An Interview With: Rocky Carson

An Interview With: Rocky Carson

An Interview With: Rocky Carson

By: Mike Grisz, IRT CEO

Rocky Carson has been a long-time fixture in our racquetball world. Since 1990, his presence on the racquetball court has been constant, consistent, persistent, and relentless. He may not always be successful, at least in his terms, but he’s always made us pay attention. We can marvel at his game even though his career has paralleled that of the greatest player of all time; someone who’s record is unparalleled and hampers everyone’s ability to win titles.

Rocky, now 40, is fiery on the court and as competitive as they come. He is still as driven as when he began playing on the pro tour in 1995. I, virtually, sat down with Rocky to discuss his career, his life, and a little bit, his future. Here, in his own words, the story of a fantastic racquetball player.

We began with the early days. The son of a 3-wall national outdoor handball champion, he grew up a sports enthusiast.  As a kid, he played basketball, baseball, a little tennis, and, yes, a lot of racquetball.  His dad, RO Carson, had a lot to do with that.RO started as a handball player; Rocky believes his dad was one of the first people to bring a racquet to the outdoor courts. RO ended up being a good Open player and was a part-owner of a number of racquetball clubs in southern California. He was also a USA Team Assistant Coach for several years.

In high school, Rocky played varsity baseball and basketball. In baseball, he played outfield, third base, and first base.  In his senior year, he had a .536 batting average. In basketball, he was all-CIF and wanted to play at a Division I school. Unfortunately, he tore ligaments in his ankle that year, which hampered the second half of his senior year of High School. He says it would probably be a stretch for a six-foot player to get a Division I basketball scholarship anyway; but we all have dreams. I think it surprises no one that Rocky excelled as an athlete at a young age.

Rocky played his first national racquetball event at ten years old – Junior Nationals in Dallas, Texas, in 1990. His family drove to Dallas from southern CA in a minivan. Despite having no idea of what to expect at the tournament, he won his age division. As an interesting side note, his future wife’s brother played in the same bracket at the event, although he didn’t meet her until high school.

Rocky’s first professional tournament was in Stockton, CA, in 1995, when he was just 15 years old.  He doesn’t remember who beat him in the pros but, he does remember winning the Opens. He also remembers a match later that year in a Riverside pro stop against Bret Harnett. At the time, Harnett was in the top 5. Rocky thinks he may have gotten 5 points total and was on the court for about 20 minutes.  This was an epiphany – the pro game was an entirely different level (kind of like when I played Rocky about 15 years ago and got 7 points in 3 games). 

At 18, while he was attending Saddleback College, he went to US National Collegiate Championships and made the US team for the first time by winning Boys #1 Singles.

Rocky’s first pro win was in Greensboro in 2003, at the age of 23. Rocky remembers it well. Rocky thinks that at that time, like now, the pro tour was deep in talent, especially the top 8 players. This was the age of Cliff Swain, Sudsy Monchik, Jason Mannino, Jack Huczek, and others. There wasn’t one dominant force like today, but great strength among those names, making every tournament a battle. Rocky remembers beating Mike Green in the semifinals and then having to face Jason in the finals. Rocky remembers that match vividly – he slowed the game down (trademark Rocky), found his rhythm with backhands off the back wall, got hot with flat roll-outs. Jason finished the year at #1, but Rocky got a monkey off his back with the win.

But, even after his first big win, Rocky saw the need to transform his game – to fix some obvious flaws.  He worked to improve his forehand, shot selection, and fundamentals of the game.  He looked at Cliff Swain and asked himself, “how is Cliff able to sustain such a consistently high level of performance?”.  He focused on Jack, “how did Jack pass me by?”. Rocky knew he wasn’t playing to his potential.  He studied the other players. Rocky wanted to emulate them but also have a high degree of physicality, which was his trademark. Rocky also took the knowledge and skills he had honed in outdoor racquetball and brought them indoors – focusing on control and waiting for the right opportunities. It was then that he found a higher degree of success.

Rocky and I spent a good deal of time talking about his experiences at the US Open. Of the 24 US Opens held, Rocky has played in the Pro division 23 times, only missing the Open during his senior year in high school due to basketball season. He has played the most of any pro racquetball player; the next three are Cheryl Gudinas and Suzy Acosta with 21 each, and Alvaro Beltran with 20.

Rocky clearly remembers his 2007 US Open title. The prior year he had lost to Jason Mannino in the finals; this year, the final match was against Jack Huczek. The match was 3 out of 5 games to 11, with one serve.  Rocky won in 4 games.  He knows that he only hit Z-serves the entire match. He remembers the winning shot – a forehand winner from the service box, staving off a comeback run by Jack. The win was extra special because his dad was there. 

Another US Open moment he remembers is a match against Derek Robinson. He doesn’t remember the year, but it was an early-round match back in the Memphis days (Note: Per Pro Racquetball Stats it was in 1996 where he beat Robinson in the Round of 64 and then lost to Bronfield in the 32’s). The match started around 11pm in one of the backcourts. It lasted for nearly 3 hours. The lights went off twice. Rocky won in 5 games, got back to his hotel room around 3am, and had to play the next morning at 9am. He lost that one.

A big match later in 2007/2008 season was at a Grand Slam in Colorado. It was a Motorola sponsored tournament and Motorola had just sponsored Rocky. The tournament had a spate of upsets in the early rounds, notably Jason and Jack losing early. Rocky beat Alvaro Beltran in 4 games in the finals. This was a massive win for him in front of his newest sponsor.

One could call Rocky the Iron Man of racquetball. He played in 216 consecutive pro tournaments from September 2000 through January 2018. The tournament that broke the streak, San Antonio. March 2018, was scheduled with only five weeks’ notice. Rocky had already committed to an outdoor event, and so couldn’t attend. The next closest streak by any professional player is 118 tournaments.  This record may stick for a while.

This begs the question – how did he maintain his body without injury, especially given his very physical playing style?  Rocky says he’s been cautious in his approach to training. He doesn’t overdo it on the court; he believes in rest. He thinks the time off due to the coronavirus may be beneficial to a point.  He is remaining active – pushups, sit-ups, biking, and weight-lifting. He was raised on lifting weights; he focuses on training for explosiveness, balance, and durability.

And, then there’s surfing. Rocky is an avid surfer, a sport he picked up at 18 when he moved to South Orange County, CA. Right now, he is surfing 1 to 5 hours a day if the conditions are right. It’s another getaway, a chance to reboot with his family and friends (at a safe distance, of course). His most memorable surfing story is from a trip to Taiwan before the World Games several years ago with Mike Guidry. On the day we talked in mid-April, he had been surfing that Monday and seen a sea lion and dolphins nearby.

Moving to his outdoor game, as mentioned, his dad was instrumental in getting him started. His dad played, and the courts were very accessible to their home. Rocky’s closest friends play outdoor, and he loves outdoor doubles. But his 14 singles outdoor titles show he excels at both iterations of the game.

Outdoor ball to him is not a job. By 18 or 19, Rocky had a career playing indoor racquetball. It is how he earned his living, and he focused on it as a job. Outdoor was a way to train for indoor without “working.”  He felt that his job (indoor ball) could wear him down, especially if weren’t winning. His outdoor group of friends was different – rawer and rougher – but they helped him get better at his job. Outdoor is an outlet. He loves both because of the competition.

In outdoor, Rocky looked up to and became friends with Brian Hawkes, whom Rocky regards as the best all-time outdoor player (he has, by far, the most outdoor titles; Rocky is second). Rocky credits Brian as the reason he has had the success he has in outdoor. Brian is, in Rocky’s estimation, the fittest athlete he has ever seen, and the most competitive. Hawkes was in the Guinness Book of World Records for worlds fittest man. Brian would bike 50 miles to an event, compete and win, and bike home. This showed Rocky how he needed to push himself.

Rocky considers a win over Brian in a National Outdoor final in Huntington Beach as his most significant win ever.  In a three-game final, he lost the first game 15-13 but felt he had a chance. Then he caught fire and won the second game, and then took the lead in the tiebreaker. Rocky says he remembers the match as if it were yesterday. On match point, he dove (yes, on a concrete outdoor court… don’t try this at home, kids) and killed the ball—one of his favorite racquetball memories.

We discussed his legacy. Currently, he is 10th, all in winning percentage with a career record of 578-154 with 26 pro titles. If you take out his career record against Kane Waselenchuk, his win percentage goes up to 6th. Add the 14 pro titles and five world championships; where would that put him? Rocky declined to give a direct answer, saying he never played Marty Hogan or Charlie Brumfield. He felt he battled and held his own with Jason Mannino, Jack Huczek, and Cliff Swain. He is close in head-to-heads with them, with many of the losses coming earlier in his career. It’s an interesting question with no right answer.

I asked Rocky, who were his favorite rivals. He brought up Alvaro Beltran first. Alvaro always gives him a fun, close match. Cliff and Sudsy were also rivals in his younger days. He liked playing Jason and Jack because they were both grinders like himself. He always knew those matches would be at least two exhausting hours and would be exciting for fans. He noted that Ben Croft was a great competitor, although maybe not a “favorite” rival.

We then talked about his coach, Fran Davis. Rocky started working with Fran when he signed with HEAD Penn Racquetball in July 2010. Over the years, they’ve developed a great friendship, and Fran because essential to his continued success and determination. He feels Fran is the most knowledgeable coach in the game and truly cares for her players, both on and off the court.

What are Rocky’s primary motivations to keep playing? First, he hates to lose. And, he says, why should I give up my dream job? He feels lucky that he gets to play a sport he loves and gets paid for it. He feels it would be disrespectful to the game to walk away from that opportunity while he is still able to play at a high level and be competitive in every tournament. 

Despite no plans to retire any time soon, Rocky does plan for a future beyond playing on the pro tour.  He teaches and coaches at his club, Renaissance Club Sports, works with his wife in real estate, and anticipates remaining active in racquetball in some way after he retires.

We finished with his thoughts on what racquetball needs to do in the future to thrive. First, he would like companies, outside of the sport, to invest in the game and the players. To interest those companies, racquetball must be able to provide value in return. Second, it would be nice to have LA Fitness care more about the sport – instead of reducing the number of courts, they should promote the game at their facilities. 

For the IRT, he’d like a return to the 3-out-of-5 game format (with 9-point games) and one serve. Maybe adopt a slower ball to make it easier to watch online or on TV. He wonders if maybe the IRT could sponsor some Tier 1 outdoor events. 

Rocky, like many of us, is spending quality time with his family and remaining as active as possible without being able to hit a racquetball. He’s helping out with his kids’ schoolwork, juggling the priorities and issues many of us are facing as we continue to stay at home. 

He, like me, cannot wait for the re-opening of our clubs and a return to playing our favorite sport – when it is safe for all of us to do so. Until then, the IRT is doing what it can to plan for the future, as uncertain as that is at the moment. I appreciate Rocky taking the time to talk to me for this article.

Photos By: KSphotography