Sunday, April 15, 2012

Blessed with a lightning-quick stroke

Blessed with a lightning-quick stroke, racquetball pro Rajsich shows why she's the real deal Saturday in downtown Prescott 

PRESCOTT - It's tough to catch up with Rhonda Rajsich.

The reigning two-time professional world racquetball champion who has won a women's record four US Open titles, Rajsich can strike a ball as fast as 160 mph with her forehand and backhand and make it seem effortless.

Need proof? All one had to do was visit the Prescott Downtown Athletic Club, 130 N. Cortez St., Saturday afternoon to watch the 33-year-old from Phoenix play a friendly co-ed match against Steve Joannes, 59, of Prescott Valley.

Joannes, one of the best amateur men's players in the Prescott area who has won multiple Arizona state championships in his age division through the years, lost respectfully in straight games, 15-7 and 15-2, to the trim 5-foot-10, 138-pound Rajsich.

Local USPTA tennis professional Chris Howard said the idea for the match sprung to life after the Athletic Club's management asked Rajsich to host to an instructional racquetball clinic Saturday.

Once the four-hour clinic concluded shortly after 3 p.m., Joannes and Rajsich took to the club's first-floor court where some 50 to 60 spectators sat behind a glass partition and were wowed by Rajsich's skills.

Joannes, who has known Rhonda's father and fellow player, Dennis Rajsich, since the late 1980s and competed against him a short time later, got his start in racquetball at the club in 1979.

He said he did not know he would be facing Rhonda until two weeks ago. To prepare, Joannes lifted weights, participated in spin classes on stationary bikes, and played regularly.

Rhonda, who was also a former all-conference basketball player at Phoenix College and a subsequent standout at Texas' Stephen F. Austin University in the late 1990s and 2000, needed roughly 40 minutes to dispatch Joannes.
Joannes performed admirably in the first game before tiring in the second. In the final game, Rhonda opened the scoring with a 6-0 run and fended off a late Joannes push to claim the match as her father - who accompanied her on the trip to Prescott - soaked in the action from behind the glass.

"She's a better player," Joannes said afterwards. "I didn't play well and missed all kinds of easy shots. But she's a wonderful person to play against."


Rhonda, currently the No. 1 American women's racquetball player in the world who's ranked second on the pro tour, said she initially acquired a passion for the sport as a 2-year-old when she used to sneak out of the nursery at a health club her parents had just joined.

While Rhonda's mom was off doing aerobics, her dad was learning how to play racquetball from her godfather. She would run onto a basketball court at the club, grab a basketball and sprint with it as she watched her dad and grandfather swing the racquets.

"When my dad was in between racquetball games, I would steal his racquet and run on the racquetball court," she said. "I didn't know what I was doing, but it was fun."

Every time she got caught swiping the racquet, she'd return it to her dad and head back to the basketball court.

"That's essentially what I did with my life," Rhonda said. "I've always loved racquetball and basketball."

Years later, as a teenager, Rhonda pursued basketball because it was a sport she knew a university would give her a full-ride scholarship to play.

At first, basketball was her focus, as racquetball took a backseat.

However, in 2000, that all changed. She had a chance to compete for the Women's National Basketball Association (WNBA) that year when, out of the blue, she qualified for the U.S. team in racquetball.

"I was going to play in the WNBA, but it was my childhood dream to play alongside racquetball players I literally looked up to all my life," Rhonda said. "I weighed my options. I was like, 'You know, I've always put racquetball behind basketball.' I've obviously been very successful in racquetball and it's been my secondary thing. I wanted to see what I could do against the best in the world if I applied myself."

Rhonda kept the dialogue open with WNBA teams for a full year before she committed to racquetball full time.
On the Women's Professional Racquetball Organization (WPRO) tour in 2000-01, she advanced to the finals of her first-ever US Open, earned a No. 3 world ranking, and has never looked back since.

Rhonda has been a top-three player on the WPRO tour for the past 12 years, achieving a season-ending No. 1 ranking from 2006-08 as well as 2010 and 2011.

"I revel in the fact that, win or lose, there's nobody to blame but me," she said of her affinity for racquetball. "I'm dedicated to what I do and being the best in the world. I'm dedicated to making myself better every time I get on that court.

"I know that as much success as I've already had, I still have room for improvement. Until I have no room for improvement, I'm going to continue to go for that every chance I get."

The Daily Courier Prescott AZ

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