You may play racquetball and you might have tried handball, but have you ever seen their high speed cousin, jai alai? Jai alai is promoted by the Basque government as the fastest game on Earth. (The Basque country is an autonomous region in the northern part of Spain.) With a ball that regularly flies around the court at over a hundred miles an hour, you might see why they make this claim. In fact, the fastest speed for a jai alai ball was recorded on August 3, 1979 in Newport, RI, when Jose Ramon Arietio made a shot that was clocked at 188 miles per hour. But what is jai alai? Where did it come from?
Jai alai is a Basque word, meaning 'merry festival'. The game was given this name because it originated four centuries ago, with men throwing a ball against a church wall as an attraction during the annual festivals in the Basque region of Spain. Between then and now, the speed of the game has increased, with the modern version introduced in Cuba in 1898, and then in the United States at the 1904 world's fair held in St. Louis.
As with similar games, it is played in a court with three walls. This court is known as a fronton. A wicker basket is placed over the hand like a glove, and used to hurl a ball against the back wall of the fronton. This basket glove (called a xistera in Basque or a cesta-punta in Spanish) is long and curved, which is what allows the players to hurl the ball at such incredible speeds. The ball, called a pelota, is the hardest used in any sport. It is about three fourths the size of a baseball, made of rubber and nylon, and covered in goat skin. Because of the tremendous strain put on it, a pelota typically only lasts for about 20 minutes of play before the cover starts to come off.
Most courts are about half the length of a football field, 40 feet wide, and about 40 feet high. This court is divided by fourteen parallel lines, numbered from the front of the court to the back. The game is usually played with eight teams of players, with each team consisting of one or two people. These teams take turns, with the winner staying on the court and the loser moving to the end of the line each time a point is scored. Just as with tennis or racquet ball, play starts with a serve, which must be returned by the other team. This is done by catching the ball in the air or after one bounce and immediately throwing it in one fluid motion.
A team scores when the opposing team fails to catch the ball in the air or after one bounce, holds or juggles the ball, fails to serve so that the ball lands between lines four and seven, throws the ball out-of-bounds, or interferes with an opposing player. The first team to score so many points, usually either 7 or 9, wins the game.
While jai alai is popular in France, Spain, and some Latin American countries, what little popularity it once had in the United States has fallen off. It is still played in a handful of frontons in Florida, where the law allows gamblers to bet on the sport.
If you like racquet ball, why not try (to watch) jai alai, racquet ball's thrilling and high-speed cousin.