2020 3WallBall Championships and the Covid-19 Pandemic

2020 3WallBall Championships and the Covid-19 Pandemic

Covid-19’s Immediate Impact on the Racquetball World
By Todd Boss
 

In the second week of March 2020 (March 11th to be exact), the Covid-19 crisis went from being something that scientists and politicians (not to mention people on social media) argued about to being officially labeled a global pandemic by the World Health Organization.[1]  That same night, President Trump issued a travel ban to and from Europe in response to the WHO’s announcement and rising case reports on the continent.[2]  It was clear; the Pandemic had made it to the shores of the US, and it was here to stay.

From a racquetball perspective, the weekend prior had seen an LPRT women’s pro event hosted in Boston with almost no discussion of the disease[3], but there was suddenly significant discussion and disagreement about whether or not the planned IRT event the following weekend (the 35th annual Shamrock Shootout held in Chicagoland) should have been cancelled.  March 11th fell on a Wednesday; the tournament started the next day and literally as the President was making his national address some of the competitors were mid-flight to the tournament.  In the end, the tournament was held despite criticism, safety protocols were followed to the greatest extent possible, and no illnesses were reported [4], but the rest of the 2020 tournament slate was cancelled by all major sanctioning bodies.  Both pro tours, the International Racquetball Federation, USA Racquetball, Racquetball Canada, and the Federacion Mexicana de Raquetbol all ended up immediately cancelling pending events in the short term, and those cancellations ended up continuing for much of the rest of the year and well into 2021.

The United States generally saw somewhat of an abatement of the spread of the disease in the summer months of 2020,[5] which led to some states easing restrictions on gatherings, especially those to be held primarily outdoors.  The 3WallBall organizational team had kept their event “on the books” throughout the summer, holding out hope that they could still hold the event without major attendance restrictions.  When the US Open was cancelled officially on 7/15/20 [6] , the Vegas organizers pushed their event into October.  This date change resulted in several benefits: cheaper airfare into Las Vegas, better hotel rates, better weather (as in, not as hot), and most importantly another few weeks to get permits and resolve regulatory issues in Nevada.[7] 

2020 3WallBall nearly cancelled

As the tournament date drew nearer, it was touch and go that the tournament would even happen.  Normally the 3WallBall team leans on the event planning staff of the STRAT hotel to assist with navigation of the complex permitting process for events in Las Vegas, but the Covid-driven downturn of revenue (which forced widespread national layoffs) had hit Vegas hard; nearly all experienced event-planning staff at the hotel were either furloughed or terminated, leaving Coulter’s skeleton (and volunteer) tournament staff to navigate the approval process nearly on their own.  Tournament Director Peggine Tellez in particular had her hands full and spent weeks working on approvals ahead of the event.

Running an event in Las Vegas involves approvals from multiple bodies, and running an event during a global pandemic added in others.  By the time they were done, Tellez and the 3WB team had to work with the Nevada State Health Division, the Nevada State Department of Business & Industry, the Nevada Gaming Control Board, and the City of Las Vegas, all the while keeping an eye on the ever-changing messaging coming out of the Governor’s office (which was perpetually influenced by the directives coming out of the White House). [8]

As the event neared, new guidelines were put forth that seemed to give the event the green light; a 250-person capacity limit was announced for outdoor events in the state of Nevada.  Coulter felt they could meet this limit with staggered start times and a ban on non-participant attendees despite the 600-person self-imposed limit on tournament entrants.  But then the City of Las Vegas withheld the event permit on the day it was to be issued due to a newly implemented ban on “recreational events” until the end of October.  Coulter and his sponsors had to call in favors with every influencer and politician he knew; Senators, Lobbyists, both the current and former Mayors were all contacted to see if they could help with the logjam.  Thankfully there had been a major Pickleball pro tournament hosted in Las Vegas just a few weeks prior [9] which cleared the way for some obstacles (namely, the difference between a “professional” and “recreational” event) and the 3WallBall team got the official approval for the event just a couple days before players started arriving.  Coulter remarked afterwards just how close they were to cancelling; the approvals did not come until literally the Monday and Tuesday ahead of the event.[10]

Tournament Buzz associated with one player in particular: the GOAT

By the time the tournament started (October 14th), it had been nearly seven months since there had been any sort of top-level racquetball competition, and the participant list for the Vegas event read like a who’s who of both the indoor and outdoor racquetball worlds.  More than 375 racquetball players entered the event, showing just how hungry tournament participants were to compete.[11]  The Men’s draws were stacked, thanks to the influx of top players from the IRT playing outdoor competitively for the first time.  The main Men’s pro 3-wall draw featured 23 teams and included 8 of the top 10 indoor players and a large slate of the best outdoor players in the world.[12]  The Women’s draws were tough as well, though the international nature of the top of the LPRT rankings precluded many from Central and South America from travelling.  Nonetheless, world #1 Paola Longoria returned to play a major outdoor event for the first time in four years and was joined by the three most dominant outdoor female players in the world in Rhonda Rajsich, Michelle De La Rosa, and Janel Tisinger-Ledkins.

But the tournament’s major story line during its lead-up was related to one player in particular, that being Men’s #1 Kane Waselenchuk.  Kane first broached the idea of playing 3WallBall in interviews over the summer, and then teased his participation with social media posts showing him practicing on a one-wall court in an undisclosed site in Texas.  Soon racquetball fans got the news they were looking forward to; Kane announced he was entering the pro doubles draw with his long-time doubles partner and former touring pro Ben Croft.  Indoor fans predicted that the duo would cruise through the draw, while Outdoor fans predicted that the pair would struggle on a surface they had little experience on.  Kane had never competed on an outdoor court in his life, and though his partner Croft had, it had been more than six years since he had last competed in a top-level outdoor competition (July 2014’s Outdoor Nationals in Huntington Beach).[13]

Waselenchuk appeared on the IRT’s “Outside the Rally” with Dean Baer in mid-August after committing to the event and was asked why he was going to play.  He responded,

It’s really simple.  It was really about having fun for me.  At a time where there’s not really much to look forward to in Racquetball, there had been a lot of talk about me playing [in Vegas], and of course I haven’t played [outdoor racquetball before].  I thought I’d entertain it more since the indoor game and the tour is on hold, and I thought it would add some excitement to Racquetball in general.” [14]

Kane arrived early in Las Vegas; it had been months since he’d played any competitive match whatsoever (thanks to court closures in his hometown of Austin, TX) and he had never seen a three-wall outdoor court in his life (let alone play on one).  He got to practice on the courts early in the week and got some playing time with outdoor Hall of Famer Robert Sostre in particular, who gave Kane a crash course in all things outdoor.  Sostre was generous with his time (as he’s known to be wherever he goes playing and promoting outdoor racquetball), perhaps too much so; when the draw came out Kane’s team was projected to play right into Sostre’s team early in the tournament.  Sostre was inadvertently giving pointers and helping out a direct competitor.  This may have come back to haunt him, as we’ll discuss in a moment.

A ton of other present and past IRT pros joined Kane & Croft in the draw, including the reigning US National Doubles champions Sudsy Monchik & Alex Landa.  Normally the presence of Monchik would be newsworthy in and among itself, given his past history and his mid-40s resurgence in the sport, but the big story remained Kane’s presence.  The two famous teams fed into a bracket that included multiple WOR Hall of Famers (Robert Sostre and Mike Peters), the three-time defending champions Alvaro Beltran & Daniel De La Rosa, the two-time Outdoor National doubles champions Rocky Carson & Jesus Ustarroz, and some of the best outdoor specialists in the world.  Thanks to having no outdoor ranking points, the two famous teams were given rock-bottom seedings, and both teams fed into top pairs early on in the event.  Lots of predictions in social media called for a blitzing through the draw by the Waselenchuk/Croft team.  Meanwhile, little credit was given to the reigning champions and #1 seeded team of Daniel De La Rosa and Alvaro Beltran, who have faced down all comers in outdoor for years and have held their own on the indoor circuit, even when playing Kane & Croft.  It certainly was a highly anticipated tournament bracket to watch play out.

Watching the King learn how to play Outdoor… in a hurry [15]

Waselenchuk and Croft were seeded 18th, meaning they had a round of 32 match before playing into the #2 seeds.  They made quick work of the #15 seeded team of New York natives Joe Kelley/Richard Miller and then faced up with the #2 seeded team of WOR Hall of Famer Robert Sostre and experienced indoor and outdoor pro David Horn.  

It was time for the rubber to meet the road: would Waselenchuk immediately be as dominant in outdoor as he was in indoor?  Outdoor enthusiasts are well known for not being shy with their opinions, and on social media freely claimed that the King was no shoe-in to dominate on the Vegas courts.  Meanwhile, indoor die-hard Kane fans similarly would not believe that a player who rarely loses a game (let alone a match) would not do anything but immediately adapt and excel in the outdoor discipline of the sport.  Either way, this round of 16 match was going to settle a lot of arguments and was appointment-viewing for racquetball fans.

Game 1 was a shock to the system of Kane fans all over the world: Sostre dominated play and could not miss, while Croft & Kane looked like the outdoor novices that they were, and the #2 seeds won 15-2.   Kane and Croft looked out of sorts, unable to command the game with power and indoor style attacking.  The Facebook streaming broadcast featured Michelle De La Rosa and Sudsy Monchik, and they were alternatively surprised and yet not surprised by the first game’s results.

However, the tide was about to turn.  Kane literally learned how to play outdoor throughout game 2, suddenly working the angles and hitting the kinds of outdoor-only shots that would be anathema indoors.  What looked like it was going to be a two-game blowout suddenly went to the tiebreaker as Kane/Croft won the second 15-9.  In the tiebreaker, Kane and Croft picked on Sostre while serving, forcing him to hit his weaker backhand from the right-hand side, which forced the #2 seeds to change tactics last minute, to no avail.  The outdoor newbies cruised to an 11-4 tiebreaker win and put a shot across the bows of the outdoor world.

The draw’s other big-name newbies also played into a top seed after winning a round of 32 match.  #16 seeds Landa and Monchik both have outdoor experience but could not get much going against the #1 seeded defending champs (Beltran and De La Rosa) in the Round of 16, and the top-seeded pair cruised to a two-game win 13,8.  Both top teams passed big early tests and held serve.

From there, the two favorite teams cruised into the highly anticipated final, one that neutral fans of the sport had predicted and looked forward to. There is a long history of major doubles finals between these two teams, including multiple Tier 1 tournaments, the 2018 World Doubles Championship, and the last three US OPEN pro doubles finals that includes the epic 2017 US OPEN final, a match that some call “the greatest match in the history of the sport.” 

In the final, Kane and Croft battled to a game 1 win, drawing on their ever-growing outdoor prowess, but the #1 seeds battled back to control games two and three to take the title (12), 9, 8 and cement their status as one of the best doubles teams in the history of Outdoor racquetball.  After dropping the first game, DLR and Beltran stopped playing into the game plan of Kane & Croft and forced more of an “outdoor tempo,” forcing off-balance and low-percentage shot making out of their upstart rivals.  After taking control in game two, the pair dominated the tiebreaker, giving up a run of points at the end to make the match seem closer than it really was. 

After the match, Beltran reflected on the flow of the game:

It was pretty much what I expected. We knew it was going to look kind of like an indoor match, we needed to draw from our outdoor experience. We had to be smart and patient to not play into Kane and Ben’s game — we had to use our experience as an advantage.” [16]

Waselenchuk used his great drive serve to get points all weekend. When asked about how they neutralized Kane’s serve in the final, Beltran replied, 

Teamwork. We knew Kane was going to go for the crack, so I told Daniel to take side-wall balls in the middle. I only had to worry about out the door, so I moved a bit to the right more than usual to be able to deal with his pace. That was a big reason why we were able to neutralize his serve.” [17]

Neutral fans can only hope to see more of Kane on outdoor courts.  He couched his presence in Las Vegas as being more about “having fun” than competing, but there’s nothing like a challenge to motivate Kane for the next big outdoor tournament.  He entered two events and lost in the finals of both (he and his partner Gary Durbin lost in the finals of the Centurion division in Vegas) and he’s likely itching to get back and try to take one step further than in 2020.

Review of the Rest of the Event [18]

In the Women’s Pro 3-wall event, defending champs Michelle De La Rosa and Carla Muñoz were beaten in the final by the top-notch team of World #1 Paola Longoria and outdoor legend Janel Tisinger-Ledkins.  Longoria returned to the Las Vegas event for the first time in four years and teamed with one of the sport’s most decorated outdoor players to dethrone the champions (12), 9, 5.  Tisinger-Ledkins’ accomplishment was even more impressive considering that she played the event at 7 months pregnant.  Longoria did the “double,” downing long-time pro rival and defending champion Rhonda Rajsich in the singles final.

Per Paola Longoria (appearing on the Beyond the Court show 11/1/20),

After 7 months of not playing [due to the] Coronavirus …. When I played the outdoor [tournament] in Vegas it was great because I really wanted to feel the competition again, to have the nerves to be back on a court, even if it was not the indoor that I regularly play. And it was fun to compete and to have those feelings.”[19]

In the Mixed Doubles pro division, the husband-wife team of Daniel and Michelle De La Rosa won the Vegas title for the 6th time in 7 years by defeating the upset-minded South American duo of Mario Mercado and Adriana Riveros in the final. This was a re-match of the Pro Mixed World Doubles draw from 2018, and the Mercado/Riveros team showed their mettle to advance over so many solid teams to face off against the reigning champs.

After the final, Michelle De La Rosa remarked,

I love playing Mixed; it is my favorite division. It’s even more of a bonus being able to play with Daniel. We make a really good team — our games complement each other’s very well. We always have so much fun playing together. Our partnership has evolved over time. When we first started playing together in 2012, we had an instant chemistry on the court. We have fine-tuned things since, and Daniel has become the most dominant player in Outdoor, and I’ve been there to watch it all happen.”[20]

In the Men’s Pro One-Wall Doubles final, WOR Hall of Famer Robert Sostre teamed with top one-wall specialist William Rolon and took out three tough competitors en route to repeat as Vegas One-wall Men’s Pro champions. Sostre has now been part of the winning team in 6 of the 8 years Vegas has offered the event and continually adds to his impressive tournament resume by the year. 

Here’s a quick recap of the rest of the Pro finals from the 2020 tournament.

  • IRT #4 Andree Parrilla took out upstart Bolivian Marcelo Vargas Aguilar to win the Men’s Three Wall singles title.
  • Kelly Gremley and Amie Brewer outlasted Sonja Septon and Susie Boulanger to take the Women’s One-Wall Pro doubles title.
  • Rick “Soda Man” Koll and Rhonda Rajsich teamed to take their third Mixed One-Wall Pro doubles title in the last four years.

After such a successful 2020 event, word started to spread just a couple months later that the planning and organization for the 12th iteration of the tournament was already underway.  The 3WB team got a jumpstart on organizing early in 2021 and secured commitments from the hotel on dates and rooms with plenty of time for planning.   Both the IRT and LPRT are committed to the event. 

The 2021 3WallBall Event is scheduled for October 20-24th, 2021 at the STRAT hotel in Las Vegas, and as of this writing the R2sports site is up and the host hotel is taking reservations.  See 3wallball.com for more information and book your spot today.

[1]WHO Director-General’s opening remarks at the media briefing on COVID-19 – 11 March 2020”  https://www.who.int/director-general/speeches/detail/who-director-general-s-opening-remarks-at-the-media-briefing-on-covid-19—11-march-2020

[2]March 11th, 2020: The Day Everything changed,” by Brock Koller, ABC7 Chicago: https://abc7chicago.com/march-11-2020-covid-us-coronavirus-covid-19-pandemic/10406695/

[3] LPRT 2020 Boston Open match Report from PRS: http://rball.pro/4B764C

[4] IRT 35th Shamrock Shootout match report from PRS: http://rball.pro/2D58FF

[5] Worldometers graph of Daily New Cases in the US from Feb 2020 to present: https://www.worldometers.info/coronavirus/country/us

[6] US Open official home page: https://unitedhealthcareusopen.com/

[7] Q&A Session with Mike Coulter July 2020 for the USAR Newsletter 3WallBall preview.

[8] Personal Discussion with Mike Coulter Oct 2020 post-event, plus Coulter’s post-event writeup “Racquetball/Handball/Paddleball Tournaments in the Time of Covid-19” posted to 3WallBall.com just after the tournament end: https://www.3wallball.com/single-post/racquetball-handball-paddleball-tournaments-in-the-time-of-covid-19

[9] Home page for the 2020 Las Vegas Pro Pickleball Open, hosted on the grounds of the Plaza Hotel https://www.plazahotelcasino.com/entertainment/pickleball-open/

[10] Ibid “Racquetball/Handball/Paddleball Tournaments in the Time of Covid-19”

[11] 3WallBall 2020 R2sports home page: https://www.r2sports.com/website/event-results.asp?TID=34945

[12] “3WallBall Vegas Event 2020 Preview,” by Todd Boss, published at the PRS blog: http://blog.proracquetballstats.com/index.php/2020/10/15/3wallball-vegas-event-2020/ 

[13] Ben Croft WOR doubles match history at PRS: http://rball.pro/E0A1CA

[14] IRT Facebook Live Show “Outside the Rally,” hosted by Dean Baer 8/10/20 with guest Kane Waselenchuk, https://www.facebook.com/24705156736/videos/598736881010551

[15]  “2020 11TH Annual 3WallBall World Championships – Recap” by Todd Boss 11/11/20 as published to the USAR News feed, November 2020 USAR Newsletter: https://www.teamusa.org/USA-Racquetball/Features/2020/November/11/3WallBall-World-Championships-Recap

[16] Alvaro Beltran interview post-3WallBall by Todd Boss Nov 2020.

[17] Ibid — Beltran interview.

[18] Ibid – “2020 11TH Annual 3WallBall World Championships – Recap

[19] Beyond the Court Facebook live series, hosted by Sudsy Monchik & John Ellis home page/video archive: https://www.facebook.com/BeyondTheCourtRball/videos/?ref=page_internal

[20] Interview of Michelle De la Rosa by Todd Boss Nov 2020.

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