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Malibu couple, brought together by racquetball, looks to grow sport

Malibu residents Rick Betts and Cindy Tilbury pose for a photo at a racquetball championship event in 2015. Photo Submitted
Malibu’s Cindy Tilbury has been playing racquetball since her early 20s. Photos Submitted
Ryan Flynn, Freelance Reporter
3:31 pm PDT July 31, 2017

When their romance began, they were both wearing goggles.

By the time Malibu resident Cindy Tilbury met her future boyfriend, she was already deeply involved in the racquetball scene. Back when she was in her early 20s, Tilbury was introduced to the sport by her brother at the local YMCA, back in rural Minnesota.

Immediately, she fell in love.

“There are really great people who play it,” Tilbury said. “They are high energy, no one smokes. It’s sort of a competitive, yet very social kind of thing. In general, it is a sport for life.”

Tilbury met Rick Betts, a California native, at a tournament in Portland. Betts, who started out playing tennis, also gravitated to racquetball at the behest of a friend and quickly became obsessed.

“The first time I played it, I fell in love with it. You walk on the court and all of a sudden you hit this ball and see it flying all around the room and it’s like, ‘wow, this is fun,’” Betts said.

The two met in Portland, and continued to bump into one another during stops on the racquetball tour. In 2009, Betts finally made his move and asked Tilbury out during a tournament in Canoga Park. One of their first dates was — what else — watching a weekend of racquetball matches.

Betts had box seats to watch the US Open in Memphis and invited Tilbury to fly in and join him. Together, they watched three or four hours of constant racquetball.

“As we’re sitting there, watching another match, Cindy said ‘OK, so how many girls that you’ve dated would’ve sat here this long to watch racquetball?’” Betts said.

None, he said. Zero.

“I know that any other person would’ve thought that was the worst date ever,” Tilbury said.

So, what is it about racquetball that they enjoy so much? Betts likens the game to a combination of tennis and billiards. Racquetball, as the name suggests, is a racquet sport much like tennis, but is for the most part played indoors in a closed room where the walls, floor and ceiling are legal bouncing surfaces for the hollow rubber ball. The billiards comparison comes from the strategy element of the game: using angles and timing shots to outsmart your opponent.

“It requires skill as well as endurance,” Betts said.

The couple believes that racquetball is due for a resurgence. It has had its chances, and was even once a favorite of Elvis Presley, who had his own racquetball building at his Graceland estate. 

Betts said the sport suffers because on television it is hard to track the movement of the ball, which often is moving at upwards of 100 miles per hour. This makes it difficult for racquetball to have the fan allure of something like tennis. As technology continues to advance, Betts says this will eventually be remedied.

Public interest could also see an uptick if racquetball is accepted as an Olympic sport. Racquetball has thus far never been a medal sport, but could be a likely candidate.

Racquetball, unlike dating, isn’t a contact sport, and it has a clear winner and loser. These days, Betts and Tilbury play in mixed doubles as a team more often than they play against each other.

“I try to minimize the amount of time that I can be embarrassed,” Betts said.

Tilbury moved to Malibu with Betts in 2010, and the couple has continued actively playing, as well as doing what they can to further the sport. Betts refers to them as “racquetball missionaries” because they aren’t just interested in the sport for themselves.

Along with a few other investors, Betts and Tilbury recently purchased the International Racquetball Tour, which is the men’s professional tour. According to the IRT’s website, the tour features “300 players competing in over 20 Top-Tier and more than 50 Satellite tournaments in Latin America, the United States, and Canada.” Tilbury and Betts hope to someday purchase the woman’s tour and unite the two.

In the meantime, they’ll continue playing. Tilbury and Betts frequent Bay Club in Canoga Park, and have both become prolific players in their age bracket. Tilbury in particular is the three-time USA Racquetball Association player of the year in the female, over-35 age group.

“For me, it’s really nice to have your life partner sharing the same passion that you have,” Betts said.