Hees), the cagey veteran said, I have not seen her hit ball one. Ive heard that shes a shooter, rock-n-roll, rip and shoot which will test me right now. That means youve really got to move.
Van Hees opened the evenings first semifinal by doing exactly what her opponent expected rip and shoot. Down one line and then the other. However, McKinney was moving well. After losing the first game 12-10 and the second 11-6, McKinney regained her fire as if she were playing Lynn Adams in a WPRA final years ago. Van Hees fell 11-5.
When the two came out to begin the fourth game, computer scoreboard operator Ben Simons flashed a picture of McKinney, circa 1984. McKinney caught notice and supposedly asked Van Hees, How old were you when that was taken? Van Hees, who was 14 at that time, proceeded to shelve her opponent among the other racquetball legends with a decisive 11-3 win.
McKinney, disappointed with the loss, was pleased with her weeks performance and said of her 21-year-old opponent, She plays smart and I love seeing that I really appreciate that. Shes not just rock-n-roll, rip and shoot and thats it. She started thinking and doing some things. Im impressed. She hits the ball solid and seems to have a good head on her shoulders.
The always polite Canadian followed suit, saying, I had never met her (McKinney) before, but I felt honored to be on the same court with her, Van Hees said. Shes an excellent champion and I hope to follow in her footsteps.
Van Hees continued of her first U.S. OPEN finals appearance, This is a dream of mine. Ive been on a roll and dont want to stop.
The only roadblock in her way would be Paraiso, who lost to Van Hees the past two times theyve met. The current world and national doubles champion won an injury-shortened semifinal with friendly rival Levine, 2-11, 11-7, 8-5.
Down 8-5 in the third game, Levine paid dearly for her aggressive, diving style when she landed, not so smoothly, and strained her shoulder.
I strained my teres minor and will be off the court for three weeks, Levine said after returning home to California. I wont be at the Denver (Lakewood) pro stop, but Ill be at the other tourneys.
Its a little bittersweet, Paraiso said. Like I told the audience, obviously I dont want to win like that.
So, for the third consecutive WIRT event, Paraiso and Van Hees met in the final. But this time Paraisos experience paid off. With the ESPN cameras running and a packed house cheering her on, Paraiso swept past the young Canuck 11-6, 11-5, 11-5.
According to Van Hees, it was Paraisos solid start that set the tone for the match. Jackie just played a really great game, she said. She got out in front right away. She came out on top today, but Im going to be here next year fighting for that title again.
But will it be harder? Making it to the finals is a whole different bag of worms. The environment is completely opposite to any other tournament. Van Hees admitted.
Following such a convincing victory, one might wonder how Paraiso lost to Van Hees in their previous two meetings.
The first time I lost to her (Van Hees) it was the end of the season and wasnt really for points, Paraiso said. I think I was overconfident. That gave her a little edge for the last time (Baltimore). This tournament, I prepared better mentally and physically. My goal is to finish No. 1 this year regardless of who comes to play, Marci (Drexler), Michelle (Gould), whoever.
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