By Boak Ferris, 12/12/18
When we last left David Chapman, he stung from losing the USHA 1994 National Men’s Open Singles title. “I hit the wall,” he told me. “I’ll never do that again.”
He immediately resolved to become fitter than he’d ever been, by moving in with his dad, Fred, in Montana, and by mountain-biking daily at altitude. He also wanted to win the 1994 World Championships, pending in Ireland in a couple of months. Around this time, away from his regular haunts in Long Beach, he found a new mentor to approach, and with whom to consult: a little-known handballer of the past—named Paul Haber. And David also maintained phone contact with his long-favored coach, Lew Morales, in Long Beach.
Among David’s tutors, known to very few, Paul Haber stood in the shadows, hidden. For a while in 1994 and into 1995 David consulted with Paul regularly on the phone. I asked TGO, “What do you discuss with Paul? I thought you had it all figured out.” David said, “I’m trying to simplify my game, and reduce the amount of running I have to do, and win the World’s. Lew and Paul think I can do that by simplifying my shot-choices and returns. I need 100 % shots from specific sectors and floorboards in the court. So Paul and I discuss the best returns and shot choices to make from any floor position, depending on when I’m serving or when I’m returning serve.”
Thus was born the foremost set of Chapman principles best reduced to, “Know Your Time. Know Your Place.” Knowing your time during a handball rally means you must always know if you served during the rally, or if you received serve during the rally. The tactical shots you selected varied and were mandated, depending entirely on whether you could score a point, or whether you had to prevent your opponent from scoring a point. Unlike players who would go for a favorite shot, no matter if they served or received serve; David refused that temptation. “Too low-percentage,” he said. “Besides, it prolongs the match, especially during a long tournament week.”
Second, knowing your place meant you needed to simplify your tactical shot-selection to one of two choices from each of 9 seven-foot-by-seven-foot square sectors of floorboards in the court as roughly approximated in Diagram 1 below. What David discussed with Paul was exactly what kind of shot to hit from each of the green squares in the following court-grid, depending entirely on whether David was on offense or defense. The programmed shots had to be suited to David’s unique set of skills. Adhering to these principles led to David’s supreme focus, which, in turn, resulted in a complete reduction of all hand errors. This latter claim is no exaggeration. Vern Roberts once said, in effect, “Chapman has the surest hands in handball.” The Great One (TGO) made no hand errors.
POSITION 1: SERVING Means Offense and thus SCORING
David served for one reason only, once he worked out with Paul Haber and Lew Morales his best single scoring skill opportunity: the back wall setup. This second Diagram 2 below differs from all others, because it integrates all 9 of the seven-by-seven sectors of the court—along with the undifferentiated front-court—into one fearsome Big Oval scoring sector for David. First, he opted for the lob when serving, because his competitors could not return overhand balls without leaving back wall setups. So he developed three service types to force players to hit overhand: the overhand soft lob to the opponent’s weak-side, the three-wall overhand drive serve to the right around to the left wall against righties, (the reverse against lefties), and the underhanded “Bob-Harris lob” to the weak-side wall deep near the rear corner.
As a result, more than 60 % of the time, because opponents could not prevent their overhand shots from caroming off the back wall, David received easy back wall setups in the green oval area of the diagram below. If David served, and received a back wall setup anywhere in the green area, he struck the ball low next to the floor with his right hand and rolled it for a point or else hit it hard with hop right into the opponent to force an error or to earn a point. Otherwise, with a back wall setup in the red rectangular area, on his weak side, he could hit the ball with his left hand and kill it back up the left wall low, back at himself, and rolled it or got a replay, or else, against a competitor overplaying that return, he could hit a deep bounce pass with his left toward the right wall, taking off just enough speed so that it wouldn’t come around for a back wall setup for the opponent. Sometimes, with a back wall setup in the red area, David opted not to use his left, but instead, he planted his butt on the left wall, and dominated the back wall setup with his right hand. And, while the opponent chased, David always drifted back to center. In short, he had two scoring shots with his right hand, and two with his left, with all back wall setups. You can draw in David’s back wall shot vectors on the diagram if you wish, depending on where you draw in where the opponent is standing/moving-to.
POSITION 2: Front Court Domination When Serving, Front-Left Sector, Two Choices
While David rarely found himself in Diagram 3A below, since most opponents hit the ball away from that sector from where David just served, he used the two go-to shots as illustrated in the diagram, if, later during a rally, he successfully tempted the player to hit it there, after David served. David’s first choice was an open-hand or paddle kill or rekill with his left hand into the left corner and back toward where he stood, as indicated by the priority 1 red vector. David selected this shot if the opponent was anywhere between the closer grey semicircle or standing nearer the farther grey semicircle from his own position. This shot guaranteed an instant point, if rolled out, or else a replay.
While the sector, in blue, appears closer to the front wall than sectors illustrated in the first diagram above, please grant some leeway in defining sectors, because, while hitting, David moved toward the target on the front wall, and the sector moved with him. Also note that these sectors require addressing the ball underhanded or “paddle-style,” so David always moved his feet forward or backward, as the sector followed him, so he could paddle or fist the ball with the low under-armed motion, and thus conserve energy and conserve wear and tear on his arms. David only selected green vector 2 to fist or sling the ball, a deep V-pass off the right wall, if the opponent took an aggressive position near David’s body on the closer grey semicircle, as indicated by the smaller “o’s.”
Below in Diagram 3B, you find one of David’s two favorite court-positions he wanted to achieve when serving. If he forced the opponent to return the ball to the front-center sector, he had dominating replies that guaranteed him a point or a replay. David had the touch to caress the ball exactly into the left corner from this sector, with priority green vector 1a, if the opponent’s ball came to him there. He and Lew called this “squashing the ball.” David would move so as to paddle the ball, and the sector slid forward and back to some degree. If the opponent tried to run to center, or come in behind David, the opponent couldn’t do much other than accept a replay or, if the ball rolled out from that left corner, to allow David the point. If the opponent hung back, or tried to circle around David’s body to the front left corner during David’s shot, David simply redirected and guided the ball low to the right with green vector 1b, his second choice. Again for a point or a replay. David won gallons of points with these plays. David always moved his feet to hit these option shots with his right dominant hand, since he had plenty of court-space to his left to adjust and take the ball with his stronger hand.
Below in Diagram 3C, you find David’s favorite court-position he wanted to achieve when serving. Usually his lob-serves and rally-shots to the left hand of right-handed opponents forced opponents to return the ball to the front-right sector, where he drifted, and where he anticipated hitting one of two dominating replies that guaranteed him a point or a replay. A study of David’s matches shows that he usually drifted to this area after he served and/or after he later hit a pass, so that he could score.
He knew that when he stood and hit from the front-right sector, his body screened his right hand and motion from the opponent’s view, and so he could disguise a fist/or soft-paddle kill into the right corner, by mixing it in with a precisely drilled fist bounce-pass across to the left floor near the sidewall, and then into the left wall. David also practiced and practiced until he develop the timing to roll the ball through his hand into the right corner from this sector, with the first-priority red vector, if the opponent lagged in the back court. If the opponent hastened to center, as indicated by the moving “o,” or tried to come in behind or next to David, David fisted the bounce-pass drive, the second-priority green vector. No opponent could cover both shots, especially if David first “showed a fist,” making this tactical choice the dominating option. David called it his best, 100 % two-way shot. Thus, the opponent had to allow David a point (or replay in the corner). David earned the majority of his points from mastering this sector while serving. Here, he always knew both his place and his time.
As David knew he wasn’t super-fast of foot, when he found himself farther back in the court when serving, he needed shots to buy him time to hit balls, and to return to center court. Thus he developed, with Paul Haber’s advice, more go-to shots when addressing opponents’ shots that arrived to the left-middle court-sector, when he served. In Diagram 4A below, he invariably preferred first, red vector 1a, and second, green vector 1b from this position. If the opponent rushed in to the grey semicircle closer to his body, David, hitting with his right, struck the red-vector 1a deep bounce-pass back up the left wall, if the opponent was a righty, and David continued drifting forward along the black vector for two reasons. He knew the opponent would likely hit the ball from the deep left back toward right center, where David was moving to, and thus David could attain one of his primary scoring sectors as detailed above.
Also, as David moved forward during his own shot, the opponent could not really get in onto or in front of David’s black follow-through line! Also, the opponent would have to switch feet, to return around behind David, back to the rear left, to chase the pass, with David camping in front, now. If the opponent was foolish enough to lag too deep in the court, closer to the rear-right grey semicircle, David could use the same motion, and with his right hand, “soft” the ball for a kill on red vector 1c. If David had to address the ball from this sector with his left hand, he protected his left by drilling a low punch-fist kill (since he was serving) up the left wall low, on green vector 1b, or else David could catch the opponent rushing in, and he changed his shot to the green fist-roof vector to the ceiling back to the right corner. As the opponent raced back to retrieve, David calmly drifted to center court.
Those of us who knew him—or played with or against him—often heard him say “Hey diddle diddle” many times during his career and during skirmishes. He uttered this snippet of a longer saying he also used: “Hey diddle diddle, right up the middle.” Counter intuitive to handball wisdom, this saying reflected one of David’s favorite shot choices. David programmed court positions into his mind, positions he needed to achieve to control a point, rally, game, or match. He hit deliberate shots to acquire these court-positions. If he could attain the sector in the middle of the court near the restraining line, while serving, with the opponent in front of him right or left center near the service line, David controlled the ensuing shot sequence with a very hard bounce pass right through the center of the court. On video, watch him tie up Naty Jr. or Vince Munoz with this automatic reply. With his right hand, he hit it chest high, with natural hop, trying to bounce it in front of or near the front line, so it would pass the opponent’s left hand at shoulder height, zooming toward the back wall. He hit it with just enough power to hop it hard, but not enough power to leave a back wall setup. He called this the “Hey Diddle Diddle” shot. This shot tied up opponents, who either flailed at it as it came by, or tried to track it to the back wall, with some frustration. All they could really do is stab at it for a jab/block return. With his left hand, from this sector, David also opted to use a similar hey-diddle-diddle mentality, when he pulled the ball for a deep right-wall V- or bounce-pass to bring the ball around behind the in-rushing opponent’s body back again to the left sidewall, a shot-vector not shown in this diagram, since it was basically a third option, used after he matured. Instead, in this diagram, if the opponent rushes in, David first hits the hey-diddle-diddle shot. If the opponent lags back, expecting the big bounce pass to the left, David moves to his left, traps the opponent on his left hip, all to hit a right-handed kill up into the front right corner: his preferred second choice, the green vector. David, in this sector, usually had time to move to hit the ball with his right hand, and thus these were his two choices. He rarely hit the third option, the hard, right-wall V-pass to the right wall with his left hand, if he didn’t have to. He had space on the left to address the ball with his right.
David dominated, after serving, when he moved to this sector as well, illustrated below in diagram 4C. With the “Hey diddle diddle” mentality, he drove the red-vector hard bounce-pass as shown, especially as the opponent rushed in toward the center “O.” Much like the lob serve to the left, this well placed, pass ended deep in the left corner, when struck correctly, and was hard to interrupt for an opponent rushing in. The shot wrong-footed opponents, causing them to stop and back-pedal. And, after seeing this shot from center court and elsewhere, if the opponent lagged back, the opponent became vulnerable to David’s amazing fist-kill-pass, blue-vector, up the right wall from this sector, which became a hinder if it wasn’t perfect, while David moved along the black vector to center court. These two shots, the red vector and the blue vector worked synergistically, as the opponent learned David could do both from the center right sector, with the same motion, but couldn’t protect against both, making David’s shot option a superior 100 % two-way shot. By the way, if David had no time to address the ball in this sector with a sidearm or low address, David overhanded the ball to the roof along the green vector, to take charge of the rally, sending the ball back to the rear left corner. He preferred these choices from here, but only when serving.
Busy diagram 4 D below is easy to explain. Whichever of the three backcourt sectors David found himself in required one shot only, a red-vector roof shot/ceiling ball to the rear left corner against righties, and the opposite against lefties. He took each red-vector right handed, overhanded, and hit ceiling balls, especially if the opponent moved from the outer margin of the grey circle toward the O2 spots on the court. If the opponent lagged too far back, when David served, even if David was back there also, David sometimes mixed in the second-option, green-vector shots as shown, the one from the far rear right sector to the front left corner, a kill—with the mentality of taking legs out of the opponents and also keeping the opponent honest. Similarly, from the center and right-side rear sectors David could kill the ball into the right corner with his right hand, if the opponent lagged back. Otherwise, David was content to hit roof-shots to the weak-side, because he inevitably earned a back wall setup when the opponent overhit the overhand return.
WHAT DID DAVID HIT WHEN RECEIVING SERVE? (A New Time, but Similar Places)
Please revisit Diagram 2. David owned such a nonpareil back wall shot, he could take charge of a rally, even after the opponent served, and while David was receiving serve, if the opponent gave him a back wall setup on serve or during the rally, in other words, even when David’s time was ON DEFENSE. He could pass it with hop or kill it from the red and green zones as marked, and move to center court to take charge of the rally. He used those two shots with back wall setups, even when receiving serve.
POSITION 10: Front Court When Receiving Serve: Left-Front and Right-Front Sectors
Make no mistake. David used different defensive shots from the 9 sectors, as contrasted with when he served, meaning when he received serve—as he always knew: “NOW, I am receiving serve.” He had three goals: not to floor the ball, not to yield a setup, and not to give an error: read “not to give a free point.” Opponents had to earn every single point, and they knew it, to their exhaustion, and frustration. To these ends, David developed the following shots in order to protect himself against the server. Indeed, the receiver starts in the back, but in most cases faces low power serves, sending the receiver to the front sectors near the sidewalls, as in diagram 5A.
For David’s first choice to answer a right side serve, he applied his right hand, under-armed fist to strike the right-side, red vector to the rear left corner. To answer a left-side serve with his left hand, he could hit the left-side, red-vector, fist-to-roof shot, but often found it easier to start the rally with hitting a fist green-vector choice. When he was well ahead on the scoreboard, or facing a sure loss of the first game, he occasionally fisted the low right blue vector sidewall-front wall kill, to surprise the opponent who had seen nothing but fist shots to the roof so far, for serve-replies.
David maintained the logic of defense from the center of the court when receiving serve, as illustrated below, in diagram 5B. No secrets here, with everyone who played him. Opponents could expect, when they maneuvered David into this position when he received serve, they were going to get a fist or overhand to the ceiling as the red vectors indicate. Not shown in the diagram is his overhand or fist ceiling to the right, accomplished with his left hand. But he could sling the ball up there, even though critics claimed he had no left-arm strength. He could pull the ball with good leg-work overhand up to the ceiling with his left, and servers learned not to serve him to the middle sectors against his left fist, because he hit the ball to the roof and then deep to the right corner, repeatedly, leaving no back wall setups, and then he took charge of center court.
David liked to keep the ball vertical, when he received serve. And these red vectors in Diagram 5C below show his first options when he played defense from the three sectors at the rear of the court. Also very logical. He knew too many pros were good sidearm and underarm, and he refused to give them those preferred and favored opportunities. If you were going to beat him, you weren’t going to do it from hitting setups he left you. He struck his vertical roof-shots with just the right tempo so as not to leave hangers, or back wall opportunities.
Confident opponents, early in matches, easily returned his ceiling balls, but David’s shot-choices began to wear on them, as they rarely enjoyed receiving a setup opportunity, and soon their frustrations intensified. Within twenty minutes, they forced shots, and David pulled away from them with the points-differentials, leading to wins. Once opponents got exhausted, and grew tired of chasing shots to the rear-court, David could step in and ‘soft’ some green-vector kill shots, as below, and earn a side out.
Some time has passed since David dominated handball, and since we lost him, in 2017. He won his last four-wall championship in 2011, almost eight years ago, and a danger appears that we might forget and lose what he could do. Luckily, many videos exist, and among my favorites showing his applications of the principles in this article are the USHA Four-Wall Men’s Open Singles, 1993, 1995, 1996, 1998, 2002, 2004, and 2011. Also amazing is his youthful 1994 World Championship win over Ducksy Walsh, whom we also tragically lost recently. David went into that match with his sector theory, intending also to keep the ball near the sidewalls to hamper Ducksy’s big Irish-Whip swing. David, on site, realized he could count on the dark right wall for his passes and drives and paddle-shots to attain effectiveness.
Please note that I realize that many readers out there may be wondering if they should accept this article at face value, because neither David nor Paul Haber is here to correct any of it. Lew Morales is still around, as am I, but, nonetheless, I encourage everyone and anyone to study David’s videos, to ask to what degree they can spot the shot choices and tactics discussed above, and then independently to make their own final judgments. I watch the pros whenever they play, and as much as they awe me with their speed, power, and shots, I don’t see anyone keeping it simpler than did David, by consistently “knowing their time and knowing their place.” Instead, they act as if they think, “Oh, this is a setup. Kill it!” Many seem to forget whether they served or received serve. TGO never forgot. And he also never made errors. So now, may I ask you, could David at his best beat anyone else at his best?