It's Sunday afternoon, and Marcelo Laprea is screaming inside a glass box.
He just lost a point.
Laprea is fending off rival Patric Mascorro in the rubber match of a USA Racquetball regional championship at the downtown YMCA. About 50 people watch from the faded bleachers behind the court, and some fans stand along the clear, reinforced side wall. Mascorro swings, the little blue ball bounces twice on the floor, and an agitated Laprea pounds his racket against the glass.
Racquetball is a strange combination of tennis and handball that plays out on a cramped aquarium of a court where even the ceiling's in play. Players take turns slamming the ball -- which is traveling at around 150 mph courtesy of Laprea and Mascorro, who are two of the best players around -- against the front wall and trying to put it out of reach. Goggles are recommended, because balls, elbows and racquets often come hurtling at one's face.
Strategy is the key. Players use a combination of funny-sounding shots -- dinks, pinches, splats -- to try and keep center court to themselves. Laprea wins back the serve, then holds steady in the middle as Mascorro traces a diamond around him before diving unsuccessfully on the floor.
Houston is no racquetball hotbed; the sport is more common in the North and California (though the best two pros have just made their way to Texas). But thanks to the relatively nice racquetball digs at the downtown YMCA, the city has hosted the National Championships since 1983. This coming May 20-25 will be the last hurrah, since the new downtown Y won't have as many courts.
The small group of actual professionals should be among the 500 who show up, but most will be like Laprea and Mascorro, amateurs who are both 25. They squeeze in their racquetball around busy work and family schedules, playing about three times a week. Laprea is a petroleum engineer (he's also on the Venezuelan national team). Mascorro is a tax accountant.
"Usually I just get on the court and practice by myself," he says.
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Mascorro grew up in Houston and played baseball in high school and then college. He started playing racquetball at 15 to crosstrain and says the mechanics of it went a long way toward helping his swing. Many MLB players, most notably Jeff Conine, have been avid racquetballers as well.
Mascorro plays a more cautious game to Laprea's all-out power, and as Laprea grows increasingly frustrated, Mascorro eventually takes home an 11-7 win.
Mascorro says he might have an outside shot against the pros in May -- and if he makes the semi-finals, he'll be on the national team. But even then he wouldn't consider giving up his day job.
"The No. 1 guy makes $250,000, which is a good salary, but not considering you're the best in the world," he says.