The Elder Statesman
Every racquet club likely has one. Someone who remembers how it felt to hit with an aluminum racquet. Someone to rely on for an “official” rule clarification: What’s a screen serve? Was that a court hinder? At Beechmont Racquet and Fitness in Cincinnati, Ohio, Walt Knabb, 69, fits the bill. By Todd Moning
The left-hander has been a competitive racquetball player, a walking Ektelon endorsement, and a fixture at the club for 36 years. He’s spearheaded charitable events, raised thousands of dollars for good causes, and made countless friends along the way. “Walt’s always putting together fun events to help people or promote camaraderie,” said club member Chris Azeez. “He may not be able to play much anymore, but there’s still a lot of respect for his knowledge and passion for the game.”
Club member Bill Womacks, who’s known Walt for 25 years, points out a more notorious trait. “Over the years, Walt has developed many players, both young and old,” Womacks said. “Often, he teaches them proper court positioning by delivering a nice welt to the back of their leg accompanied by a gravelly, “I told you not to crowd me.”
Until a recent shoulder injury, Walt had been competing in doubles against players up to 40 years his junior. Yet, they hardly consider him old. Yes, they might have to adjust court coverage when teaming with him. And his backhand – imagine a defenseless child shooing away an annoying bumblebee – is feared by no one, except perhaps Walt himself. But when he can set his feet for a forehand, his fluid swing results in a barrage of pinches and splats. With a deceptive nimbleness, he’ll even make a rare appearance in the front court for a nice “get,” at a key moment in the match.
The most defining shot of Walt’s game, perhaps, is a soft lob serve uncannily mated to the left sidewall, inducing many a frustrated player into repeated setups and skips, while taking its toll on all racquet frames that encounter it.
Learning the game
Walt, a Cincinnati native, started playing racquetball after he and a lady friend were dining at a local restaurant, and she challenged him to a game. “We played the best two out of three to 21 points,” said Walt, who brandished a Wilson aluminum racquet with a raised leather grip and squared-off head. “She beat me the first game and never beat me after that.”
Right away he loved the competitive aspect. “It’s just you and someone else. And the physical workout was tremendous.”
He started taking lessons at the club from Dave Eagle, a 2000 inductee in the Ohio Racquetball Hall of Fame. Eagle taught him the lob serve and something else that stuck with Walt through the years: the proper way to warm up. “In those days,” Walt said, “most guys just went onto the court and hit the ball around, nonchalantly. Eagle believed in a more structured warm-up, with dedicated time for hitting backhands, forehands and ceiling balls.”
Walt won a B-level league at the club, and then moved up to A. By then he had switched to an Ektelon 250G composite racquet. “I’d practice at least three to four hours a week, by myself. I always warmed up the proper way. Eagle always said if you warm up properly you’re going to play properly.”
In the 1980s and ‘90s he competed in five or six sanctioned tournaments a year, and was sponsored by Ektelon. He said his skill level for singles racquetball probably peaked when he was in his late forties. In his fifties he started concentrating on doubles and transitioned to a more control game. “At a certain age level, I think playing doubles can make you a better singles player because you have to hit smarter shots.” In the 1990s, Walt won two city titles in the B mixed doubles division. In those days, he was doing step aerobics three times a week, playing racquetball two or three times a week, and running seven to 10 miles weekly on the treadmill. None of that helped to improve his backhand.
‘Hardest shot to learn’
As a youngster, Walt broke his left arm twice and never has been able to extend that arm fully. But that’s not an excuse for his nonthreatening backhand, he said. “Some folks just aren’t equipped to hit a backhand. I’d say for 85 percent of racquetball players – their weakness is their backhand. It’s the hardest shot to learn.” Occasionally, though, Walt will surprise opponents with a soft backhand shot that kisses the sidewall and flattens out along the front. Afterwards he’ll turn away with his head tilted down – but not enough to conceal a satisfied grin.
Walt has advice to players who want to improve: “Practice. Practice your weakness and keep practicing. Watch better players, and play against better players.”
Thirsty Doubles League
Walt created the Thirsty Doubles League in 2007, introducing a bunch of singles players to the challenge and fun of good doubles racquetball with an 11-week regular season followed by three weeks of playoffs. It’s a hodgepodge of player styles, skill levels and personalities.
Walt’s voice perks up when talking about Thirsty Doubles. “It’s well organized. Everyone is responsible for getting their own sub. And by changing partners, everyone plays two games with each person, so you’re not stuck with the same guy each game.”
Each week, a different player is assigned to provide food to be enjoyed upstairs after the matches, while the players scour that night’s score sheet. This is a social league, with competitive undertones and rules:
– Play six games to 15, with two serves.
– Team pairings: Two games will be partnered with each player on the court (six games total).
– Switch partners after each game. Keep track of the points accumulated by each individual.
– During the regular season, the maximum points awarded for your sub cannot exceed your season-to-date points average.
– Cumulative points are reset to zero for playoffs.
– No subs permitted for playoffs.
The names of the winner and runner-up for each season are engraved on a plaque that hangs at the club. “It’s neat to see lower-level players improve by playing with and against better players,” Walt said. “Many former C and B players now can compete in A singles or doubles, and that has increased the pool of quality players at our club.”
Staying in good physical shape has allowed Walt to play racquetball in four decades. He still works out four to five afternoons a week, lifting light weights and turning out 18 to 24 miles a week on the treadmill. Activities such as the Thirsty Doubles have enhanced his enjoyment of the sport and fueled his competitive drive, but a slightly torn rotator cuff has, for the most part, forced him to hang up his racquet.
Walt misses the competition but plans to continue his involvement with the Thirsty Doubles League – helping to run it and partaking in the social aspect.
Walt said he is grateful that he can combine his love for the sport with helping people. In September 2014, he will stage a charity tournament at Beechmont Racquet and Fitness to benefit. The Battle Buddy Foundation, an organization that supports military veterans. The singles and doubles tournament will be held September 26-28, 2014. It will include men’s and women’s divisions from C through Open, as well as mixed doubles.
The Battle Buddy Foundation, headquartered in West Chester, Ohio, is a nonprofit organization dedicated to promoting a higher quality of life for military veterans as they transition to civilian life. The Battle Buddy Foundation pairs veterans with service dogs, and assists veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. It’s a charity close to Walt’s heart; he served in the Army from 1967 to 1969 during the Vietnam War.
In previous years, Walt has coordinated tournaments to benefit A Special Wish Foundation, 4 Jake’s Sake and others. The events drew players from Ohio, Kentucky, Indiana and Michigan, including open players who competed for prize money. “We averaged about 120 players for each tournament, and have raised close to $70,000.”
Walt, who retired from the insurance business in 2007, has always advocated keeping tournament entry fees “reasonable” – typically $25 for the first event, $10 for the second. During one of the charity tournaments, former No. 1-ranked pros Cliff Swain and Sudsy Monchik played an exhibition. “That was a thrill to see,” Walt said.
Members at Beechmont Racquet and Fitness seem thrilled to have Walt, the elder statesman, around. “Despite injuries and the toll time takes on us all, Walt’s competitive spirit has never faded,” Bill Womacks said. “I’m happy to say he’s my friend, and we’ve had way too much fun together.”
Undoubtedly, Womacks’ sentiments resound throughout the club, as Walt Knabb continues his fund-raising and fun-raising ways.
For more information about The Battle Buddy Foundation tournament at Beechmont Racquet and Fitness in September, contact Walt at [email protected].