Lineage of racquetball can clearly be traced back to such games as handball, rackets, and squash. Racket games were played as early as the 12th century and the earliest written record of hitting a ball against a wall (though with a hand) comes from Scotland from the mid 15th century. In the 18th century, prisoners in English debtor prisons started to play a variant of handball using tennis rackets (probably due to the lack of tennis courts… in prisons). The popularity of this new game soon spread beyond the prison walls. Eventually, the British Army brought this new game, now known as rackets to Canada. And from there, it was just a short hop to find its way to the United States.
Rackets, the sport, became the basis for such games as squash and paddleball, which started growing in popularity at the beginning of last century. In the 1940s, an avid tennis, squash, and handball player by the name of Joseph Sobek started being dissatisfied with indoor court games. He liked some aspects of handball, but wanted a different game that was less hard on his hands. So he decided to combine certain parts of squash with a subset of rules from handball and call this new sport paddle rackets. He also happened to be working in a rubber factory, so he started experimenting with making different kinds of rubber balls for this new game.
As the new sport began to gain some traction locally, Sobek created the National Paddle Rackets Association in February of 1952. This newly minted association codified a set of rules and started sending out promotional booklets to YMCAs around the United States. Sobek himself started traveling nationally to promote the sport and do clinics to teach new players how to improve their game. Since there were over 40,000 handball courts around the country at the time and the game was pretty easy to learn, the sport started spreading rapidly. By mid 60s, smaller scale tournaments started happening around the country.
During one of these tournaments several meeting were held on some organizational issues surrounding the sport. A tennis pro from San Diego by the name of Bob McInerney proposed a new name for the sport – racquetball. People responded positively to this suggestion, although there was a lengthy debate about the spelling. In the end, in an effort to remove any negative connotations of the word “racket”, “qu” prevailed over “k” and racquetball officially became the new name for the sport.
In 1969, Robert Kendler, the head of the US Handball Association (USHA), found this new game of racquetball fascinating and decided to create International Racquetball Association (IRA). IRA held the first official national tournament that same year in St. Louis. Using the resources at his disposal from USHA, such as established publications, Kendler started heavily promoting the sport. By then several sporting goods manufacturers started creating gear specifically aimed at racquetball. Soon, the original wood framed racquets started being replaced by aluminum and fiberglass frames, as well as other more exotic materials.
By the late 70s, racquetball became the fastest growing sport in America. Athletes became attracted to the sport due to its pace and high intensity, providing them with a great sweaty workout, all while having fun with their friends. Due to the high demand, sport clubs all over the United States started building racquetball courts. New racquetball associations were established during this time, such as the Women’s Professional Racquetball Association, which was founded in 1980. IRA also changed its name to American Amateur Racquetball Association. The following year, United States hosted the first world championship and the Olympic Committee classified racquetball as a “developing” Olympic sport, which meant that it might be part of the Olympics in the future.
Unfortunately, by the early 90s, the popularity of racquetball began to decline. Since it was very hard to see and follow the small rubber ball when watching matches on TV, it didn’t receive much interest from television networks. And without that racquetball never received as much exposure as a game like tennis, for example. Also, due to the advances in racket technology, the pace of the game increased and it started requiring a lot more skill than it used to do in the beginning, thus hampering its popularity with casual players. Many fitness centers started tearing down the courts or converting them to rooms for aerobics classes or other uses which were more profitable to them.
Nevertheless, even with more than 50% decline of popularity from its peak, there were still millions of dedicated racquetball players around the country who were keeping the sport alive. And in 1995 the International Olympic Committee approved racquetball as a Pan American Games sport, which it has been a part of for more than 20 years now. There are currently two main organizations that run international tournaments: the International Racquetball Tour (IRT) for men and Ladies Professional Racquetball Tour (LPRT) for women. Also, outdoor racquetball is starting to become more popular and major tournaments are being run by World Outdoor Racquetball (WOR).
Racquetball is still going strong with an estimated 20 million players spread over 95 countries.