Skip to main content
Original Issue

Laughter in the wings, murder on the court

Jimmy Jacobs, perennial king of four-wall singles, picked the wrong time to abdicate. While he eased to a doubles win, two brilliant newcomers, battling as fiercely as only he had in the past, usurped his crown

Just for laughs, the king was out this year, and because he was, those eager young singles players who have been heaving and slashing and scrambling around handball courts for the last decade, all for the inglorious distinction of being named No. 2, came steaming into San Francisco's Olympic Club last week with lips wet and heads held high.

The king—James Leslie Jacobs, possibly the finest four-wall handball player ever and winner of six national singles titles—is 37 this year and has a sore back. "What do I have to prove?" asked Jacobs, and the answer, of course, was nothing. So he entered the national doubles with Marty Decatur, a gaunt-faced New Yorker with a whiplike right arm, and for these two, at least, it indeed was a laugh a minute. In three previous championships they had played 36 games, winning 36. Things were just as one-sided this time. Six teams stepped forward, six teams limped out, and the only reason Jacobs and Decatur bothered to shower afterward is that the Olympic Club is a proud old institution and gentlemen are expected to sponge down, with or without a sweat.

What a waste. Jacobs picked exactly the wrong year to ignore the singles bracket. No doubt he would have been favored to win had he entered, though he would have had to call on all his guile and quickness and endurance to justify the odds. For, while the king was resting, two players no one had ever heard of until last year when they finished first and second in the nationals (Jacobs was out of that one, too, because of his aching back) were at it again and proving emphatically they were no one's passing fancy. Paul Haber, the winner in 1966, and Bill Yambrick, runner-up, simply demolished all comers, each losing but a single game, and then engaged in what Jacobs himself called "one of the great matches." For two hours they zipped after balls traveling close to 100 miles an hour, slammed into walls, dived headlong on the floor and generally comported themselves as if the loser were to be trundled off for a life in jail. Both players, in fact, were doing things most people thought only Jacobs could master. At the end Haber was again the champion but, with 21-16 and 21-20 victories, a very limp champion.

It was just the sort of bloodletting the Olympic Club needed. Civil rights groups have had it in for the 107-year-old club lately. Why, they have been asking, are there no Negroes or Jews in the Olympic Club of San Francisco? Why, indeed, asked Archbishop Joseph T. McGucken, a member. Why, indeed, asked the University of Oregon and UCLA, who canceled Rugby matches.

A handball tournament was just the thing to cool things, at least momentarily, because if you take the Jews out of handball, what do you have? Unspiked punch. So the doors were flung wide, and in tramped anyone who could muster the $12 entry fee. "Playing here may be the height of hypocrisy," said Jacobs. "Or then again, it may be a start."

The real start for the tournament came with its upsets. Of the eight quarter-finalists, five were stark newcomers, still blinking in the light. If nothing else, they proved that the old guard was changing. Even Haber, seeded first, had the gallery in a deep state of puzzlement. Last year he was a 12-point underdog in every match right up to the finals. Against Decatur, in fact, he was still a five-point underdog after winning the first game 21-11. It was not until the finals this year that it dawned on anybody that he was for real and ready to pick up the maltreatment of all comers right where Jacobs had left off.

At 31 Paul Haber brought 25 years of experience into the nationals, and if you insist on making a mathematical thing of it, that would make him 6 years old when he started. There are those who insist it was six years before that, when Haber's father, Sam, four times a doubles champion, flipped a handball into Paul's bassinet while his mother was out warming the bottle. At 9, Paul had the audacity to play Vic Hershkowitz, one of the best of all handballers—four-wall, three-wall, one-wall or your grandfather's garage door. Like most youngsters, Haber was anxious to be all places on the court at the same time. Hershkowitz told him to stop that nonsense, pointing out that such flopping around would undoubtedly bring approving gasps from the crowd, but it would also put him in a rotten position to get what was coming next. Haber listened well, and now, as one of his opponents noted last week, he is inevitably on his feet for the shot that formerly he made with a belly whopper.

There was also the question of a ceiling. Haber first discovered its benefits when he was 20, and he uses it as no player has since Jacobs. In a semifinal match, challenger Bob Bourdeau (another one of the new faces) time and again zipped the ball up the left side—beautiful passing shots that should have set up kills off Haber's returns. Not only did Haber reach the ball, he got it up high and with feeling. Boink—off the ceiling. Boink—off the back wall, and instead of Bourdeau being up front with blood in his eye, he was racing backwards for the return. "It breaks your rhythm," said Jacobs. "And, more important, it breaks your heart."

Haber had played Jacobs in the nationals in 1960, when Jimmy was at the top of his game. "I played well," said Haber. "Boy, was I hot. Boy, did he massacre me." That was seven years ago and, as Jacobs said, "There is a resemblance between Haber 1960 and Haber 1967; the name. Nothing more. For one thing, he is now the complete player. I mean, he's learned defense. Young players with great arms are always on offense. Wham, wham, wham, up front or way back. And it kills them. Paul now knows before he shoots whether to go to offense or defense. That's one of the reasons you rarely see him off balance."

Yambrick is offensive-minded, but if that is a weakness, he compensates for it with the best left hand in town—and that includes left-handers. Yambrick got that way in his junior year in high school after players who were absolute slobs used to beat him with easy little serves along the left wall. Yambrick took care of that by making one summer a left-handed affair. "Now I have so much confidence with my left I almost depend on it too much."

It was a point that Haber had not missed. "When I can I'll keep it to his right," he said. Good theory, hard to do. Yambrick, five years younger and just a shade quicker, got a quick jump on the champion, but it held up for only half the game. Slowly Haber clawed away at the lead and finally went ahead 10-9. The trouble was, it was excruciatingly hard work. Both players got to and returned shots they had no business even seeing. Instead of the rally ending in orthodox fashion, it would go on and on until the crowd could stand it no longer and would be up and yelling in spite of the referee's severest frowns.

Eventually Haber got the score his way, 18-13, but at that point slammed into the wall hard, hurting his back. The momentum was his, however, and at game point he spoiled Yambrick's kill with one of those things off the ceiling.

"That ought to do it," said one knowing observer. "Those long, tough first games are usually decisive."

He was wrong. "With all due respect to Jimmy Jacobs," said Haber, "I have never, never been run harder by anyone in all my life." With the score in the second game 13-13, there followed 26 service breaks, and the amount of energy used to win each point would have kept the Powell Street cable car going for a year. For all that, Yambrick ran off five straight points, and Haber, down 13-18, wondered if it was time for a change.

No, he decided. "My plan is a good one and I'll live or die by it." Keeping the ball high and deep—he couldn't get low because of his back—he began forcing Yambrick into errors and on he came. At 18-20 he forced Yambrick to the wall for a dying quail, tied the score with a long, low shot that plopped at the front wall and won with a serve that hooked wickedly. Yambrick got it back, but there the ball hung, in mid-court, and Haber pounced on it and the title that Jacobs, laughing no more, will have to win back.