Growing Racquetball in the States
The International Racquetball Tour (IRT) is steadily climbing back into the national sport’s spotlight, and it is just the beginning of a new era in professional racquetball history.
The 2017-2018 IRT season started with a top Tier 1 tournament at the Bay Club in Canoga Park, California. From September 7-10, 36 players in singles and 13 doubles teams competed in the Phase IV Scientific Health & Performance Pro/Am hosted by Tournament Director, Wes Obana.
The #1 ranked player in the world, Kane Waselenchuk, who resides in Austin, Texas, defeated the #2 ranked player in the world, Rocky Carson, from Ladera Ranch, California, in the finals by scores of 11-0, 11-2, 11-4.
In doubles, the #1 seeded team of Waselenchuk and his teammate Ben Croft, from Alpharetta, Georgia, took home the championship. Waselenchuk and Croft defeated the #3 seeded team of Daniel De La Rosa, residing in Gilbert, Arizona and Alvaro Beltran, from Tijuana, Baja California, by scores of 15-5, 15-13.
The Tour’s second major tournament of the new season was the biggest of them all, the UnitedHealthcare U.S. Open. 73 singles players, and 36 doubles teams gathered at the Target Center in downtown Minneapolis, Minnesota from October 4-8 to compete on racquetball’s biggest stage, the 2017 UnitedHealthcare U.S. Open Racquetball Championships. Over 2,000 fans in attendance and more than 1.8 million online viewers throughout the weekend witnessed the greatest racquetball athletes compete for the sport’s biggest prize.
#1 seeded Waselenchuk took home the gold in the singles division as most predicted, but not before losing one game to #4 seeded Beltran in the semi-finals, and another game to #2 seeded Carson in the finals. It had been over a full year since Waselenchuk lost a single game to an opponent until the U.S. Open. Waselenchuk defeated Carson in the finals by scores of 11-6, 11-4, 8-11, 11-4 and took home his 13th U.S. Open Singles Championship.
The #1 seeded doubles team of Waselenchuk and Croft outlasted the #2 seeded team of De La Rosa and Beltran in what some people around the sport are calling, “The greatest doubles match of all time.” De La Rosa and Beltran took Waselenchuk and Croft to a third game tiebreaker before losing the finals by scores of 15-10,10-15, 11-7. With their victory over Beltran and De La Rosa, Croft and Waselenchuk earned their third U.S. Open Doubles Championship.
Along with the two successful tournaments so far, the IRT has also been featured on ESPN’s Sportscenter show two times in the first three months of the 2017-2018 season. Sportscenter’s Top Ten Countdown reveals the “top ten” plays that happened each day in the sports world. Waselenchuk holds a #4 and #2 spot in two different countdowns from the show. Along with highlight plays on ESPN, the Tour has attracted celebrities like Harland Williams and Tom Berenger to come out and attend these top tier tournaments. The Tour has also increased their Tier 1 events from last year’s nine, to 13 and counting in the new season.
The IRT has made these professional strides under new management and ownership positions. CEO of the Tour, John Scott, from Marthasville, Missouri, and Commissioner of the Tour, Andy Kulback, from Cincinnati, Ohio, have held their positions for a little more than four months, and are doing things the right way according to IRT player, juniors coach and former referee, Charlie Pratt.
Pratt, who resides in Gainesville, Florida and is currently ranked #14 on Tour, believes Scott and Kulback have done a great job at bringing players and fans together and increasing the passion for the sport. “They are involving the right people and getting everyone excited about the future of the pros,” Pratt said. “They offer a lot of experience in being around the pro game, from a business standpoint as well.”
Increasing the unity within the community of the sport is something Kulback and Scott have really focused on, and it is really showing according to Pratt. Kulback, who was the former commissioner of the Ladies Professional Racquetball Tour (LPRT), said he has enjoyed reconnecting with friends and players, and also popularizing the sport.
“The biggest thing I have noticed is the passion of the players, and their loyalty to the IRT and their desire to see it succeed,” Kulback said. Kulback mentioned he is excited about the future of the Tour and where it can ultimately end up. “I believe that it (the Tour) can end up as a viable place for professional athletes to make a living playing the game they love.”
Kulback mentioned he would like to thank Scott for his faith and his decision to hire Kulback as the Tour’s commissioner. Scott said Kulback is one of the “good guys” in the sport and that he works harder than anyone he has ever seen.
“Andy is the single most important component to the Tour’s management structure,” Scott said. “I really enjoy working one-on-one with Andy because his strengths are my weaknesses and together we really make a good team.”
Scott also mentioned that he can’t wait to see what the future has in store for the sport of racquetball.
“Since the U.S. Open I’ve received emails and phone calls daily from players, partners and fans all sending the same general message…the community is buzzing about direction of the professional sport,” Scott said. “I couldn’t be more thankful and humble for the position that I am in with this wonderful sport.
The future of the IRT is still yet to come, but you can be a part of that future by attending any of the Tour’s events. With more than 13 Tier 1 events scheduled for the 2017-2018 season, don’t miss the chance to witness the beginning of this new era in racquetball history. For more information about the Tour, visit: http://www.irt-tour.com/
Kelly R. Diesel