Peering in from the outside, non-handballers may find the sport’s various grades and codes a little perplexing.
Owing to its international development, several different forms of the game have taken root. The traditional Irish version is played on a court measuring 60 feet by 30 with a rubber ball (softball) or a small ‘alley-cracker’ (hardball).
The dominant code, though, in Ireland is now 40x20, which is played in a smaller court with a different ball and slightly different rules. This form of handball was born in the United States, reached these shores around 1970 and quickly grew in popularity.
For context, 40x20 is the game played by Paul Brady who, incidentally, tied the all-time US Nationals record by winning his 11th Open Singles crown last Saturday in Los Angeles.
And then there is the fastest-growing version of the game, One-Wall handball (or wallball, as it is now known following a recent rebranding).
Wallball is the second most popular ‘street sport’ in New York after basketball and some of the top exponents in the Big Apple are full-time professionals, such as the Red Bull-sponsored Timbo Gonzalez.
Easy to play, wallball is spreading quickly, with over 300 Irish schools and GAA clubs having installed courts in recent years. Indoor courts can be constructed for as little as €450 and while the game was originally viewed as a gateway to the four-wall codes, wallball in Ireland has grown into a very popular and competitive standalone game of its own.
The game is different than the others - it's edgier, with a little physical contact allowed - and rewards aggressive shot-making. The slower ball produces longer, spectacular rallies and there are many who believe this fledgling code (which began as a hustler's pastime during the Depression era in New York) represents the future of the sport.
The game is growing in mainland Europe, too, with a European Wallball Tour running annually and featuring events in the UK, Belgium, Spain, Italy and the Netherlands. But the jewel in the crown for Irish players is the annual Wallball Nationals, the latest renewal of which takes place in Breaffy House in Castlebar, Co Mayo this weekend.
The Wallball Nationals began as a modest affair in Co Meath in 1997 and was later hosted in Sligo for several years but an ambitious decision around 12 years ago to move the event to the Mayo venue, which includes five full-size courts under one roof, has seen the event grow into arguably the most successful on the Irish handball schedule.
Players have come from the UK, the Basque Country, the USA and Puerto Rico in the past and the tournament regularly attracts fields of over 500 entrants. This year, the field is headed by former winner Martin Mulkerrins of Galway, who has just returned from the US Nationals in LA in which he lost the final to Brady.
Mulkerrins will be favourite to land the Men’s Open title for a second time, with world champion Martina McMahon the number one seed once again in the Ladies Open.
Further adding to the excitement of this event is its unique format. Early round matches are played on a 20-minute timed basis and there are grades from 11&U in boys and girls right up to Over 65s.
“Wallball is just different, it’s probably more enjoyable [than other forms of the game],” says Tyrone’s Sean Kerr, the number two seed in the Men’s Open.
You go in and have a bit of fun, relax a little and take the pressure off. Four-wall would be the main game for a lot of players but wallball lets you take a couple of months over the summer to have a break from that and have some craic, kind of enjoy it a bit more.
I think it’s a very good weekend, it gets big numbers and you have the hotel and handball courts all joined under one roof. There’s a great atmosphere and it’s very enjoyable if you get to play on the centre court and there’s a packed gallery there.
Matches in the Open will be streamed live on the GAA Handball Facebook page, starting on Friday evening.