Look at him, darting around the glass-enclosed racquetball court like a feeding fish in its tank. He hits one ball between his legs, another while airborne, a third as he is sprawled on the floor. Losing himself in the joy of the moment, he winds up like a discus thrower and whacks the ball off four walls and the ceiling. But the point is growing long and Marty Hogan is coming out of his trance. From deep in the backcourt he strikes and—splat!—the ball hits low off the front wall and dies. A sturmed crowd lets out a long "Oooo." It is just another point in the life of Marty Hogan.
Lately Hogan has been the life of racquetball. This is not easy. A decade ago 10,000 people played the game, today 5.5 million play it and—at this rate—in another 10 years there will be at least a trillion. But every time Martin Nathan Hogan, age 20, steps on the court, racquetball's mad whirl seems to stop. Hogan has won 15 of his last 18 pro tournaments and will be heavily favored to take his first national title this June in Detroit.
Before Hogan, players used a short backswing and hit balls off their front foot, techniques they had learned in other racquet sports. Hogan started with racquetball and developed a unique style. He takes an exaggerated backswing and makes contact off his trailing foot. His wristy, bullwhip stroke gives him power far out of proportion to his 5'10" and 165 pounds. His shot has been clocked at 142 mph, about the same speed as Roscoe Tanner's blazing tennis serve, and along with the speed he has extraordinary control. He will routinely bury his serve in a corner, hit a front-corner "pinch" that quickly dies, or strike a patented shot that glances off the sidewall and strikes the front with a tremendous splat.
Taking advantage of the fast modern ball, Hogan has catapulted racquetball into an era of speed and youth. "He can hit an offensive shot from anywhere on the court," says Jay Jones, a 35-year-old professional. "He can put the ball away from a shoulder-high position, which no one else has been able to do." Charlie Brumfield, 29, who dominated racquetball in its bygone control days, ruefully notes that Hogan is not just another wild swinger. "He's the foremost technician in the game," says Brumfield. "He can hit a ball in midair or off-balance. He has thrown out all the standards of balance and foot position." Brumfield shakes his head. "And he's so loose and confident."
"I can ace them anytime I want," says Hogan a little too loudly, his light blue eyes twinkling. "The splat is an automatic winner." In the best gunslinging tradition, he challenges one and all. Hogan all but brandishes his weaknesses. He is slow going to his right, falls back after each shot, lets up when ahead and gives opponents too much room. But his adversaries are too busy scrambling to take advantage. When you play Marty, you have to put up with Marty.
Which takes some doing. The very mention of Hogan and decorum in the same breath sets off howls of protest. In a semifinal match in a tournament played in Westbury, N.Y. early this season, he beat Jerry Hilecher 21-3 in the first game and clowned through the second, blowing a lead and losing 21-20. Then Hogan whipped Hilecher 11-1 in the tie breaker. "Hogan the Hooligan," snapped National Racquetball magazine. A boyhood friend of Hogan's in St. Louis, Hilecher claimed their friendship was imperiled. "He was trying to break me in front of the crowd," he said. "It was not very professional."
Nor was Hogan very professional when losing to Brumfield in his only defeat of the season, a match in which he deliberately broke half a dozen racquets, or in the finals at Marietta, Ga., where he told the crowd at a game point, "I want you all to know that he had me 14-6 and now it's 20-14 my lead." But the crusher came in Westminster, Calif. when he cursed and raged at Davey Bledsoe, his opponent in the finals.
As unseemly as Hogan's behavior may be, many of his peers say it must be viewed in context. Hogan's braggadocio gives him a competitive edge, they say, and his tantrums provide timely release. Moreover, the consensus is that Hogan means little harm. "He just has a great will to win at all cost," says Bledsoe. Others point out that Hogan is usually a considerate opponent, given to calling errors on himself. "He's the fairest player on the tour," says Jones.
Even Hogan's critics acknowledge that he is more immature than malicious. Leading a match, he will clown, mug, laugh at himself, make melodramatic gestures or even play serious racquetball. It is for the most part harmless, if bad-mannered, entertainment. But let a match get close and his racquet may fly.
One man who might be able to restrain Hogan, if only he wanted to, is Charlie Drake, the chief executive officer of Leach Industries, the game's major manufacturer. Drake's company has contractual arrangements with so many players that he can often leave a tournament before the semis, knowing a client will win. Hogan lives at Drake's beachfront home in La Jolla, Calif., and Drake is his business manager and closest adviser. Some feel Drake actually encourages Hogan's rowdiness, and Drake does not exactly deny it. "People have become much more comfortable with emotion," he says. "I hate to stifle creativity and Marty's a natural, creative person. It's just that he's incredibly sensitive."