Handball players talk about the game getting in their blood, coursing through their veins for a lifetime. In Kendler's case, this is especially true. His grandfather, Bob Kendler, founded the USHA in 1951 after deciding the AAU was not adequately promoting the sport. A driven and prickly man, Bob Kendler at one time had employed almost every top U.S. handball player, in his Skokie, Ill., real estate empire, before he went bankrupt in 1980. He saw his grandson play one pro tournament before he died in 1982.
Recent surveys show that 10.5 million Americans play racquetball, compared with two million who play handball, despite the fact that racquetball is a relatively new game—it was invented here in 1949—while handball was imported from Ireland in the mid-1800s. Because handball requires ambidexterity, it is difficult to master; because the rubber ball is hard, it is painful to learn. To close the gap, the USHA has recently introduced a softer ball on which to wean new players. "The people who play with the harder ball are the people who want a challenge," says Carl Porter Jr., the 56-year-old president of the 10,000-member USHA. "Compared to racquetball, we think we have the more demanding game."
The striking motion in handball is a cross between a second baseman's snap throw to first and a boxer's punch. While Alvarado is mainly a righty and Jon Kendler a lefty, each can smack a winning kill shot with his "off" hand from deep in the court, a vast change from the old "sword-and-shield" days when a player only gambled on a winner with his strong hand at short range. Because Kendler's left elbow ached from the combat of a pro stop last March, he began his finals match by serving with his right. That gave Alvarado a slight advantage, which he quickly exploited, driving shots into every nook and corner along the bottom of the front wall. Kendler covered the court with surprising quickness for his gangly frame but eventually succumbed 21-17 in the first game.
Kendler went back to his southpaw serve for the second game. He rushed out to a 12-1 lead and, before Houdini could concoct an escape, triumphed 21-11. That set set up an 11-point tiebreaker.
Alvarado is considered by many to be the best server of all time. By striking the ball from the bottom he can impart spin to make the ball bounce left (known as a "natural"), or by hitting it on top he can make it rebound right (a "reverse") off the front wall. Trailing 5-6 in the tiebreaker, Alvarado tore off three service winners. Then, for the first time in the match, he launched a "Z-serve"—one that strikes the front wall, then the left sidewall and zings back into the right corner. That made it 9-6. Kendler scored again, but Alvarado followed with another "Z" to lead 10-7. He served an unreturnable winner for the victory, and screamed in triumph.
Alvarado, whose nickname is el Gato, the Cat, shook his opponent's hand and punctuated his conquest by springing from the floor onto the front wall. Naty Jr., who had won the 17-and-under division, fell into his father's sweaty hug. "I could see it in his eyes when it was 10-7 that he was going to do it," said Naty Jr. "It was like seeing victory."
The eyes of Naty Sr. would gleam later as he thought of how high he had leaped against the wall after the victory. "I got so far up, I thought, What am I doing way up here?" he said. But as the rest of the handball elite stomped and shouted "Viva, el Gato!" it was clear that up there was where Naty Alvarado belonged.