At 19, in only his fifth pro event, Monchik unsettled his more seasoned peers by winning the 1994 nationals. Gonzalez was already unsettled—in an earlier tournament Monchik had beaten him 2-11, 11-5, 11-8, 11-8 in their first pro match. (To this day Gonzalez hasn't beaten his prot�g� in the pros.) At the end of the '94-95 season, Monchik joined the racquetball elite with consecutive victories over Cliff Swain, whom Racquetball Magazine had anointed the "best of the best."
For the last five years Swain and Monchik have been the foremost players in the world, averaging $45,000 to $60,000 in winnings on the tour. The mild, crafty Swain is a kind of court conjurer: In moments of crisis he seems to pluck brilliant shots out of his sleeves like silk scarves. Monchik is more of a swashbuckler, slashing and adventurous. "Sudsy has great foot speed—he gets every ball that fails to roll out," says tour commissioner Hank Marcus. "But his hand speed makes him really excel. No one ever hit the ball consistently harder."
Monchik's backhand is as fast as his forehand, which has been clocked at more than 180 mph. The ball flies off his racket explosively. "He's like a thug out there, an incredibly skilled thug," says tour player Eric Muller. "As bullying as he can be physically, mentally he's still only scratching the surface. If Sudsy ever fully focused, he could do some scary things on the court."
Swain's reign as No. 1 ended when Monchik wrung the crown from him in the final tournament of the '95-96 campaign. Monchik won the title outright the next season, and Swain recaptured it in '97-98. Swain's comeback was due partly to subtle adjustments in his game—adding a lob serve, hanging back on the floor—and partly to injuries suffered by Monchik: a separated shoulder, a broken big toe and a badly sprained left ankle. "Sure, I was hurt," says Monchik. "But being hurt is no excuse."
This season Swain and Monchik have met in the singles finals of nine tournaments. Monchik has won eight of the matches, including the last seven in a row. In two of them, he blanked Swain in a game, denying him a single point. "Cliff is still pounding everyone else," says Monchik. "Everyone else but me. He just turned 33. Don't think I don't count the years."
Their last encounter—on April 25 at the nationals in Las Vegas—was perhaps the most humbling for Swain. Monchik aced him 17 times in an 11-6, 11-3, 11-2 wipeout that brought his tour winnings to about $60,000 for the year. Now, with only one event left in the season, the No. 1 ranking is safely in Monchik's pocket. "Actually, the passing of the torch happened a few years ago," says Mannino. "Last year Cliff got in his last licks, but the rivalry is over. Sudsy plays on a different planet than the rest of us."
Yet Swain still bravely insists that he and Monchik are equal. He pins his recent results on poor concentration.
"If that's what Cliff thinks, fine," Monchik says. "What else can he say? He's constantly getting pounded by a guy who hits the ball at Mach 5.1 feel his pain. But you know why the Yankees creamed the Padres in last year's World Series? They were better."
Asked if he thinks the tour has marketed the more outgoing Monchik at his expense, Swain gives a quick look of focused contempt. "It makes me a little angry," he grumbles. "In the eyes of those promoting the sport, if you're not cocky or flaky, you're not worthy of promotion. When I win a tournament, it's SWAIN WINS AGAIN. When Sudsy wins, it's HE'S UNSTOPPABLE!"
Monchik mulls this thought over breakfast in a Las Vegas coffee shop. "I'm sure if I ever reach Cliff's age, I'll have some 24-year-old punk to worry about," he says, head tilted back, eyes closed. "Cliff may be the greatest racquetball player ever, but how long before Sudsy surpasses him?"