Old Recipe, New Ingredients
Many fans were delighted this season on the men’s professional International Racquetball Tour (IRT), as several new, young, and exciting players took their first and extremely successful steps into the limelight. While familiar faces still remain near the top of the list this season, the top 8 houses some surprising names and the top 16 has almost completely changed in the last five years. What does this mean for IRT fans? Well first and foremost, some extremely exciting racquetball. If there has been another season with as many Round of 16s exits by top players it hasn’t been recently, nor has there been as many different countries (six) represented in the top 16, if ever. It is increasingly clear that some fantastic programs in central and South American countries are producing and exporting top racquetball talent that is finally creeping into the IRT. The Tour is becoming, like so many culinary delights, a mix of old and new, of familiar and foreign, of domestic and international; and the flavor is amazing.
The Old, Familiar, and Domestic
King Kane Waselenchuk’s exit in the Round of 16s in the Florida IRT Pro/Am, albeit due to an injury forfeit in the fifth game, highlighted perhaps the only legitimate weakness in his game; inconsistent health. As the Champ gets older his propensity for injuries, both sport-related and not, seems to be increasing. He has been sidelined for several events in each of the last few seasons due to injury or illness and at some point you have to think it will catch up with him, though you wouldn’t think so by looking at the point totals this season. Waselenchuk finished with over 4200 total points, the most he has garnered in the last five seasons, (though he finished with only 62 points less in the 2011-2012 season) but remains a mere 426 points ahead of Rocky Carson; his second smallest season-end lead over the same period. With Carson’s consistency, and Daniel De La Rosa’s youth and hunger, it will be interesting to see how long the Champ can hold onto the #1 spot if he cannot step on the court to defend it.
Carson, by contrast, remains the enduring iron man of the Tour. He never misses a stop, and only records a handful of early round losses each season. If Waselenchuk’s unflinching dominance remains the front-page news, Carson’s consistency and longevity are certainly worthy of page two. Say what you will about his more traditional and conventional game style, he still gets the job done, and does it more often and with less bruises than the rest of the field. #4 Alvaro Beltran, meanwhile, had perhaps his most inconsistent showing on Tour this year, making several early exits and garnering his lowest season end point total in the last three years. If Carson is the template for aging successfully on Tour, Beltran, unfortunately serves as the cautionary tale.
De La Rosa, whose rise up the IRT ranks may appear to some as meteoric, has been extremely measured and consistent. Since his second full season on Tour (2011-2012), where he finished with a respectable 500 points, he has increased his point total by almost exactly 600 points each season (1100 in 2013, 1800 in 2014, 2400 in 2015) to finish the 2015-2016 IRT Season at just under 3000 points. If he can accomplish the same feat in the 2016-2017 IRT Season he will likely overtake Carson for the #2 spot. That will be a thrilling prospect for his fans, who no doubt expect him to be the next #1 on Tour, that is, whenever Waselenchuk decides he’s done. De La Rosa has certainly proved he can best Carson, if given the opportunity, and recorded very few losses to lower-ranked players this year, but only time will tell if he can take advantage of the opportunity.
Other familiar faces made marginal jumps in the rankings. Jansen Allen, fresh off his switch to Ektelon from long-time sponsor Wilson, moved up to the #6 spot, while Markie Rojas remained just one spot behind at #7. Robbie Collins moved up two spots from #13 to #11, while Mauricio Zelada, Jake Bredenbeck, and Scott McClellan all jumped over 10 places to land in the top 16 at #12, #13, and #14. Head IRT referee Matthew Majxner held steady at #15, while former IRT official Charlie Pratt slid to #16 after he placed inside the top 10 last season.
The New, Foreign, and International
The top story here has to be the three young South Americans who stormed the castle early in the season, made themselves comfortable, and firmly established their places in the top 10. #8 Felipe Camacho, you might say, certainly doesn’t belong in this group. He has been playing the Tour for several years, albeit part-time, and has spent the majority of the time in the 20s or 30s. He attended Colorado State University–Pueblo (along with other great IRT pros like Mitch Williams and Ben Croft) and has lived in the US for several years. But he also plays internationally for Costa Rica, and since playing the Tour full-time this season, has dramatically improved his game.
#9 Sebastian Franco may also not be a strange name to some but thrived in the transition to full-time status on the IRT this season. He also plays internationally for Colombia, and was part of the 2014 World Championship Men’s Doubles Team (with Alejandro Herrera). He will defend that title this summer at the International Racquetball Federation (IRF) World Championships in Cali, Colombia and there is no doubt his training and experience on the IRT will serve him well.
Mario Mercado, a junior world champion for Bolivia who has since emigrated to, and now represents, Colombia, rounds out the top 10. At only 20 years of age, his talent and work ethic has been noticed by both the young and old of the Tour, all of whom believe he has a bright future in the sport. Mercado comes out of a veritable junior racquetball factory in Bolivia, which has produced other top international players like Zelada, Carlos Keller, and Conrado Moscoso, and now stands at opportunity’s door, knocking politely. It’s only a matter of time before he makes his way in although, some would argue, he already has.
Other new additions to the top 16 are Zelada, Bredenbeck, and McClellan who, much like Camacho, are not new to the Tour, but definitely new to the top echelon of it. Zelada, another Bolivian native, has lived and worked in the US for several years. He started up his own clothing line, Formulaflow in 2007 and began following the Tour full-time this season as both a means to participate more actively and promote his company at the same time.
If you know elite racquetball, you know the name Bredenbeck. “The Beast” has been successful representing the USA at IRF events such as the Pan American Games and Pan American Championships, but until recently, had played a sparse few events on the IRT. Skill was certainly not the factor keeping Bredenbeck out of the top 16, as playing in more stops this season has rocketed him up to #13 this season from #29 last season. His power and explosive style make him a handful for anyone on Tour and if he can improve his consistency, he should have no trouble cracking into the top eight.
We may very well be coming into another golden age of racquetball, with tight races at nearly all positions and young, exciting players making for thrilling match ups and added intrigue. Will King Kane stay healthy enough to continue his dominance? Can Carson continue his ironman consistency or will De La Rosa maintain his progress up the ranks and overtake him? Can Beltran put an end to his slide down the point totals or is this the beginning of the end? This was certainly a season where no one (except Waselenchuk barring health issues) appeared safe, and while it may make some players uneasy, the fans should be ecstatic.
By Tim Landeryou
Tim Landeryou is a competitive racquetball player from Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Canada. He began playing racquetball at the age of 10 and has represented Canada internationally since 2010 and achieved a career-high IRT season end ranking of 16 in 2014-15. He completed his Master of Science in Kinesiology at the University of Saskatchewan in 2015 and now works as a sport administrator in Calgary, Alberta, Canada.