The question was simple enough: Would 20-year-old Marty Hogan finally win the National Racquetball Championship? He was certainly due. In 1975 he had lost a first-round match to Victor Niederhoffer, a squash star. Well, Hogan's supporters said, Marty was inexperienced. In 1976 Charlie Brumfield, the five-time national racquetball champion, beat him in the finals. Well, Marty was still inexperienced, at least compared to Brumfield, who had been there before. And last year, again in the finals, Hogan had been upset by Davey Bledsoe. Well, Marty was at his worst and Bledsoe was playing out of his mind. There was no other way Hogan could have lost.
Now he was certainly out of excuses. Hogan had won seven of the eight tournaments on the 1977-78 tour and had taken to calling himself Killer Dog. He had already been named co-winner (with Chris Evert) of Racquet Magazine's athlete of the year award. Lose the 1978 nationals and Hogan could audition for that skit on Saturday Night Live, the one called Bad Theater.
"No problem," said Hogan. "I'm ready." He looked it. His quarterfinal opponent last week in Belleville, Mich., Rich Wagner, stayed deep in the back-court and built up a 15-9 lead. But Marty is toughest when trailing. He blithely ran out the match 21-18, 21-13. The result was enough to unnerve Hogan's semifinal fodder, Ben Koltun. "I don't talk to Marty, I don't play him, I don't even like him," said Koltun, psyching up. He was talking about his best friend. Hogan spun off 11 aces, won 19 of 42 points on his blazing serve and sailed by Koltun 21-9, 21-6. "That's as well as you're ever going to see Marty play," said Chuck Leve, national director of the U.S. Racquetball Association.
The trouble was, Hogan might have to play better in the finals. His opponent was Brumfield, psych artist, master of con and the only player to beat Hogan this season. Brumfield had taken him in January in Portland, Ore. and as recently as May beaten him in the finals of a nontour event, the Tournament of Champions in Los Angeles. "That was for $5,000, winner take all," said Brumfield. "Marty can't stand the pressure."
As if to prove his own pressure mettle, Brumfield fought off two match points in the semis en route to a 21-16, 17-21, 11-10 victory over Mike Yellen. The match was so gripping that people were making comparisons to great semifinals of yore: Borg-Gerulaitis at Wimbledon in 1977, the UCLA-North Carolina State basketball game in the 1974 NCAAs, several NFC and AFC championships (pro football's version of semis), that kind of thing. "Semifinals are often better than finals," said Leve. "A lot of people have the goal of just reaching the finals. They don't have the mental toughness to play in it."
Hogan was only too aware of his own misfortune in the finals. He reminded himself of it all season every time his game slipped. In 1977 he had played too tensely, in part because his mother, Goldie, and his grandmother, Frieda, were in the first row. This time Goldie was in the third row and Frieda was far back. Back in St. Louis, to be exact. "The grandmother is the main thing," said Charlie Drake, Hogan's manager. "She gets excited and it bothers Marty no end. Once Marty was stopped by a policeman for a traffic violation in front of his house. His grandmother came running out. 'No problem, no problem,' Marty kept telling her. The cop thought Marty wasn't taking him seriously enough so he threw him in jail." His grandmother out of the way, Killer Dog was a kitchen cat. He didn't mock opponents, he didn't abuse the officials; all that remained of his old persona was his overstated confidence. "I'll annihilate him," he said.
Brumfield was not exactly playing dead. He had studied some books on ballet, and it showed. In the semis he had saved match points with dives that were as graceful as they were desperate. In the finals he knew he would need every dive in his repertoire, graceful or otherwise.
Indeed, it promised to be a last hurrah for the old control game and its chief exponent Brumfield, who at 30 is middle-aged by racquetball standards. For the occasion, Brumfield had outfitted his rabid, beer-swilling fans in BRUM'S BUMS T shirts.
As expected, Hogan took the lead, acing Brumfield nine times and hitting winners with awesome power shots. The score of the first game was 21-12 Hogan, and his performance was more impressive than the score indicated. Brumfield did not lose a single point on a forced error.
Hogan, still cruising, built up a 14-7 lead in the second game. Then came the strangest turnabout of the tournament. Brumfield, stripped of his psyching tactics by Hogan's sheer power, changed his mode of play. He slowed everything down, hitting soft serves ("Marty's return of the hard serves had been phenomenal," Brumfield said later) and high shots to the wall, waiting for openings. Hogan became unnerved. He lost his serve and his concentration crumbled. Two errors and four placements followed, and Brumfield trailed 14-11. Hogan won back the serve and made it 15-11 on a forehand kill. "Six more points!" he yelled. Instead, Brumfield, using Hogan's errors and setups, ran off five points to take a 16-15 lead. Hogan won a point, but there seemed to be no stopping Brumfield. Three more placements and an error, and he was ahead 20-16.