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the World’s Fastest Sport

Jai Alai (pronounced ‘hi lie’) is the world’s fastest ball game, and it’s unlike anything you’ve ever seen before. A small, incredibly hard ball is thrown at a granite wall at speeds of around 188mph using specially made scoops that are lashed to the players’ hands, and while the rules of the game are simple, it’s a highly tactical game that totally sucks you in. If you thought Rollerball was insane, you ain’t seen nothing until you’ve seen a Jai Alai ball slam into a player’s body at high speed.

The most accessible Jai Alai stadium is in Miami, and is a highly recommended visit for anyone wanting to see more than just beaches and bars for those who remember Miami Vice, Jai Alai featured in the opening credits. There are also venues at Fort Pierce and Ocala, both in Florida too.

HistoryThe origins of Jai Alai can be traced back to the game of Pelota Vasca (Basque Ball), a game developed over 300 years ago in the Basque area of the Pyrenees in northern Spain. Legend has it that one day a group of children were playing catch, and one child who’d hurt his hand wanted to join in, so he got hold of a broken basket and used it to catch and throw the ball. very fast, as it turned out. Games of Pelota Vasca were played at festivals, and it wasn’t long before the game was known as Jai Alai, or ‘Merry Festival’ in the local Basque language.

The original game was played outdoors using church walls as the first playing courts, and the game made its way to Cuba from Spain in 1898. Jai Alai was successfully introduced as a professional sport at the Miami Fronton1 in 1926, which remains today the largest and oldest fronton in the Western Hemisphere: indeed, there are more Jai Alai frontons in Florida than anywhere else in the world.

Gambling on the game is very much part of the event, and is the way the whole operation is financed (players are professional and full time), but this didn’t start to happen until 1934 when the restrictions on gambling were lifted.

At one time Jai Alai was played in seasons, but now it is played year round. When it was seasonal and not being played in Florida, it was not unknown for rich fans to fly over to Cuba for a game, and back again afterwards. Since 1980, however, Jai Alai in Florida has been played all year round, which has had the undesired effect of reducing the size of the crowds, probably because you can have too much of a good thing.

To make matters worse, in 1988 there was a players’ strike just two weeks before the Florida Lottery was launched, which was shortly followed by the creation of a Miami basketball team. The strike lasted two years, by which stage Jai Alai had pretty much fallen off the betting man’s radar, but the last two years have seen some creative marketing2 and a raising of awareness of the sport, and the turnover has changed from dropping 18% per year to increasing 5 6% each year.

The EquipmentThe equipment used to play Jai Alai is unique, and is as much a part of the sport as the speed, tactics and gambling. The three main pieces of equipment are:

The Uniform Players wear rubber soled shoes, white trousers with a red sash (called a faja) and a coloured shirt. The number on the front of the shirt is the player’s ‘post position’ (see the section on the rules below) and the number on the back is the player’s own unique number. Helmets were not introduced until 1968 after a champion player named Orbea was hit in the head, putting him into a six month coma and ending his career; now they are compulsory.

The Pelota (pay lo tah) This is the ball used in the game, and it’s harder than any other ball in any other sport: drop a pelota onto a tiled floor and you’ll end up with crazy paving, which is why the front wall of the court is made of granite, the only surface that can handle repeated smashing from a pelota. Pelotas are hand made in a number of layers: the core is made of Brazilian rubber, surrounded by a tight layer of nylon string followed by two layers of specially hardened goat skin, making a super tough ball that’s about three quarters of the size of a baseball. A pelota costs over $150, and each one lasts for only 15 minutes of play; and because each one is made by hand, each one behaves differently, so you get anthing from ‘lively’ balls to ‘dead’ balls.

The Cesta (ses tah) The special whicker basket scoops that players lash to their playing hand to catch and throw the pelota are called cestas. Each one is made by hand from whicker bound round a frame of steam bent chestnut, and is tailored to its owner’s specifications. The length, curve and ribbing of the cesta enable players to throw the pelota incredibly fast and with serious amounts of spin, and because of the amount of wear and tear, each $200 cesta lasts only a few weeks of play. Players therefore have a number of cestas in their lockers, and more are constantly being made backstage.

Pelotas and cestas are still made entirely by hand as they have been for 300 years (though a plastic cesta has been developed in an attempt to cut costs). No machine has been developed to make either item.

The CourtThe Jai Alai court, known as a cancha, is huge. The cancha is usually 176 feet long, 50 feet wide and 40 feet high (though there are no standard dimensions), and is made up of three walls, one at the front (made from granite), one at the back and one along the left hand side of the playing area. The crowd looks into the cancha from the right hand side, so there is a see through safety screen on the right hand side to stop the cesta flying out and taking out an innocent party. The ceiling of the cancha is also made of wire, and there’s a wooden strip along the bottom of the right hand safety screen for the three referees to stand on (one at the front, one in the middle and one at the back).

Along the left hand wall are 14 painted lines between the front and back walls, with line 1 being just back from the front wall, line 14 just in front of the back wall, and the rest spaced evenly between them. Line 4 is marked ‘Overserve’, line 7 is marked ‘Underserve’ and line 11 is marked ‘Serve’.

The RulesThe rules of Jai Alai are pretty simple, though you’d be lucky to pick them up just by watching a game. If you’re familiar with handball or squash then you’ve got a head start, but nothing will prepare you for the ferocious speed of the sport.

Before each game, all the players line up at the front of the cancha and salute the crowd. This is the cue for a ball breaking cry from those who’ve put money on, or just drunk too much beer.

Winning a PointTo start with, let’s look at a simple single point game between two single players. It starts with the serve: the server must bounce the pelota behind the serving line (line 11), and hurl it with his cesta directly at the front wall so that when it rebounds it bounces between line 4 and line 7. If it doesn’t bounce between these lines then it’s either an underserve or an overserve and the other player wins the point.

Assuming the serve is in, the two players take it in turns to play the ball, just as in squash or tennis. The pelota must be caught on the fly or after just one bounce, and it must be caught and thrown in ‘one fluid motion’ it’s a foul if the referees rule that the pelota ‘pops up’ or if it is held for ‘more than the required time’. All three walls (front, back and left) are in play, but the roof and right hand wall are out of bounds, as is the wooden referee strip (which makes a different sound when hit), although players can run onto the wood to save the ball from striking it or the right hand wall.

Like handball or squash, Jai Alai players share the cancha with the opposition. If a player blocks another’s line to the ball when that player is catching or returning the pelota to the front wall, the referees may call ‘interference’ if they reckon the ball was playable.

Each type of shot has a name, but unless you’re into trainspotting you can probably live without knowing them all. Teams consist of either one or two players. The game starts with Post 1 playing Post 2 for a single point, then the winner stays on and plays Post 3, and so on. The losing team always goes to the end of the line.

An added complication is that teams score one point for each win until each team has played once, after which the point value is doubled to two points per win. The winning team is the first one to seven points (though in some games it’s the first to nine); the average game lasts for about 15 minutes.

While the round robin eight team system is common in the United States, there are local variations all over the world. In Spain, for example, a full game runs to 25 to 40 points and may last an hour or more, and each point is bet on as well as the game itself.

DisciplineBecause Jai Alai is such a heavy betting sport, to prevent the crowd becoming sympathetic players are not allowed to argue with the referees. In fact, if a player even looks at a referee after a call is made against him, he is fined $25 on the spot, and if he says anything to a referee, it’s a $150 fine. Some other sports could do with an equivalent rule.

TacticsAlthough it might not look like it from the audience perspective, Jai Alai is a highly tactical positioning game. The amount of spin that can be put on a pelota by a cesta is phenomenal, and if you watch the sport on television it’s fascinating to see the ‘behind the players’ camera angle. Players know how opposition players think and play, and reading their playing habits is as much a part of the game as knowing how to throw the pelota.

The modern tactics of Jai Alai only developed in the early 1980s, when a young Jewish American called Joey Cornbilt joined the sport and became the first player to aggressively go after the ball he would take the serve and kill it right away. The Spanish and French players that make up the majority of the US frontons realised that they’d better start playing aggressively too, and now the game is much more lively and considerably faster than before.

Jai Alai as a Professional SportMost of the players in the US frontons come from either the Basque area of Spain or the French area to the east of the Pyrenees, and for them getting to play in Miami is a lifetime’s ambition. Players are full time professionals, employed on a one year contractual basis, and their wages are closely linked to their performance. State officials watch the games, and any players who are deemed not to have put forward their best efforts in playing the game are reprimanded.

This might all sound terribly serious, but it’s necessary because so much rides on the betting aspect of the game. It used to be worse: years ago the state wouldn’t allow brothers to play against each other in case they favoured each other, but this was dropped for two reasons: first it’s more probable that brothers would try harder to beat each other than help each other, and second it proved unworkable because more often than not everybody in the game is related to someone else who plays.

It’s a hard life, too. They play a matinee session every day except Tuesday, and an evening session on Wednesday, Thursday and Saturday. The hours are unsociable (as evening sessions often go on beyond midnight) and it’s the sort of job where spouses say hello as they pass each other in the night.

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